Medieval Sicily has always fascinated me. Not long ago I wrote the review for a short web series, Indictus, that loosely tells the story of the Norman conquest of Islamic Sicily. After the review was published, I got in touch with the director and the screenwriter and we started working on a small project (in Italian) whose aim is explaining Medieval Sicily, in cultural terms.
Working on the first ideas, I realized that I have never really mentioned Medieval Sicily in my blog, and I felt bad: it is indeed a very dear subject to me.
The Middle Ages in Sicily are frequently defined as a peaceful example of co-existence between different peoples, languages, cultures, and religions. If this can be partially true, things were not always rosy. Under the Arab-Islamic domination, Christians and Jews enjoyed fewer rights, and after the Norman conquests, the Arabs were marginalized, their presence and contribution in many ways exploited for political reasons as long as the ruling class needed it. We cannot really talk about a multi-ethnic society in Medieval Sicily since the different communities remained separated, and never integrated into one big, multi-ethnic society. Nevertheless, we can talk about a multi-religious and multi-cultural society; a society where different cultures and religious beliefs coexisted for a period.
Even if we cannot claim that Sicily was a melting pot heaven, undoubtedly, in Medieval Sicily the cultural and artistic production was stunning and saw the blending of different traditions and heritage.
Palermo is defined “urbs felix populo dotata trilingui”, a city where the people had three languages (literally, “happy city, endowed with a three-tongued people”). This definition comes from the Lamentatio for the death of William I, as copied in the 12th-century book by Peter from Eboli, Liber ad honorem Augusti. The three languages being Arabic, Latin, and Greek.
The best example of the coexistence of different cultures and religions is a tombstone, known as the tombstone for Anna, mother of Grisandus.
The tombstone is a multi-colored marble slab. It is divided into 5 panels. In the center, there is a polychrome Greek cross surrounded by the letters IC XC NI KA (‘Jesus Christ conquers’). The upper panel is written in Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic written in Hebrew script), on the right side in Greek, on the left we find Latin and in the lower side, the inscription is in Arabic.
The four inscribed panels contain more or less the same information: the same message is delivered in different languages.
Before talking about the inscription, though, let’s see who this Anna is. Anna was Grisandus’s mother. She was not particularly important, but his son was: Grisandus was a priest of Roger II. The mother of Grisandus died in 1148: that year, she was buried in Palermo Cathedral, her burial recorded by a tombstone written only in Latin. In 1149 Grisandus decided to transfer Anna’s remains to a private chapel, named St Anna Chapel, in the Church of St. Michael, in Palermo. The multi-lingual tombstone we are talking about records the 1149 event and originally it was probably composing one side of Anna’s marble sarcophagus.
The inscriptions on the tombstone have been studied thoroughly, also by Micheli Amari, one of the first, and certainly the most famous, Sicilian Orientalist. In his book Le Epigrafi Arabiche di Sicilia, he transcribes the Arabic text as follow:
1. Anna died, the mother of the priest Grisandus, priest of the royal, sovereign, excellent, magnanimous, veneered, splendid, saint Majesty,
2. and benign, strong for God[‘s grace], stable for the divine will, that reigns on Italy, Lombardy, Calabria, Sicily and Africa, sustainer of the Imam
3. of Rome, aider of the Christian religion, may God perpetuate his reign, on Friday, in the evening, on the 20th of August of the year five hundred
4. forty-three (1148), and she was buried in the major mosque. Then his son solemnly transferred her to the Church of St. Michael, on Friday, in the first hour of the evening (of)
5. the 20th of May of the year five hundred forty-four (1149) and he built on her grave this church (chapel) and he called it Church (chapel) of St. Anna, in the name of Anna, mother of Mary…
6. ….and pray for her mercy. Amen. Amen. Amen.
What is noteworthy, is how the message the is conveyed in Arabic is not a simple translation of the other texts: it has specific references that are addressed at cultural an religious aspects of the group that is represented. For instance, the Pope is called Imam of Rome and Palermo Cathedral is defined “major mosque”, using the word jami’. Also, the dates are given according to Hijri calendar, at least partially. The date of Anna’s death is given in Arabic as “yaum al-jum’a 20th of August 533″, with the date of the week written with the Arabic name, the day and month given according to the Gregorian calendar (in the Islamic calendar it would have been the 25th of Rab’i al’Awwal), and the year in Hijri calendar. Exactly the same with the second date give: “yaum al-jum’a 20th of May 534″, that in the Gregorian calendar is Friday, 20th May 1149, and in Hijri calendar would be yaum al-jum’a 3rd of Muharram 534.
Also in the other inscriptions of the slab, the dates (particularly the years) change radically: in the Latin panel we have AD 1149; in Greek the year is 6657, according to Byzantine era; in Judaeo-Arabic the year is 4909, based on the Jewish calendar.
Three years later, Grisandus lost his father, Drogo, too. He died in 1153 and was buried next to his wife, in the same chapel. In this case, too, the inscription remembering Drogo is written in more than one language: Latin, Greek, and Arabic. The design of Drogo’s tombstone is plainer than the one of Anna’s.
The text of the inscription is shorter, but is similar to that of Anna’s tombstone, particularly for what pertains the date:
1. Drogo died, father of Grisandus, priest of the king
2. of Sicily, on the 27th of November of the year five hundred forty-eight, and buried him
3. his son Grisandus, together with his mother Anna, in this church that he built for them.
Again, the year is given in Hijri calendar (1st Ramadan, 548), while the day and month are given according to the Gregorian one (27th November 1153).
Apart from the multi-lingual tombstone, Grisandus’s family itself seems to be a good representative for the Sicilian multi-cultural society. The names suggest that Anna was Greek, while Drogo was probably Norman. Grisandus is a Latin name. But scholars have also proposed that these names could mask ex-Muslims, their new names given them after they had been baptized.
Multi-lingual documents were not uncommon in Norman Sicily: the royal family issued them as a message that their multi-cultural policy succeeded. These texts represented the inclusion of the various segments of the population and had a highly symbolic and propagandistic meaning. These tombstones underline how this multi-linguism was displayed and advertised also on documents that had nothing or little to do with the ruling class: these lower rank individuals wanted to show how their ruling class’s policy had been effective in creating a multi-lingual and thus multi-cultural society.
Michele Amari, Le Epigrafi Arabiche di Sicilia, Edizioni Sepolcrali, Stabilimento Tipografico Virzi’, Palermo 1878. [full text available online on archive.org (last accessed 27th March 2018)]
D. Booms, P. Higgs, Sicily: culture and conquest, The Trustees of the British Museum 2016, pp. 220-221.
N. Daniel, The Arabs and mediaeval Europe, Longman 1975.
Online, you can find further info on “Discover Islamic Art” website, by MWNF. [link (last accessed 27th March 2018)]