Muslim migration to Sicily under King Roger’s Norman rule

Several previous blog posts have discussed the role of Muslims in Sicily and Southern Italy which was most active during the ninth to eleventh centuries. Recently several Greek and Arabic documents discovered from the time of the rule of King Roger de Hauteville dealing with land disputes around the St. George’s of Troccoli monastery have been translated. They provide a window into the unique society that existed at the time. While it’s known that the Normans had quite a tolerant rule from the time of their takeover of Sicily under Prince Robert Guiscard, that tolerance seems to have gone beyond maintaining the status quo of a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual kingdom to actualy seeing the immigration of Muslims to Christian Norman Sicily.

St. George’s of Troccoli monastery, was located near Sant Anna, Sicily which is about 15 kilometers inland from Sciacca. The monastery was dedicated by the Normans to St. George in 1098 because of the legend of the Saint leading crusaders to victory in the battle of Antioch during the First Crusade, so likewise they wanted to remember the many Norman knights who died fighting the Muslims to conquer Sicily.

Like the rest of feudal Europe, the monastery owned significant lands which were worked by villeins, or free serfs. A census-like exercise from 1141 identified the names of 115 men which are assumed to be heads of households which 15 of them were described as recently arrivals. 13 of 15 newly settled villeins have their place of origin indicated as al-Ifriiqii or “the (North) African” along with many surnames of al-Hilaal suggesting origin from the Banu Hilal Arab tribe which settled in North Africa.

Sicily had many Arab and Berber Muslims, in addition to native converts, whose families settled Sicily during the Islamic rule. While it appears many of these men were likely descendants of those villeins settled by Count Roger in 1097-1098, the 15 new arrivals appear to have been free migrants as they were unknown by Roger’s royal Diwan administration meaning they weren’t slaves as they would have been documented as such.

Records show a great famine occurring in North Africa from 1141-1142 followed by a plague in the winter of 1147-1148. Urban elites and rural poor migrated. It’s speculated that these new arrivals were poorer people who migrated before the famine as they were settled by 1141.

It seems strange that Muslims would migrate from North Africa, during the time of the crusades, to Sicily which was recently “re-conquered” from the Muslims to work as serfs for a Christian monastery unless the situation was rather dire there. It’s maybe even stranger that the Normans, who were a leading cadre of the Crusader forces, allowed the migration of Muslims to their Kingdom. This speaks a lot to the tolerant culture and government that existed in Sicily from the Islamic rule that continued with the Normans. Despite even the Crusades occurring these populations lived together in a truly unique multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual kingdom where Catholic Norman Latins, Orthodox Greeks, and Sunni and Shia Muslims who were natives, Berber and Arab lived together, even holding prominent roles in the government.

These documents show that migration in the past was very much driven by the same forces it is today, seeking opportunities or just trying to survive. While a lot of attention is focused on culture wars today, we can also see that even in the backdrop of actual war (remember that the Catholic Crusaders also very much disliked non-Catholic Christians as well as Muslims) these different communities lived in coexistence without attempts of forced assimilation.

For those interested in the entire contents of the documents and their translations, they can refer to the paper The Twelfth-century documents of St. George’s of Troccoli (Sicily) by von Falkenhausen, Jamil and Johns available on Academia.edu.

Photo of Sicilian coast by Flicker User Riccardo Maria Mantero

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