The Malta Independent 22 July 2024, Monday
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Book review: Malta and the Sicilian Vespers – Part 1

Noel Grima Sunday, 3 March 2024, 08:30 Last update: about 6 months ago

'I Vespri Siciliani'

Author: Steven Runciman

Publisher: Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli / 1976

Pages: 400


30 March 1282 was the day after Easter Sunday, Pasquetta as the Italians call it. The Holy Spirit church was around half a mile to the south of Palermo's bastions, overlooking a deep ravine. You wouldn't find it today as it has been enveloped in a vast cemetery.

It was a tradition to celebrate Easter with the singing of the Vespers and many people had gone to the church to assist at the Vespers. While waiting for the Vespers to begin, people chatted and sang.

Suddenly a group of French gendarmes came to the square and wanted to join in the festivities. The Sicilian crowd welcomed them with cold and hostile faces.

This did not deter the French - they had been drinking and were in a jolly mood. Soon the French began to joke with the young women in the crowd, something that enraged the Sicilians.

One of the Frenchmen, a sergeant named Drouet, singled out a young woman from the crowd and proceeded to harass her with his attention.

This was more than her husband could stand and, drawing out a dagger, he fell on the Frenchman and killed him.

The rest of the Frenchmen rushed to avenge their compatriot but they were immediately surrounded by the Sicilians and killed.

At that moment the bells of the nearby church and of all the churches of the city began to peal for Vespers.

Messengers ran through the streets of the capital urging the citizens of Palermo to rise up against the French oppressor.

Immediately, the streets were filled with angry Sicilians shouting "Death to the Frenchmen".

Every Frenchman that was found out on the streets was massacred. The rioters burst into taverns frequented by the French and into houses where the French lived, and killed all they found there, men or women.

They burst into convents of Franciscans and Dominicans, gathered together all the non-Italians and forced them to say the word "Ciciri" in the belief that no Frenchman could pronounce it properly. Those who failed this test were massacred.

The massacre entered the history books and inflamed the nationalistic spirits. Giuseppe Verdi dedicated an opera full of nationalistic spirit, which is still popular today.

In a way, this riot brings to mind the massacre of the French soldiers at the Carmelite church in Mdina, though this was caused by the stealing of church silver, not of women.

This book was written by the eminent historian Steven Runciman who also wrote books about the history of the Crusades and the fall of Constantinople.

Runciman sees the riot in Palermo as being the most important event in the history of Sicily and of the French domination of the island.

The Greeks came to Sicily around 700 BC and the Phoenicians had arrived a few years earlier. The Greeks had introduced the olive tree and the vine. The whole island was covered by wheat and, although the two frequently engaged in wars, the island was prosperous and at peace.

This idyllic situation did not last for long as Sicily found itself involved in the great wars between Carthage and Rome. Not all the Roman overlords were honourable - remember the governor Caius Verses (who stole from Malta) and who was prosecuted by Cicero.

Otherwise, Sicily was at peace. It was essentially Greek - its inhabitants spoke Greek and only used Latin in official documents.

With the collapse of the Roman empire, Sicily was saved from an invasion by Alaric and the Visigoths by a storm at Messina. However, it soon fell to the Vandals from Carthage.

It was reunited with Italy by Odoacre and later by Theodoric the Ostrogoth. Emperor Justinian then sent an army to reconquer Sicily for the empire. This army was welcomed by all and the Ostrogoths withdrew.

But soon Sicily began to face repeated invasions by the Muslims, starting in 652. In 831 they occupied Palermo, then Messina and Cefalu'. Syracuse, the Byzantine capital, fell in 878 and Taormina in 902.

The Arabs brought prosperity to Sicily - they introduced the lemon and the orange, cotton and sugar cane but on the other hand they destroyed whole forests. Sicily, especially Palermo, became an international trade centre and Christians were not harassed.

In 1060 the Normans decided to conquer Sicily. They had already invaded most of southern Italy. Sicily was conquered by Robert Guiscard and his younger brother Roger. The conquest took long and Roger at times did not have more than 100 knights at his disposal. He was helped by the discord between the three emirs of Trapani, Palermo and Girgenti.

In 1061 the Normans conquered Messina but it was only in 1085 that Syracuse fell and Noto in 1091. Roger II inherited the ability and ambition of his family. He conquered Malta and created a formidable navy. On Christmas Day 1130 he was crowned king of Sicily. He fought continually with the Pope and the Emperor of the West and was vigilant in the control of Muslims. Yet he was strong on efficiency in government.

This period was known as the golden era in the history of Sicily. The Normans ensured harmony between the different strands of Sicily. But the golden era did not last.

When in 1194 Emperor Henry VI was crowned King of Sicily in Palermo his wife Costanza could not be present for she was advanced in her pregnancy, was 40 years old and in nine years of marriage had not given birth.

So she remained in Jesi and no less than 19 cardinals and bishops gathered in a tent in the marketplace where on 26 December she gave birth and called her son Frederick, later Frederick II, emperor and king of Sicily.

When Henry died in 1197, his distraught wife found a friend and councillor in the newly-elected Pope Innocent III, one of the great popes of the Middle Ages who became the young king's tutor.

Though the book skips this, Frederick was to become the "Stupor Mundi", the amazement of the world, renowned for his intelligence and for his ability, but also for his amorality, his dabbling in faiths other than the one he was brought up in, his crusade which led to the reconquest of Jerusalem and above all his hatred of the pope, his tutor.

When he suddenly died in 1251, the reigning pope, Innocent IV, from his exile in Lyon ordered general rejoicing all over the church for the "anti-Christ" was no more.

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