The Kingdom of Sicily, 1100-1250
A Literary History
2005 | 224 pages | Cloth $55.00
Literature | History
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Table of Contents
1. Toward a Literary History of the Kingdom of Sicily
2. An Archeology of the Sicilian Park
3. Frederick II and the Genesis of a Sicilian Romance Culture
4. Rereading Le Origini: Sicilian Romance Poetry and the Language of Natural Philosophy
5. Beyond Le Origini: Sicilian Romance Poetry in a Feminine Voice
6. Vernacularity and Sicilian Culture
TEXTS IN TRANSLATION
From the Arabic
"In youth, the soul attains its desire" (from the Siqilliyyat)
"Because of long-lasting grief " (from the Siqilliyyat)
"Oh, garden of love"
"You tortured me with the two elements"
"Oh, blonde tribe, my blood is on your hands"
"My tears expose my love"
Al-Atrabanishi, "Oh, Favara of the two seas!"
Al-Buthayri and Ibn Bashrun, "Pass round the golden carnelian-red [wine]"
Abu al-Daw', "The radiant moon has been extinguished"
Abu Hafs, "He sought solace"
Introduction to al-Idrisi's Geography
The Travels of Ibn Jubayr
The Daughter of Ibn 'Abbad and Frederick II
From the Latin
Henricus Aristippus's Preface to His Translation of Plato's Phaedo, ca. 1156
Preface to a Translation of Ptolemy's Almagest by an Unknown Translator, ca. 1160
"Hugo Falcandus" on the Death of William and the Arrival of the Germans
Peter of Eboli, Lament on the Death of William II
Frederick II, Hunting with Birds
Frederick II and Lucera
Innocent IV Excommunicates Frederick
The Destruction of Lucera
From the Old French
Introduction to the Book of Sydrac
From the Sicilian
Giacomo da Lentini
"Amor non vole"
"Or come pote sí gran donna intrare"
"A l'aire claro ò vista ploggia dare"
Frederick II, "Dolze meo drudo"
Mazzeo di Ricco, "Sei anni ò travagliato"
Rinaldo d'Aquino, "Già mai non mi conforto"
Guido delle Colonne, "Ancor che l'aigua per lo foco lassi"
Anonymous, "Oi lassa 'namorata"
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
1. Toward a Literary History of the Kingdom of Sicily
In the year 1184, Ibn Jubayr, an Andalusian returning from the Meccan pilgrimage, was shipwrecked in Sicily. At the time he arrived, the Normans, who had seized control of the island from the Muslims, had been in power for a little more than a century. The great Norman king Roger II had ruled and died; his son William I had ruled and died. The current Sicilian monarch, William II, welcomed the travelers to Sicily in person, and paid the landing fee for the Muslims on Ibn Jubayr's ship. In his account of his visit to Sicily, which forms one chapter of his description of his travels through the Mediterranean, Ibn Jubayr describes William and his court in some detail. He counts William's admiration of Islamic learning and tolerance of Islamic religious practice at his court among the wonders that he witnessed on his journey. He also takes pains to illustrate through interviews and anecdotes the difficult daily lives of Muslim Sicilians. From these paradoxical elements, Ibn Jubayr attempts to produce a coherent portrait of a Christian land where Muslim visitors are honored and Islamic learning and culture are embraced in the royal court, but Muslim citizens endure economic and religious injustices, mourn the fall of the Islamic state, and dream of escape to a better land.
In the introductory section of his chapter on Sicily, Ibn Jubayr describes Messina, the first Sicilian city he visited. And he lays out programmatically the paradox of Muslim-Christian cohabitation on the island. Following these prefatory comments, he describes his travels through Sicily by relating events in the order in which they occur. But in the introductory section his organization is thematic, rather than chronological. He aims to convey to his readers the central difficulty he encountered in Sicily. The island's Muslim conquerors have themselves been conquered, and the culture that is now emerging resists categorization. Ibn Jubayr is a vigorous and effective narrator, and he finds an evocative way to represent the ambiguity of Sicilian culture.
Sicily's approach is announced to the travelers on board Ibn Jubayr's ship by a glimpse of one of the island's best-known landmarks, Etna—jabal al-nar, the "Mountain of Fire" in Arabic. Soon after they catch sight of the volcano, a storm arises and blows the travelers into the strait between the Italian mainland and the island, where the ship founders on rocks. Ibn Jubayr heightens the drama of the scene by telling us that the seas in the strait of Messina seethe around the ship like boiling water, and he compares the force of the waters to the "bursting of the dam." He refers to the dam of Ma'rib, which collapsed under the pressure of flood waters with such destructive effect that it constituted an epoch-making event for the Arab tribes, and is remembered in the Qur'an (34:16). After this stirring episode, he describes his arrival in Sicily, his visit to the Norman monarch's court, and his meetings with Muslim businessmen and merchants. Later in his narrative, Ibn Jubayr lists some of the natural wonders of Sicily, returning finally to the most renowned of Sicily's marvels—Mount Etna. In describing Etna, he repeats a metaphor he had used while describing the shipwreck. Here are the culminating sentences of his description: "There is a lofty mountain on the island known as the Mountain of Fire. A marvelous thing is reported concerning it, and that is that during certain years fire comes forth from it like the bursting of the dam. It burns everything it passes until it reaches the sea, and then it rides atop the surface of the waves until it sinks beneath them [emphasis added]." The image of the dam of Ma'rib recurs: fire bursts from Etna like the waters bursting through the dam. In both this passage and the shipwreck scene, Ibn Jubayr quotes the words used in the Qur'an to describe the event. The repetition of the Qur'anic phrase brackets the introductory section, and sets it off from the chronological description of Ibn Jubayr's travels in Sicily that follows. They leave in the reader's mind a sense of awesome and antagonistic natural forces, encouraging us to see Sicily as a theater of remarkable phenomena.
In his prefatory comments to the description of his visit to Sicily, Ibn Jubayr details what is most strange and disturbing in the Sicilian situation. His ship, on arriving at the port of Messina after the harrowing shipwreck, had been greeted by William II, who himself paid the landing fee for all the Muslims on board the ship—the first of the marvels of Sicily we read about that is not connected with natural phenomena. Ibn Jubayr catalogues the wonders of the court of William II, the "Orientalist" Christian monarch, whom he commends for his learning and in particular for his admiration of Muslim culture and his promotion of Muslim men of learning at his court. William speaks Arabic. Like contemporary Muslim princes, he uses an 'alama, an Arabic royal title, on coinage, in architectural inscriptions, and in the heading of his official documents. He retains Muslim physicians and astrologers. Ibn Jubayr's description of William's court culminates with a famous anecdote of an earthquake, when the palace rang with the sound of William's servants—many of whom observed Christian ritual publicly, in order to serve the monarch, but remained Muslims in belief—calling on Allah, in the moment of crisis, for preservation. William, unperturbed, said only, "Let each of you call upon the god you have faith in; let that bring peace to you."
Ibn Jubayr consistently describes Christian tolerance of Muslim Sicilians in general, and individual Christians' kindness to him and his fellow travelers, in tones of wonder—as he does the flames of Etna. At the same time, he dwells on the suffering of Muslim Sicilians, and the difficulties of their lives under Norman occupation. Alongside the marvels of Sicily, alongside the Mountain of Fire and the splendors of William's court, he rehearses the details of Muslim-Christian cohabitation, attempting to understand what Sicily has become and what the future may hold for Muslim Sicilians. The turbulent and uncanny images of fire and water that bracket this introductory section may be read as a metaphor for the two populations. And his deployment of the same Qur'anic phrase to describe these two fantastic events—his use of the floodwaters of the burst dam to evoke both the seething sea and the lava surging from Etna toward the waters of the Mediterranean—evokes his fear of the shifting balance of power, and his anxiety concerning Christian ventriloquism of Muslim cultural practices, considered by many contemporary witnesses to be among the most disturbing marvels of Sicily.
Ibn Jubayr tells us that Muslim culture is respected and patronized by the Sicilian monarch. Yet the two instances of open toleration of individual Muslims by William II that he sketches come only in response to calamity. A tempest provokes the king's payment of the landing fees for the shipwrecked Muslims, and an earthquake inspires his proclamation of religious tolerance. On the one hand, William admires Islamic culture and promotes it at his court. But on the other, it takes a natural disaster to draw from him acts of charity and tolerance toward his Muslim subjects. This interpretive knot—the balancing of tolerance and repression, the tension between Islamic culture and Muslim citizens—is the paradox at the center of Ibn Jubayr's assessment of Sicily. The celebration of Islamic culture he witnessed in Sicily constituted the flaunting of a trophy culture. By promoting Islamic culture at his court, the Sicilian monarch expressed a gratifying recognition of the accomplishments of the Muslim world. But he also advertised the fact that, in Sicily, those accomplishments had come under the control of Christians. The Muslims who had conquered Sicily three and one-half centuries earlier had treasured its beauty and its riches. With the Norman conquest—which occurred at roughly the same time as the first Christian seizure of Muslim-occupied lands in the Iberian peninsula; Palermo fell to the Normans in 1070, and Christian forces took Toledo in 1072—the Muslims had lost a prized possession, as they had also in Ibn Jubayr's native al-Andalus. Muslim Sicilians' struggle for cultural and economic survival under Norman rule was as intricate and brutal as the battle of the elements Ibn Jubayr evokes in his descriptions of storms and volcanos. And Christian possession of Muslim culture may have appeared to the Muslim visitor as unnatural and disturbing as the fires that burst from a mountain like water through the burst dam of Ma'rib.
When the Normans occupied Sicily, along with the natural riches of the island, they took possession of its cultural wealth, its bureaucratic and cultural institutions. A hybrid culture emerged, one that used Islamic literary, artistic, and architectural conventions to celebrate a kingdom ruled by a Christian monarch. Under the Normans, Sicilian court poets wrote in Arabic. Following the death of William II, during the reign of Frederick II (1197-1250), Sicily would see an act of literary invention that was less extraordinary than the marvel Ibn Jubayr witnessed—Arabic cultural forms used to adorn and celebrate a Christian state—but more significant in its impact on subsequent literary history. During the thirteenth century, Sicilians would write the first substantial body of lyric poetry in an Italianate vernacular. Like fire morphing into water, the language of culture in Sicily underwent a rapid and radical transformation between the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries, a literary and linguistic revolution that remains one of the most striking and least understood chapters in medieval literary history.
*		*		*
Sicily, Cicero wrote in the Verrine Orations, was "the first of the provinces; Sicily first taught our ancestors how glorious it could be to rule other peoples." Indeed, between antiquity and the Middle Ages, the island invited conquest from every shore of the Mediterranean. The ancient Greeks, the Romans, and the Byzantine Greeks took turns ruling it before the arrival of the Arabs. Following the period of Norman and Swabian rule, it would be governed by Angevin and Aragonese sovereigns. Each of these conquerors brought their own linguistic traditions to the island. But at no time was Sicilian linguistic culture more complex than during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—which comprised, perhaps not coincidentally, the only era when Sicily was governed as an independent kingdom, not as a colonial extension of a mainland state.
When the first Norman invaders stormed Sicily in 1038, the Arabs had ruled the island for roughly two hundred years. The earliest Arab military activity on the island which was more than an act of piracy but rather executed for the purposes of conquest had occurred in 827. At that time, Sicily was a Greek state. The Greco-Sicilian government did not stand long against the Arab invasion. Three years after the first Arab attack, in 830, Palermo fell to the invaders, and in 878 the Arabs took Syracuse, the last significant Christian stronghold on the island.
The years of Muslim domination on the island were turbulent, as the state reacted first to the upheavals that rocked the greater Muslim world during this period, and later to internal struggles. During the middle decades of the tenth century, the Kalbite dynasty gained power in Sicily, increasing its cultural and political independence from the North African governors. Despite continuing domestic unrest, the next century was the most peaceful and prosperous in Muslim Sicily's brief history and constituted the state's cultural "golden age."
The Norman conquest of Sicily, like the Muslim invasion that had taken place two centuries earlier, was a swift and decisive affair. The first assault, undertaken in 1038 by a contingent of Normans, Lombards, and Greeks, had little appreciable effect on the Muslim state. Robert Guiscard arrived in Sicily in 1046 to try again. In 1060 his brother, Roger, joined him for another attempt. And in 1072 the Norman forces, led by Robert and Roger, took the administrative center of Arab Sicily, Palermo.
Roger ruled as count of Sicily until his death in 1101. His son, Roger II, became count of Sicily in 1105, at the age of nine. He would be made king of Sicily in 1130, and would be remembered as the greatest of the Norman monarchs of Sicily. His son, William I, known as "William the Bad," ruled from 1154 until 1166, and his grandson, William II, or "William the Good," ruled from 1166 until 1189. On the second William's death the triumphant years of Norman rule in Sicily came to an end, as a series of short-lived monarchs and squabbles over succession brought unrest and civil war to the kingdom.
Cultural development in Sicily during the period of Norman domination built on and transformed the culture of Muslim Sicily. When Muslims occupied Sicily, they found a Greek state in cultural decadence. Certainly, the absence of established bureaucratic institutions on the island contributed—along with unrest both in Sicily and abroad—to the relative barbarity of cultural life on the island during the first century of Muslim rule. When the Normans arrived, however, they encountered a state just entering its cultural prime. Rather than replace indigenous cultural practices and idioms with their own, as contemporary Norman conquerors did in Britain, the Normans adopted and adapted the cultural practices they found in Sicily. They took over many of the bureaucratic institutions established by Muslim Sicilians. They used Arabic, alongside Greek and Latin, as a language of bureaucracy and culture. They hired Arabic artists and artisans to build their monumental architectural projects. And they encouraged the composition of Arabic poetry in their praise.
The culture of Norman Sicily was at once triumphant and ephemeral. The death of William II in 1189 would in effect bring an end to the Norman Sicilian experiment, the unique cultural hybrid that developed during the years of Norman rule. With the ascent of Frederick II to the throne, Sicilian culture underwent a substantial transformation. Frederick—the son of Hohenstaufen emperor Henry VI and Roger II's daughter, Constance—articulated much stronger political, economic, and cultural ties between Sicily and the European continent. He also maintained connections with Arab rulers and intellectuals. However, he did not support Arabic cultural production within Sicily, and during his reign, the last Muslim communities in Sicily were uprooted and transplanted to a ghetto city on the Italian mainland. Most importantly, it was under Frederick's rule that a group of poets wrote the first lyric love poetry in an Italian vernacular. The Kingdom of Sicily was reinvented as a Latinate Christian territory.
Literary historians writing about the Romance vernacular poetry produced in Sicily during the thirteenth century—the so-called scuola siciliana—typically see that body of work in a continuum with the Occitan lyric and French epic of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Indeed, the Sicilian poets were intimately acquainted with the Romance vernacular literature that preceded them, and interrogation and explication of their relation to the Romance vernacular traditions of the European mainland were crucial parts of their poetic project. However, that poetic project cannot be described through reference to the continental poets alone. The Sicilian Romance poets wrote toward the Romance vernacular traditions of the European mainland, but they wrote from a land with more complex cultural affiliations. During the twelfth century, Sicilians wrote in Latin, Greek, and Arabic. Because of its difficulty, its entanglement in too many cultural traditions, the literary production of twelfth-century Sicily has been largely passed over by literary historians. What work has been done on this period has been parceled out to scholars working within disciplinary boundaries. The Arabic literature is handled by Arabists, the Latin texts by Latinists, and the Greek by Byzantinists. This fragmentation has not only affected our understanding of the literary history of twelfth-century Sicily. It has also impoverished our readings of the literary tradition that emerged during the thirteenth century. Literary historians have not considered the poets of the thirteenth century in the context of a Sicilian literary tradition for two reasons. First, that literary tradition is not widely known or understood by scholars. And second, literary historians—who are generally trained to think within the boundaries of disciplines defined by the national languages of modern Europe—do not perceive a coherent literary tradition in the linguistically fragmented literary production of twelfth-century Sicily. Thus, by a circular logic, literary historians do not know the literary history of the Kingdom of Sicily because the multiplicity of linguistic traditions present in Sicily convinces them that the state did not have a literary history as such.
The fundamental assumption of this study is that the Kingdom of Sicily generated a literary tradition with a continuity constituted in particular by a shifting relation to linguistic complexity. Literary production during the twelfth century evidenced two distinct kinds of linguistic complexity. Sicilians wrote in the three formal literary languages of the medieval Mediterranean, observing a rough division of labor between them. In Latin, Sicilians wrote histories recording the deeds of the Normans in Sicily, as well as translations of philosophical works from the Greek and the Arabic. Greek was used mainly for pastoral works. And Sicilian poetry was written in Arabic. In addition, Sicilians produced a small number of multilingual texts, combining diverse linguistic registers. These were typically nonliterary texts, in particular architectural and numismatic inscriptions. But they provide valuable information for the literary historian, demonstrating an alternate response—alongside composition in the three formal literary tongues—to the linguistic complexity of the state. A vernacular literary tradition would emerge only in the generation following the death of William II, during the reign of Frederick II. During the twelfth century, Sicilian poets wrote in Arabic. With the collapse of Arabic literacy in Sicily, during the early decades of the thirteenth century, poets invented another linguistic medium for poetry, generated on the continental Romance vernacular model and based on the Romance vernacular spoken in Sicily. They used that new literary language to produce an intervention in continental poetic practice informed by both chronological and geographical factors. The Sicilians wrote after a series of Romance vernacular avant-gardes had challenged the literary hegemony of the Latin tradition. And they wrote from the geographical margins of the Christian world.
The literature of Norman Sicily has been overlooked not only for pragmatic reasons, but because of its linguistic complexity. Literary historians have not come to terms with this period because we have lacked a theoretical vocabulary that could conceptualize a cultural integrity underlying such linguistic complexity. The literary tradition of the Norman age cannot be classified as Arabic, Latin, or Greek. It was an amalgam of the three traditions. And the symbolic and ritual vocabularies it drew upon were neither wholly Muslim nor wholly Christian. Until very recently, medieval literary scholarship had not developed a conceptual framework able to acknowledge and account for such complexities within a single, coherent literary tradition.
But scholars have, by now, become more attuned to the linguistic and cultural contingency of medieval textuality. Indeed, a survey of the dominant scholarship in the field has become impractical given the explosion of publications. Erich Auerbach's study of the crumbling of the cultural hegemony of Latin and the emergence of the vernaculars as the vehicles of intellectual life in western Europe served as a particularly provocative point of departure for the explorations of linguistic and literary indeterminacy in medieval textuality in more recent scholarship. In the introduction to his study Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, Auerbach pointed out that for some time the West had had little interest in the cultural history of the Middle Ages. The "primitive" cultures of medieval Europe seemed "not intelligible or even interesting." But Auerbach heralded the emergence of a new attitude toward the Middle Ages: "Not only the scholars and critics among us, but also a large and steadily growing section of the general public, have ceased to be frightened by the diversity of peoples and epochs."
Auerbach's statement seems, in retrospect, a bit optimistic. It took some time for scholars and critics, not to mention the general public, to warm to the diversity of the Middle Ages—its difference from us; its difference from what we have been trained to expect it to be; and finally its difference from itself, its scandalous variety. As Brian Stock point out in a penetrating reading of Auerbach's place in the history of medieval studies, Auerbach opened the door for a radical comparatist approach to medieval literary history. But medieval studies as a discipline has, until quite recently, been reluctant to step through that door. Over the last two decades, however, a new conception of the linguistic and cultural contingency of medieval textuality has emerged. María Rosa Menocal in particular has made it impossible for scholars to ignore the scandal and variety peculiar to the Muslim-Christian borderlands of the northern Mediterranean. Menocal challenged the engrained scholarly habit of disavowing the intelligibility of Arabic and Islamic cultural discourse to a Christian public. In so doing, she gave us conceptual tools to track the shifts in readings of Arabic textuality witnessed in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Sicily. Menocal investigated the complexity of formations of cultural identity in al-Andalus; Suzanne Fleischman dismantled the unity of the most basic analytic element in the literary historian's tool kit, language. She used the phrase "the myth of monoglossia" (borrowed from linguist Roy Harris) to refer to the tendency to assume that the written medieval vernaculars possessed a morphological unity, with a finite set of dialectical variants, but that faulty manuscript transmission has blurred its outlines. Language—that supreme human construction, whose internal coherence supports the coherence of all lesser human constructions—is itself multiple, Babelian by definition. The identity of a given language is constructed only through its difference from other languages, not by reference to a distinct ur-language and an originary (protonational) cultural identity. This challenge to the unity of language (and, in Fleischman's reading, to the unity of medieval textual language in particular) yields a language that is different from itself, not unified and unifying but fragmented and plural.
Some of the most intriguing new scholarship in medieval studies has questioned the use of medieval literary history in the service of constructing a set of modern national identities. In a seminal article, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht inflected the readings of medieval alterity fundamental to both the "emergence of modern philologies" and the "'Romantic idea of the nation'" during the nineteenth century. Erich Auerbach himself—to complete the circle of medieval literary historians I have sketched—has proven a particularly provocative figure for scholars working on questions surrounding nation, culture, and the medieval origins of modern national cultures. Kathleen Davis uses Auerbach (or, more precisely, Benedict Anderson's [mis]reading of Auerbach) as a point of departure for her discussion of the medieval notion of nationhood. She reads toward an understanding of nationalizing gestures in medievalist texts while working to "show … that the medieval difference from the modern cannot be set out in terms of an opposition." That is, she understands a ninth-century English text to duplicate some of the strategies typical of modern nationalist narratives, while working to avoid an essentialist collapsing of the distinction between the "medieval" and the "modern." And María Rosa Menocal reads Auerbach's peripatetic life, his flight from Nazi Germany first to Istanbul and then to the United States, as one of the exilic narratives central to the philologists' (and the medieval lyric poets') shared histories. The finest medieval literary scholarship of the last two decades has painstakingly disassembled the linguistic, historical, and cultural structures that were built on the foundation of medieval literary traditions during the two preceding centuries—thus begging the question: What sensibilities and what urges might inform a synthetic moment following this analytic, self-reflective period in medieval studies?
The conditions attending the emergence of a textual culture in Norman Sicily make writing a literary history of that culture uniquely difficult. But to some extent, it would seem that this difficulty is constructed by the limits of our thinking about literary history: that a "national literature" ought to have a genetic affiliation to a "national language," for instance. If a single culture (as Menocal demonstrates) admits a dialogue within itself between discrete cultures, if a single language (as Fleischman points out) encompasses a potential infinity of variants, the readings of Sicilian texts in this study present us with something contrary and complementary. In Sicilian textuality, most acutely in works produced during the Norman era, linguistic and cultural multiplicity is both deployed and disavowed; difference is simultaneously staged and annulled.
It would be a mistake to view the Kingdom of Sicily as a nation in the modern sense of the word, to ignore the differences between medieval Sicilian constructions of cultural identity and those that characterize modern, Western nations. At the same time, the readings sketched below suggest that Sicily possessed the sort of cultural coherence—located along both geographic and temporal axes—that, in other medieval contexts, did generate a localized literary tradition. The difficulties raised by using the word nation in connection with medieval Sicily are manifest and thorny. But the strategy has its advantages. It provides a crucial instrument for conceptualizing the integrity of Sicilian literary history, and resisting the tendency to fragment it into constituent languages, following the boundaries of modern academic departments of national languages and literatures. "Language," Patrick Geary wrote in a recent study on modern constructions of ethnicity and national identity, "apparently neither corresponded to nor determined culture" in the late antique and medieval world. And yet categories of ethnic and regional identity did exist, and medieval authors and rulers used these categories as means of "identifying themselves, distinguishing themselves from others, and mobilizing these identities for political purposes." Recent scholarship has opened the way to a new understanding of medieval literary traditions by dismantling the anachronistic sensibilities imposed on medieval textuality by modern readings, and acknowledging its alterity and its cultural and linguistic contingency. A second critical movement must follow on the first, one that asks how medieval writers manipulated markers of cultural identity—languages, both vernacular and classical; textual practices borrowed from vernacular and classical literary traditions—in order to produce and deploy a geographical and temporal self-consciousness. This study of Sicilian literary history aims to contribute to our understanding of medieval vernacular textuality on both of these fronts.
During the twelfth century, Sicilian literature drew on multiple literary traditions. But during the thirteenth century, that linguistic complexity would be radically reduced. Arabic literary production in Sicily ceased, and Greek literacy became all but extinct. At the same time, Latin letters were consolidated, and poets began to write in Romance. The Kingdom of Sicily was refashioned as a Latinate Christian state, though echoes of the complexities of its cultural past remained. Contemporary Christian witnesses persisted in viewing Sicily as a state with a strong investment in Islamic culture and intimate links to the Arab world. Indeed the Sicilian monarchs, Frederick as well as his son Manfredi, did pursue relations with Muslim rulers and intellectuals outside Sicily. And they continued the Norman habit of importing Muslim culture—in particular, philosophical texts—and living in the large style of an "Oriental" monarch, with the appropriate trappings, not excluding a harem. The Sicilian poets used their love poems to demonstrate their ability to work with the new natural philosophy that reached the Christian world through translations of Arabic texts made in Muslim-Christian borderlands such as al-Andalus and Sicily itself. And they performed a precisely calibrated operation of excision upon the Romance literary tradition they translated, paralleling the linguistic reduction the Sicilian state had recently negotiated.
The Sicilians' poetic innovations—and despite a persistent perception among literary historians that they were mere imitators of continental traditions, these were substantial—consist mainly of limitations of received poetic traditions. They wrote very little comic poetry, virtually no ethical poetry, and no panegyrics. They concentrated on love to the exclusion of all other topics, recasting the love poem as a vehicle for philosophical meditation. They wrote mainly canzoni, rejecting the more complex prosodic forms with which former generations of vernacular poets had experimented. Their texts seem to be written not for musical performance, but to be read without the accompaniment (or the distraction) of a musical setting. All of these modifications of the poetic tradition the Sicilians inherited would be accepted and affirmed by subsequent Italian poets. The Sicilians' chief inventions consisted of a new prosodic form—the sonnet—and a new literary language; both of these innovations would have decisive importance for subsequent literary history.
In this study, I will treat the literary history of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Sicily as a tradition that—despite its discontinuities and inconsistencies—possessed a certain logic and coherence. I will use the shifting tension between discrete linguistic traditions, and in particular the relation between Arabic culture and Romance poetics, as an optic for rereading Sicilian literary history. In the next chapter, I will consider the aspect of Sicilian culture that Ibn Jubayr treated as one of the marvels of Sicily: Norman manipulation of Arabic cultural forms. Norman ventriloquism of Arabic culture created an obstacle for subsequent European historians, who could not read the hybrid texts produced in Norman Sicily for both pragmatic reasons and more complex cultural motives. A nineteenth-century Sicilian historian, Michele Amari, learned Arabic in order to exhume the history of the years of Muslim domination in Sicily. He also rescued the Arabic cultural production of the years of Norman rule from the occlusion to which it had been relegated, by virtue of European ignorance of the Arabic language and inability to entertain the possibility that a Christian state would promote literary production in Arabic. I use Amari's extraordinary career as an Orientalist, a Sicilian nationalist, and finally a proponent of Italian unification to situate my reading of the literary culture of the Norman age. Amari's activities both as scholar and as romantic nationalist demonstrate the effect that modern understandings of cultural and national identity have had on the legibility of medieval cultural constructions. In no field has the interface between modern present and medieval past had a more dramatic impact than on our readings of cultural communications in the Muslim-Christian borderlands of the medieval Mediterranean.
In order to account for Sicily's transit from an Arabic-based literary culture to a Latinate culture, the literary historian must move across disciplinary boundaries and become a sort of cultural historian of language. She or he must look beyond the literary record to study constructions of cultural identity in extraliterary works. And the dynamic linguistic range of Sicilian literary life, as well as the tensions provoked by its linguistic plurality, require the literary historian to call into play texts written in the three languages of the kingdom. In Chapter 3, "Frederick II and the Genesis of a Sicilian Romance Culture," I use diplomatic sources and cultural and social history to evaluate the period of transition between the fall of the Norman dynasty and Frederick's reign, and the reconstitution of Sicilian culture as a Latinate culture under Frederick's rule. Frederick would deport the Muslims of Sicily to a ghetto city on the Italian mainland, even as he pursued diplomatic and cultural relations with prominent Arabs outside Sicily. The reformulation of Arabic culture as a "foreign" culture during the first half of the thirteenth century would be of decisive importance in the generation of a Latinate culture in Sicily.
Even after the collapse of Arabic literacy in Sicily, and the extinction of Arabic as a literary tongue, the culture of the Sicilian state retained the memory of the role that state had played as cultural mediator. Sicilian poets utilized Sicily's peculiar history—a past characterized by contact between the Muslim and Christian worlds—in the service of their literary ambition. They translated Sicilian history, and in particular the Sicilians' privileged access to the riches of Islamic culture, into a form that could serve them in the construction of a Romance vernacular culture that was at once a sophisticated response to continental literary history, and uniquely Sicilian. In Chapter 4, "Rereading Le Origini," I discuss the strategies that the Romance poets of thirteenth-century Sicily used—in particular, their manipulation of the language of natural philosophy—to situate themselves in relation to both mainland poetic conventions and the cultural history of their own state.
Literary historians tend to see Sicilian Romance poetry as an essentially derivative movement. The great poetic innovations, according to the traditional literary historical account, either preceded the Sicilians (the Occitan troubadours and the French epic poets) or followed them (the dolce stil novo movement of the late thirteenth century). The Sicilians' chief contribution to literary history, thus, was the invention of a new Italo-Romance literary language, and the translation of poetic conventions into this language. In Chapter 5, "Beyond Le Origini," I consider the poetry used by earlier generations of literary historians as the register of a popular (and hence uniquely and indigenously Sicilian) voice: the poetry in the voice of a woman. These works, like all medieval poetry in a feminine voice, manipulate the power dynamic at the center of the erotic situation. By virtue of the popular voice they ventriloquize, and by virtue of their witty performance of power, the poems in the voice of a woman provide a fitting stage for reconsideration of the Sicilian corpus and the source and scope of Sicilian innovations.
A rereading of the works of the Romance poets of Sicily in the context of Sicilian cultural history can contribute substantially to our understanding of medieval cultural and literary formations in two discrete, but not unrelated, fields. The Sicilians wrote after the interventions of the first Romance poetic avant-gardes. Their response to those previous movements provides valuable insights concerning their understanding of their relation to literary history, and medieval vernacular poets' reading of the significance of vernacularity in general. The Romance vernacular poets of the Middle Ages wrote in opposition to literary history—to the Latin literary tradition. But they also wrote in communication and in contest with each other. None of the major Romance movements articulated its position in relation to preceding Romance poets in as sophisticated a way as the Sicilians did, for the simple reason that the Sicilians had more history to which to react. In the final chapter, "Vernacularity and Sicilian Culture," I consider the strategies that medieval literary historians and the medieval poets themselves used to situate vernacular poetics in relation to other literary traditions. The chronology of the Sicilian poets' activities makes them significant to the cultural history of the late Middle Ages in a second context as well. The Sicilians wrote during the age of Christian conquest of Muslim-occupied lands in southern Europe, a process that was reaching its final stages in Sicily during their lives. At the same time, Christian theologians and philosophers were working to absorb the treatises of the Islamic philosophers that had been translated over the course of the previous century. The evolution of relations between Arabic and Latinate culture in Sicily must be understood in the context of the Christian "reconquests" of the late Middle Ages, which occurred on these two fronts: the martial and the intellectual, territorial expansion accompanied by the acquisition and naturalization of Islamic culture.
One of the difficulties of working with medieval Sicilian literary history—the same is true, although to a lesser extent, of medieval European literary history in general—is the inaccessibility of the sources necessary for studying that history. The poetic works, as well as the subsidiary sources that illuminate the cultural background to the literary history, can be difficult to locate and, once located, difficult to read. In the "Texts in Translation" that follows this study, I have gathered and translated some of the most important and most intriguing documents used in the body of the book—poetry, letters, histories, and scientific translations—from the Arabic, Latin, Old French, and Siculo-Romance, in the hopes of demystifying in a small way Sicily's occluded and obscure cultural history.
The narrative that emerges from the consideration of Sicilian literary history in this study does not suggest a genetic influence between Arabic and Romance poetics in Sicily. That is, Sicilian literary history does not support the so-called Arabic thesis, the proposition that Arabic poetics had a direct impact on emergent Romance poetry—or vice versa, that Romance poets influenced the Arabs. This does not mean that the Arabic thesis is wrong. Compelling evidence has emerged to support many of its proponents' suppositions in the Andalusian context. In one of the most intriguing texts to have surfaced in recent scholarship on Andalusian vernacular poetics, for instance, the Jewish theologian Maimonides inveighs against the singing of muwashshahat—a popular Andalusian song form that typically included vernacular refrains—in Hebrew: "If there are two muwashshahas on the same subject, namely one that arouses and praises the instinct of lust, and encourages the soul to practice it; and if one of these two muwashshahas is in Hebrew, and the other is either in Arabic or in Romance—why then, listening to and uttering the one in Hebrew is the most reprehensible thing one can do in the eyes of the Holy Law, because of the excellence of the Hebrew language. For it is not appropriate to employ Hebrew in what is not excellent." This comment demonstrates that muwashshahat were performed by the three linguistic communities in al-Andalus. Furthermore, it suggests that to a contemporary observer, a muwashshaha was a muwashshaha, no matter what language was used to sing it. Thus the statement demonstrates an identity between popular songs sung in the three languages.
Such evidence does not exist in the Sicilian context, which does not militate against the Arabic thesis. It simply suggests that Sicily and al-Andalus are not identical cases. Muslim domination did not last as long in Sicily as it did in al-Andalus, and the Norman conquest of the island began before the Muslim state in Sicily reached cultural maturity. Furthermore, the period of cohabitation in Sicily was much briefer, and so the culture of cohabitation did not develop as fully as it did in al-Andalus. Some of the texts that will be considered in the next chapter are characterized by an extraordinary cultural hybridity. If Sicilian history had allowed it, this protean culture of exchange might eventually have produced a hybrid poetic form like the muwashshaha in Sicily. But cultural exchange in Sicily, to the extent that we understand it today, tended to take the form of monarchic patronage of Arab men of letters and architects during the Norman age, and Christian appropriation of Muslim culture during the thirteenth century. Thus, for instance, this record of a performance by Arab singing girls at the court of Frederick II: "Two beautiful Saracen girls, who balanced atop two balls placed on the ground, sang while the rolling balls carried them back and forth, playing cymbals with their hands, and moving and bending their bodies in time with the music." This reference to the presence of Arab singing girls at the Sicilian court, tantalizing though it is, gives us no reason to believe that Arab song forms were transferred to Sicily. We would need positive evidence of a more general diffusion, like that provided in the Andalusian context by Maimonides, to establish that Arabic culture was more generally known in Sicily. But this account does demonstrate the ongoing presence of Arabic culture, and an exposure to it at least at the highest levels of Sicilian society. And, of course, new evidence may emerge to change our perception of the penetration of Arabic cultural forms in thirteenth-century Sicily.
Sicily, like al-Andalus, teaches us not to oversimplify the history of cultural relations between Muslims and Christians in the borderland states of the medieval Mediterranean. The transition from Arabic cultural dominance to Latin hegemony in Sicily was achieved by means of an intricate series of negotiations between two cultures, communications and competitions that were always antagonistic but never simply oppositional. But unlike al-Andalus, Sicily gives us a breathtakingly swift synopsis of the drama of serial conquest in the northern Mediterranean. Al-Andalus does not provide the literary historian with this kind of compressed, dynamic movement; the events of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Sicily mirror and foreshadow events that began simultaneously but would take two more centuries to unfold on the Iberian peninsula. The Christian "reconquest" of southern Europe was first staged in Sicily, and its central theme—a tension between the naturalization of Muslim culture and the containment or expulsion of Muslim citizens—was first rehearsed there. In Sicily, however, the process of cultural and economic appropriation was telescoped into a brief historical moment. And the complex psychological drama that informed that process on a human level—the tension between desire and fear of the other, between ambition and the anxiety of influence—was condensed into three generations of a single dynasty. The saga of Christian conquest that in Spain—with its sprawling millennial history, and its huge cast of literary giants, journeymen, and curiosities—was something of an epic, in Sicily was played out as tragic opera.