The Words of Bernfrieda, A Chronicle of Hauteville by Gabriella Brooke
NOTE: For those of you traveling with us to Southern Italy, or simply interested in finding out more about this region, we’ve included an annotated reading list at the end of this review.
If your knowledge of the Normans in southern Italy is anything like mine, you’ll have a huge blind spot in your rear view mirror about this century and a half of southern European history. Sure, we all know that the Normans settled in Sicily, hence the peculiar blonde and blue-eyed southern Italians. But how did this come to pass? Gabriella Brooke has written a delightful novel about this fascinating period in Norman and southern Italian history to help you fill the void. But first, the scene.
Two major historic phenomena occurred within a few generations around the turn of the millennium, 1000 A.D. First, there was an agricultural revolution that resulted in increased productivity throughout Europe, especially in northwest Europe. The major impact of this "green" revolution was a significant population increase. Cities began to grow, commerce increased, and young knights and foot soldiers of noble families began to roam Europe looking for adventure and fortune, in the form of land and war booty. Second, Islam was spreading swiftly west through North Africa and from there into Europe. By 950 Cyprus, Crete, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, the Balearic Islands and about two-thirds of Iberia were Muslim.
The result of these two "movements" was, among other things, the phenomenon of the Crusades, with the first one launched in 1096 to take the Holy Land back from Islam. Before that, though, "Christian" Europe struggled to regain control of many of these Mediterranean islands and border lands. The Normans, fierce soldiers who had settled on the coast of France from Scandinavia, made themselves readily available to help with this reconquest of southern Europe. They found their services very much in demand in the south of Italy where minor, Christian fiefdoms loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor were establishing themselves and carving territory out of what were previously Byzantine holdings, governed from Constantinople.
Professor Brooke’s story begins in a monastery in Calabria in 1061. The reader is immediately taken back to Normandy at the turn of the millennium by the narrator, Bernfrieda, servant of Lady Fredesenda, who was the mother of Robert Guiscard and Rogier de Hauteville, principal historic actors in the drama of the Normans in southern Italy. The story is much more complicated than this, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
A number of things make this book unique but what is most interesting is that it is narrated from the perspective of a servant and a woman. In short, Professor Brooke has put herself in the shoes of a woman observing the events of history as they transpire around her. Even more unique, of course, is the fact that the narrator is a woman at a time when women were hardly educated and rarely were allowed to learn to write. Indeed, they were treated as chattel, had few if any personal rights, and disobeyed their fathers or husbands at the risk of banishment and death. (Perhaps the kindest form of punishment was to be sent to a convent for life.)
The story woven here is set primarily in Normandy as the author sets the scene and describes the historic circumstances of this extended family as, one by one, the sons set off for southern Europe. Bernfrieda finishes her narrative in a monastery in southern Italy and then, later, in Sicily, as she completes the family chronicles.
It takes a skilled and imaginative scholar and writer to weave an historically accurate tale that both entertains and educates the reader. Professor Brooke possesses all of these qualities and has written a wonderfully entertaining novel that will send you off to the library or the internet to research further gaps in your own historic understanding of this period of European history. And if you are ready for further reading she includes a short bibliography of her sources, including such fascinating and classic works as Marc Bloch on Feudal Society, Georges Duby on women in history, John Julius Norwich on The Normans in Sicily, and Reay Tannahill with her fascinating study of Food in History. Have fun!
Preparing for Southern Italy – An Annotated Reading List
This list is designed for a broad range of interests. But the focus is on history, personal travel narratives and a few novels. It is appropriate for anyone traveling by bike, foot, bus, car or train south of Naples, including Calabria, Puglia, Basilicata, and Sicily. I have organized the annotated reading list by historic periods.
If you aren’t up on your Hannibal in Italy, you may want to read or re-read Livy’s The War with Hannibal. This is Titus Livius’ account of Hannibal and the second Punic war (217-203 BC), a war that probably had more of an impact on the geography and history of Italy than any other single historic event. Livy followed this volume with Rome and the Medterranean, a history of Roman conquest throughout the region until its dominance in 167 B.C.
The Normans and the Medieval Period
Besides The Words of Bernfrieda (reviewed above) you may want to read John Julius Norwhich’s books The Normans in the South and The Kingdom in the Sun (published by Penguin Books in a single volume: The Normans in Sicily in 1992).
Frederick the Second (Frederick II)
The great historical figure in Puglia and Sicily was Frederick the Second (Frederick II), last of the Holy Roman emperors and of the Hohenstaufen, heirs of the Norman rulers of Sicily and all of south Italy. Frederick was especially fond of Puglia and built castles and monuments all over the place. The more you understand him, the better you’ll understand Puglia in 1240.
Probably the most readable volume on Frederick is, David Abulafia’s Frederick II, A Medieval Emperor. There are others but don’t buy them, find them in the library and peruse them: Patience Andrewes: Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1970 – almost a pamphlet);
Thomas Curtis Van Cleve: The Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, Immutator Mundi (1972, Oxford, Clarendon Press)
Ernst Kantorowicz: Frederick The Second, 1194 – 1250 (1931).
Frederick was rather a renaissance man – a Leonardo before his time, perhaps. He was a bird watcher and kept notebooks on natural history, and he was interested in mathematics and geometry. He built a number of castles and forts, among them the famous, Castel del Monte, which we visit on our Puglia tour. I’ve found the following book by a German fellow that explores every aspect (historical, geometrical and architectural) of this building, putting it into context and comparing it with drawings to other buildings in Japan, Spain, the Middle East and Pakistan. (This guy is a fanatic but if you’re into octagons, you’d better find this book!)
Heinz Gotze: Castel del Monte, Geometric Marvel of the Middle Ages (The version I have is the English translation of the 3rd German edition published in 1991; the English edition was published in 1998 by Prestel-Verlag, Munich and New York).
History of Southern Italy and Sicily in General
Denis Mack Smith (look under Mack Smith, not Smith) has been the leading historian for books on the history of southern Italy: A History of Sicily (Medieval Sicily 800-1713); This is good for context. Remember that Puglia and Sicily were one (under the Normans, Hohenstaufens, Habsburgs and Spaniards) until Napoleon’s time. You can read only the parts relating to Puglia, Sicily, or whatever region you intend to visit.
Italy, Fascism and the "Southern Question"
The "question" or "problem" of the south has plagued Italy for centuries. Even today the northern politician, Umberto Bossi, wants to divide Italy into two or three parts and split off the south. Two books and two authors who captured the essence of poverty and peasant society in the south during the Fascist era are Ignazio Silone and Carlo Levi. Both intellectuals, both were exiled in the south and wrote classics about their experience. You may have read these. If not, it is a great place to start. (Neither are set in Puglia or Sicily, but the problems of poverty and the south are universal throughout southern Italy).
Ignazio Silone: Bread and Wine (should be widely available both in bookstores and in your library); and Carlo Levi: Christ Stopped at Eboli (also widely available).
Modern Travel Literature
George Gissing, the English writer, published a small volume in 1901 after a month-long trip in southern Italy and Puglia in late 1897. It is almost a pamphlet, is well written, and is, I think, a wonderful example of how travel memoirs should be written: some introspection, plenty of history, some local characters and color, and short! Gissing spent most of his time in Calabria looking for historic sites of Greek settlements but he also gets to Taranto in Puglia:
George Gissing: By the Ionian Sea: Notes of a Ramble in Southern Italy (1901); this should be available in new and used form; also libraries should have it. (I’m just now reading John Keahey’s A Sweet and Glorious Land, a book in which he recounts his following Gissing’s travels. I’m not impressed.)
Norman Douglas, English diplomat, author, and traveler wrote Old Calabria in 1913-14 and it was first published in 1915. It recounts his travels in and ruminations over the history of Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria. Few have done as fine a job in combining travel and historical writing.
Mary Taylor Simetti, the author of On Persephone’s Island, a wonderful book about life, times and history in Sicily, has also written a book called Travels with a Medieval Queen (2001) about the travels of Constance of Hauteville, daughter of Roger II, Norman king of Sicily. She married the son of Frederick Barbarossa and was the mother of Frederick II, king of Sicily and Puglia. The book retraces the route Queen Constance took in 1194/95 from Germany back to Sicily. I’ve started this book and have not been enthralled by it. Also, the reviews are not as good as those for Persephone’s Island great but you might want to look at it.
If Sicily is in your sites, you might pick up Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, a novel about life and times among the Sicilian nobility as the centuries-old social structure was changing at the time Garibaldi began the unification of Italy in 1860.