Saturday, 26 June 2010

The Normans in Italy: Part 1

The Normans in Italy

The Normans were the “Men from the North”; in other words, Vikings, who terrorised north-western Europe in the 9th and 10th centuries. Eventually they moved from being raiders to settlers, and just as in England Alfred the Great allowed them to settle in north-eastern England, which became the “Danelaw”, similarly in 911, Rolf the Ganger sailed his longboats up the Seine and the King of France, Charles the Simple, gave him land around the mouth of the river, which became known as Normandy: the land of the Northmen. Rolf was baptised a Christian & became Duke of Normandy. Within a generation, his people had forgotten their own language, spoke French, and adopted French law. They retained usual Viking habits of pillage and destruction; but were now keen always to have some legal excuse for their ravages. Their Christianity was of a very basic kind: to save the soul from hellfire by periodically attending mass, going on pilgrimage or endowing churches, but without any need for religion to interfere with a life of violence: indeed, they were always eagerly searching for some legal or religious quibble to enable them to pilage with a clear conscience. They soon abandoned Viking fighting methods (including seafaring), becoming instead the most deadly armoured knights in Europe; ferocious fighters able to endure great hardship. They were always proudly conscious of themselves as Normans, with a strong sense of solidarity: Norman barons who rebelled against. Norman overlords, as frequently occurred, were usually forgiven once they had submitted. At the same time they showed no racial exclusiveness, being always happy to marry the sisters or daughters of local rulers if there were political advantages to be gained. Consequently within a couple of generations had ceased to be “Norman” in any genetic sense; though they always retained the self-identity. They proved enormously prolific, with huge families, obliging younger sons to wander in search of new lands to conquer, in England, Scotland or Ireland, but also Italy.

Italy in the 11th century was a turbulent region without any central authority. The north was subject to the Holy Roman Emperor, whose power was based in Germany. The centre was Papal territory, but the Popes wielded little force of their own. Rome itself was torn by feuds between rival clans of nobles who attempted to control the Papacy for their own ends, with the result that Papal elections sometimes led to disputed results, with two or more candidates claiming the See of Saint Peter. Powerful Emperors might march on Rome to depose a Pope by force, and a Pope might retaliate by proclaiming an Emperor excommunicated and his subjects freed of their oaths of obedience. Southern Italy was the scene of endless small wars: there were outposts of the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople, Moslem Saracens occupying Sicily (also fighting each other), and local Lombard lords who were often little better than bandits; men like Pandolpho, Prince of Capua, “the wolf of the Abruzzi”, whose savage cruelty over his very long reign was remarkable even by standards of time. This was a scene tailor-made for people who could combine skill in warfare with ruthless cunning in politics - people, in other words, like the Normans. They first appeared in southern Italy around 1016, and soon found employment as mercenary soldiers. In 1030, after much strong fighting and well-timed changing of sides, a Norman chief, Rainulf, , was invested as Count of Aversa by Sergius, Duke of Naples, who gave him his own sister as wife. This meant Rainulf was now an officially-recognised nobleman, not just a mercenary captain.

More significant in the long term were Hautevilles. An obscure Norman knight , Tancred of Hauetville in the early 11th century, fathered at least 13 children by two marriages. Seven of his sons marched off to Italy to seek their fortunes from 1034; not all together, but when each was old enough. The oldest, William, acquired the nickname “Iron-arm” by his fighting prowess. By the usual methods of intervening in battles between Lombards and Byzantines, and exploiting civil war and palace revolutions in Constantinople, William was in 1042 hailed by the Normans as Lord of Apulia in the south-eastern "heel" of Italy, and his title recognised by the Lombard Duke of Salerno, who claimed sovereignty over the region. William died in 1046, followed by his brothers Drogo in 1051 and Humphrey in 1057, but there was another brother on hand, the most successful one yet: Robert, nicknamed Guiscard (“the cunning“). Meanwhile Pope Leo IX, alarmed at power of the Normans, raised a massive army from northern Italy and Germany and marched south to wipe them out. The two armies met at Civitate in June 1053, and after a day of ferocious fighting the papal army was eventually slaughtered. Pope Leo was taken prisoner by the Normans - who then, typically, fell on their knees before him to beg forgiveness, and later escorted him back to Rome! From this, the Popes realised the advantages of allying with the Normans against troublesome locals, heretic Greeks and the threatening power of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Normans in turn henceforth always stressed their firm support of the Pope.

Robert Guiscard was born about 1016, half-brother to the earlier Hautevilles. He came to Italy 1036: a blond, blue-eyed giant, ferocious soldier, ruthlessly sceming and entirely untroubled by conscience. In 1057 after the death of Humphrey he was acclaimed ruler of Apulia, and next year joined by yet another brother, Roger. He quickly gained control over all southern Italy and launched an invasion of Moslem Sicily.
The Byzantine empire at Constantinople enjoyed a revival from the ninth to the mid-eleventh centuries, but was never able to recover lost ground in Italy. Then suddenly the empire fell into chaos after a catastrophic defeat by the Turks at Manzikert in 1071 and the consequent loss of almost all of what is now modern Turkey. Robert’s response to the crisis was to seize last the Byzantine bases in Italy and launch an attack on Byzantine-held Albania in 1081. He then took advantage of the great dispute between the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII (known to history as the “Investiture Contest”) to swear homage to the Pope and in return to be officially recognised as Duke of Apulia in 1080.

In 1084 Henry’s armies entered Rome, called a conclave of sympathetic cardinals who declared Gregory deposed and appointed their own pope as Clement III. Gregory took refuge in the Castel San Angelo (Hadrian’s tomb), and appealed to Robert Guiscard’s Normans to rescue him. Henry withdrew at Robert’s approach. For three days, Norman troops (including many Moslem auxiliaries from Sicily) stormed through the city and inflicted on it the most appalling pillage: churches, palaces and ancient temples were destroyed, the area between the Coliseum and the Lateran was burnt down, and thousands of Romans were slaughtered or taken prisoner to be sold as slaves. This was the greatest devastation Rome had ever suffered; far worse than anything perpetrated by the Goths or Vandals. Pope Gregory was taken to safety in Salerno, where in 1085 he died. On his deathbed he said, “I have loved justice and hated iniquity, and therefore I die in exile”. It may be doubted whether the Romans would have agreed with this assessment.

Robert Guiscard died in the same year. He left as his successor a rather inadequate son, Roger Borsa; but also an older illegitimate son, Bohemond, a ferocious warrior like his father. He caused much trouble for Roger, but 1096 elected to lead the Italian Norman forces on the First Crusade, taking with him no fewer than seven younger Hautevilles. Bohemond was one of the greatest war-leaders of the age, leading the crusaders to victory at over the Turks at Doryleum and then to the taking of Antioch, but he then proclaimed himself Prince of Antioch and refused to go any further, leaving Godfrey of Bouillon, Robert of Normandy and Raymond of Toulouse to lead the crusading army to the storming of Jerusalem. One unfortunate result of the sudden irruption into the east of warriors like Bohemond was the deep and lasting mistrust which built up between crusaders and the Byzantine Greeks of Constantinople, which was to play a major part in the ultimate failure of the crusades. But the Normans from Italy would not have been surprised: they had always fought the Greeks!

Meanwhile Robert Guiscard’s younger brother Roger undertook the conquest of Sicily, ruled by Moslems from North Africa since 902. After a protracted campaign he completed the task, and in 1098, after once again assisting the Pope out of difficulties in Rome, Roger was given title of “Great Count of Sicily”. Roger died aged 70 in 1101; last of his generation of Hautevilles.
(The story of the Normans in Sicily will be covered in Part 2 of this essay)

Footnote: While all this was going on, interesting events were taking place in 1087 in the city of Bari in south-east Italy. The city fathers realised Bari needed a tourist attraction, which in the Middle Ages meant the bones of a famous saint to be a centre of pilgrimage. They fixed their attention on St Nicholas, a 4th-cetury bishop and theologian, whose tomb was in Myra in what is now Turkey. Accordingly, a gang of professional tomb-robbers was employed to steal St Nicholas's bones from Myra and bring them back to Bari. The enterprise was a great success, immense numbers of pious tourists began to trek to the new shrine and Bari’s fortunes were made. The city fathers then double-crossed the tomb-robbers and refused to pay them! The man henceforth known as St Nicholas of Bari became one of the most famous and beloved of all saints, though better known today as Santa Claus (a name of apparently New York Dutch derivation) or simply as Father Christmas.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Why teenagers shouldn't necessarily be encouraged to write!

When I was in the 6th form, a school friend and I spent some time trying to write a play. This was in the mid-1960s, the heyday of the so-called “Theatre of the Absurd”, led by the great Samuel Beckett and the now-sadly-forgotten N. F. Simpson, and our production was intended to be very much in that vein. The curtain would rise to reveal a nondescript middle-aged couple watching television. On one side of the stage there would be a staircase ascending into the darkness. It would become apparent that the couple had never ventured up these stairs, nor did they display any curiosity as to what might lie at the top. The audience would be able to hear, though not to see, what was being broadcast on the TV, which would be of a distinctly surrealist character, during which the couple would exchange desultory and inane dialogue.

Every so often, other people would enter the stage. They would be generic types; a policeman, a poet and so forth, and each of them would have a different motive for wanting to climb the stairs. The couple would, of course, ignore them.
So far, so good, you might think. They trouble was, we had no idea of what should happen next, let alone what denoument (if any) there should be. Now it’s all very well for the audience not to be sure what might be found at the top of the stairs (in fact, usually in this sort of play, they’d be no wiser at the finish than they were at the start), but surely the authors ought to have at least some notion of what it all meant? Was the staircase perhaps a religious allegory, or what? And we simply hadn’t a clue.

So in the end we gave up, and our play duly took its place in that great gallery of abandoned projects, known to some as “the round filing-cabinet”. It was to be joined there some months later by a very different, though equally derivative, aborted production; a play for Easter, to be entitled “The arrest of Jesus, as performed by the cast of Z Cars”. Looking back, I’m inclined to believe that this latter effort was rather better, but before people start to have thoughts about mercy-killing, I’ll end by saying that that is (or to be more exact, might have been) another story.

P.S. Thought for the day:- “Youthful vanity and dullness, determined to write, will almost certainly write in the dominant form of their epoch” (C. S. Lewis; “The Allegory of Love”)

Friday, 11 June 2010


If you’re a real Sherlock Holmes, you can learn a lot about people by looking closely at them. In the old days, of course, you could always tell miners by the coal-dust ingrained in their skin, and weavers had bad front teeth because of what they called “kissing the shuttle”. It even applies to some trades today: an antique dealer once joked that he could always spot his fellow-tradesmen by their baggy trousers, caused by kneeling down to take a closer look at the furniture. But hands are the main thing for clues. Manual workers’ hands look quite different. There’s a story from the Russian revolution that the Red Guard used to patrol around Petrograd stopping strangers and examining their hands. If a man had hard hands, he was a worker and they’d buy him a drink; but if he had soft hands it meant he was a bourgeois and they beat him up. But Lenin had to put a stop to this, because so many of the Bolshevik leaders had soft hands!

My wife once managed something on these lines. She was brought up on a farm, and when she told this to a chap we’d just met, he said he was a farmer too, on the Surrey-Sussex border; but after he’d gone she said to me, “Did you see his hands? He’s never milked a cow in his life!” He wasn’t THAT kind of farmer, you see; the sort who has to milk his own cattle. I thought Sherlock Holmes would have been proud of her.

Now where was I? Oh yes. I think you could apply this to a whole lot of different professions if you knew what you were doing. You could probably spot musicians, for instance, and even guess the instrument. The fingertips and nails for playing stringed instruments would be a dead give-away. And teachers would always have chalk underneath the fingernails of the hand they used to write on the blackboard, though I don’t expect this applies any more.

People who’ve played a lot of sport can also be distinctive. Yes, I’m trying to come to the point. Everyone knows that rugby forwards tend to have horrible cauliflower ears from all that time in the scrum. Olympic throwers will have overdeveloped muscles on one side of the body, and so will tennis players and fencers. And footballers have often had knee operations, though of course this isn’t easy to spot when they’re just walking around. As regards hands: I remember a reporter once telling the American gymnast Kurt Thomas that someone could probably stub out cigarettes on his palms and he wouldn’t feel a thing. Cricketers also have hands like old boots. Do you remember when Darren Gough was on “Strictly Come Dancing”? In one of the early rounds, a judge complained that he had big thick hands that looked inelegant. He must have felt like saying, well of course I’ve got big thick hands; I’m a fast bowler, what do you expect? It didn’t stop him winning in the end, though. And cricketers often have broken fingers: I’ve known one or two with fingers sticking out at ridiculous angles. And if you do a lot of bowling you develop calluses on the spinning fingers, and these can get ripped and be very painful.

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get to the point, officer. I know I’ve been waffling away,
but that’s because I’m just as upset as you are: I’m sure you’ll understand. As regards this particular person, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him before; in fact, I couldn’t tell him from Adam; though of course when the body’s got no head, you can’t be certain. But I’m prepared to bet that he was a slow-left-arm bowler.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

The Library Van

Between leaving school and going to university, I worked for six months at the County Library in Carlisle. One of the duties was to go out on the travelling library van, which once a fortnight toured round some of the most isolated places in the country: the lonely villages and isolated farmhouses towards the Scottish border, where I encountered some unusual people. Aside from such standard library fare as the woman who used a kipper’s backbone as a bookmark, and the man who kept a book on archaeology out on loan for over a year because he found it was exactly the right size to prop up a broken leg on his table, there were customers who would rely on us not only to bring the books, but to select suitable reading material from our shelves for their tastes. The procedure of one woman was invariable. “I want 5 murders, 3 romances and a western”, she would say, and leave us to choose them for her. She would then cast her eye over our selection, discarding a few because “they didn’t look very good“, or because she thought she might have read them before. (other customers had their own systems for dealing with the latter problem; such as making a pencil mark on a certain page once they’d read one of our books). In cold weather she would bring us a mug of tea each, though since she invariably stirred in large quantities of sugar, I could never drink mine.
She wasn’t the only customer who let us choose her books, and some of the choices we made must have caused some surprise. Harold the van driver once persuaded a lady at a remote farm to take home James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. “Is it a good book?” she asked. “It’s a very famous book”, said Harold. “I want something I can read in bed”, she said. “It’s probably best if you read this in bed”, Harold told her. I never found out what she made of it, since I don’t recall we ever saw her again.
Harold explained to me the perils of engaging these people in conversation. They probably never saw anyone except us and the postman for weeks at a time, and they were often desperate for a talk, but we had a tight schedule to keep, and if we let them stay on the van for too long, we’d never get round in time. Harold’s policy was to agree with everything they said. “You can’t have a proper conversation with someone who always agrees with you”, he said. I witnessed this technique in action at a farmhouse up near Kershopefoot border; the home of an artist who appeared to be a Nazi. He clambered onto the van in his paint-stained overalls. “Things are bad!” he told us, “There’s Jews in high places bleeding this country white!” “You’re right there!” said Harold. The man soon went away. But I’m afraid I forgot Harold’s advice on one occasion, when once an old farm labourer got on the van and told us, without any provocation, that all farm land should be nationalised. “You’ll be a socialist then”, I dutifully said. Oh no, he always voted Conservative. I couldn’t retrain myself from asking why, and he told me this long story about how, when he was a boy on the Earl of Lonsdale’s estate back before the First World War, he once opened a gate for the Earl’s carriage to come through, and there sitting beside the Earl was the Kaiser, who had come to spend Christmas up at the castle. The Earl had given him half-a-sovereign and said, “You look a promising young chap. If you ever want a job, come up to the hall and see me“. But then he’d gone off to the trenches, and it was only in the 1920s that he’d met the Earl at a county show and the earl had said to him, “I recognise you! You’re the lad who opened the gate for me back before the war! Why didn’t you come up to the hall and take the job I offered you?” And ever since then he’d voted Conservative. Politics was still a bit feudal up on the Border. I’ve often reflected that my vote could be cancelled out by someone like that.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

What would different professions reply to the question, "What is 2+2?"

The Estate Agent:- “Ripe for conversion to 5”

The Dealer:- “Buying or selling?”

The Trainee Accountant:- “Do we have a ruling on this?”

The Senior Accountant (to wealthy client):- “What would you like it to make, sir?”

The old-style Civil Engineer (glancing at slide rule):- “It’s somewhere between 3.9 and 4.1”

The Economist:- “In real terms, of course, it’s about minus 1.8”

The Social Worker:- “I don’t think we should be judgemental about this”

The Barrister:- “Do you seriously expect the court to believe that it’s only 4? I put it to you that it’s significantly greater than that!”

The Historian:- “I’m afraid it’s not really my period”


The Politician:- “I think we should begin by reminding ourselves of the position when the present government came into office”

The Market Trader:- “Look, I’ll tell you what I’ll do for you, lady”

The Philosopher:- "Well, it all depends what you mean by +"

The Thriller-writer:- "A warning bell was triggered in Bond's mind by this seemingly innocuous question. What exactly was going on here?"

The Hoodie:- "I don't ****ing well care what it ****ing makes! **** off!"