Muslims in medieval peninsular southern Italy; Part 2- Perspectives of the other

The presence of Muslims in southern Italy in the ninth and tenth centuries brought about a new layer in the complex political and cultural tapestry of the region. It is no surprise that the religious establishment was generally opposed to the Muslims on theological grounds. This opposition particularly manifested and intensified during the reign of Pope John VIII. However secular leaders seemed to have a much more pragmatic approach.

In understanding their perspectives of the Muslims it is necessary to put them in historical context. Although they would seem to be the obvious “other” their customs and practices would not generally be perceived as so foreign in contrast to even some other Christian sects of the time and Italy was one of the most multi-cultural regions of the period with Greek and Latin populations as well as political dynasties including the Papal states, Lombards, Byzantines, Merovingians and Carolingians.

The more pragmatic approach of secular leaders was no surprise where, just as today, profits overcome prejudice. The increased economic prosperity especially of the Campania region coincided with the opening of trade with the Islamic world which further augmented with the establishment of Fatimid rule in much of North Africa. The city of Amalfi in particular blossomed during this period as one of the only ports actively trading with the Muslim world, Byzantium and Western Europe.

What was most troubling to some of the religious establishment was not just the ambivalence of some of their faithful brethren to the infidel but an even more familiar relationship with them. The Neapolitans were the first to bring Arab mercenaries to the peninsula building on the expanding trading links. The Gaetans even invited some Arab mercenaries to settle in Gaeta to buffer the city state from both the Capuans and ironically the Papal States. The Neapolitans had apparently sided with the Aghlabids and were present at the conquest of Messina in Sicily from the Byzantines. Pope Louis II in his 871 letter to the Byzantine emperor Basil the Macedonian described Naples as a “second Palermo (the Arab-Islamic capital of Sicily) or Africa.”

Pope John VIII suggested that Naples, Salerno and Amalfi had some sort of pacts in place with the Aghlabids which seems to be the case given the stable commercial relationships and relative peace. There is even some speculation that these cities were receiving war booty from the raiding campaigns in the interior. Though the relationship was far from amicable as these mercenaries easily changed sides fighting for and against the various city states of Campania. This chaos reached its pinnacle during the reign of Athanasius II of Naples whereupon after requesting and receiving Byzantine military support he dispatched his Byzantine unit side by side with his Arab mercenaries to fight a mixed force of Capuans, Benevetans and other Arab mercenaries. Clearly Arab Muslims were yet another player in the complex patchwork of southern Italy.

Medieval chroniclers also recorded some of the exploits of these Arabs. One story in Annales Bertiniani mentions how some Arab raiders from the Adriatic captured a bishop and were holding him for ransom when he met his untimely death. However even this could not derail their plans so they dressed him in full regalia and returned him to the ransomers to collect payment. Before they could discover they ransomed a corpse the raiders had already boldly escaped. In addition to stories of their daring and cunning, other stories paint these Arabs in a more chivalrous light. Another chronicle mentions a raiding band preparing to sack San Vincenzo which had recently been razed by an earthquake. The leader of the Muslim band called of the raid feeling that God had sufficiently punished the monks. Although the veracity of these accounts can be questioned they no doubt exhibit a more favorable perspective that at least some Italians had of these Muslims. Shrewdness and boldness were characteristics revered by the Lombards and one can’t help but detect some admiration on their part of the feats of these newcomers.

Pope John, ever the adversary of the Muslims, finally organized an anti-Muslim coalition of Salerno, Gaeta, Amalfi, Naples and Capua in 876 after applying considerable pressure and personally visiting the region. Surely the Christian world was still in shock from the sacking of Rome about three decades prior and the Papal States remained under threat with Pope John himself even paying the Arab raiding bands off not to attack. However his coalition was short-lived and even opposed even by some of his own bishops and by 880 things got so bad that Pope John excommunicated the population of Amalfi and the whole duchy of Naples. Much to his disappointment, this did not seem to influence their position toward the Muslims

The story becomes more complicated when taking into account something mentioned in the Divisio treaty of 849 in which one section discussed the expulsion of Saracens (Arabs) from Salerno and Benevento except those who became Christian in the time of Sico and Sicard. Sico died in 832 so some Arabs must have already been settled and perhaps were already Christian. Unfortunately we don’t know why they chose to settle in Italy nor the sincerity of their conversion.

This brief overview of the complex and varied perspectives of Muslims in southern Italy as well as the perspectives of the various players in the region of each other. Clearly there was no monolithic position and the more open or pragmatic approach of some was dictated by their own interests whether commercial or military. More surprising still are the more positive and human views held by some. Although the role the Muslims played in this part of southern Italy’s history is largely forgotten or intentionally suppressed it no doubt had many impacts which will be discussed in a coming post. Much of what has been mentioned shouldn’t come as a surprise and can provide many lessons for us today in a world which is also coming under pressure from extremists and agitators. I highly recommend Barbara M. Kreutz’s Before the Normans if you are interested in this period of history and I hope you follow the blog if you’ve enjoyed this post.

The photo is of Procida Island of the coast of Naples.


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