1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Having hugely enjoyed the first volume, I approached this one with great anticipation. People I respected as deep readers of history had recommended these books to me for years, even though it covers, well, a pretty obscure chapter of the middle ages.
The story takes up at the moment when Roger II, the son, has been anointed by the Pope as sovereign of Sicily and a large portion of Southern Italy. Roger II earned this as the only major political leader to support the Pope in a divisive schism, for which he was to prove decisively useful in exchange for the legitimacy conferred. As king, it is he who garners the loyalty by feudal oath and contract of the various lords who are installed in the many localities under his nominal control. Though much of his reign is taken up by quelling rebellions on the peninsula (Norman lords wanted more influence than he cared to bestow), Roger II proved himself to be one of the ablest of feudal lords: while courageous and willing to use force, he combined that with talents for diplomacy, great attention to administrative detail, a lively intellectual life, and a politician's luck in timing - and knowing when to wait, in particular in defense against Emperors who coveted his lands. As a result, Sicily knew its only truly golden age, emerging as a major power in an era of petty autocracies, evolving empires, and religious strife; it became rich, building a number of architectural masterpieces (e.g. Cefalu cathedral), and tolerant of its many ethnic and religious groupings. Indeed, the way that Roger II balanced the various factions he contended with proves he had a first-rate political mind. As an administrator, he built a secure and prosperous state, with an eye to the long term. Unfortunately, once he was gone, his successors never displayed the combination of skills that Roger II was able to balance. While they could fight, most of them preferred to retreat to the pleasures of the court or their harems, living in luxury and decadence, yet hardly thinking of the future. It took over 50 years, but the Norman state eventually crumbled under their incompetences and the way that the ethnic balance shifted over 100 years (i.e. more Latins at the expense of Greeks and Arabs). That is the essential narrative.
Unfortunately, the coverage of the issues underlying the era is spotty. While inadvertently mentioned in asides, I would have liked much more detail about them. Norwich praises the eclectic culture that emerged with unprecedented tolerance (not a Christian virtue, but learned from the Moslem populations on the island), but I felt very hungry to learn more. I also did not get as good a sense of the political science that was operating during the period, i.e. how the feudal state was supposed to work, what powers the Pope had as spiritual and political overseer, and how the Holy Roman and Byzantine empires were governed, in particular during the Crusades. That was disappointing.
That being said, there is much to learn here - on Feudalism, the Papacy, and royal customs and behavior. I am very glad I read it. Norwich is a truly masterful writer of popular histories. His greatest virtue is that he understands how to approach history as a story and the dazzling personalties of the period, from Eleanor of Acquitaine and Richard the Lion Heart to Barbarossa and countless others. This book reads fluently, quickly, and sustains the reader's interest throughout. However, the analyses that are thrown in are sparse, as are references to culture. Recommended with these caveats.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 10 January 2011
I really enjoyed this book along with 'The Normans in the South' which is the book which precedes it. John Julius Norwich writes in such an easy-reading and entertaining style. He brings to life a period of such splendour in Sicily and one which really enriches one's understanding of the early middle ages in Europe and the East. It is not dry and intellectual as the plain cover might imply. I am very grateful to Faber and Faber for bringing this great book back into print.
on 8 October 2013
Lord Norwich is a first class writer, the narrative never lags. The only thing is that he packs so much information into his books that they require an immense amount of concentration to read and a memory of superior quality to mine to absorb. I first read his condensed edition of Byzantium which gave me an enthusiasm for his erudition. Then I bought the full three volume work and I must have read it three times before, being completely carried away, I visited Istanbul and felt that I already knew the city and its history inside out.
Now this book and its predecessor, Normans in the South, have given me a burning desire to go to Sicily. I will still need to read each one twice more before I go but it will reward me with a deep understanding of the ancient history of this, the Mediterranean's largest Island. It helps that I have visited Constantinople and most of the Crusader forts in what are now Lebanon, Syria and Jordan but the anticipation of seeing the treasures of Sicily sends a tingle of pleasure down my spine.
If I have a gripe, and this is not a serious one, it is that the two books should be bundled together and it slightly annoyed me having to buy each volume seperately.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 27 February 2014
The literary content is absolutely brilliant and worthy of five stars plus. John Julian Norwich is an excellent writer, he brings the history alive to such an extent that he had me sitting with baited breath at times as if reading a thriller. I highly recommend it to anyone with a love of history, and the activity of the Normans conquering southern Italy and Sicily in particular, at roughly the same time that William was busily overpowering the English.
Why not give the book five stars then, you may ask. The blank star is for the way this particular volume has been bound. It is a thick paper back, which for me, is normally more comfortable (lighter) to read than a hardbacked book of the same size as I do much of my reading in the early hours of the morning when it is too early to get up and start the day.
However, this volume is so tightly bound that not only is some of the detail of the double-paged map of southern Italy at the back of the book lost, but is difficult to keep open comfortably without putting undue strain on it. Because I like to see where the cities and towns described are located, I decided to borrow the book from the library in order to photocopy the offending map (which I now use as a useful and immediately accessible bookmark). To my surprise, the library volume was also paperbacked and to all outward appearances, identical to the one I had purchased from Amazon but it is about 5mm thicker (measurements of each spine-width compared); stays open without difficulty; and no detail is lost on the two-page map. The library book had relatively recently been bought, I was its second borrower. Those few extra millimetres make all the difference to the comfort and enjoyment of reading a book... why, oh why the discrepancy?
I buy many books from Amazon. This is the first time I have found the binding to be unsatisfactory.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 28 July 2013
Volume 2 of Norwich's history begins with Roger's success in forcing the Pope to crown him and make Sicily a kingdom. This started Norman Sicily' Golden Age (perhaps Sicily's only one), whether measured by political power, beautiful architecture, intellectual curiosity, or religious tolerance. Norwich focuses on the first two; this is mostly a chronological political history, with asides to cover the greatest Norman Sicilian buildings (based on Norwich's visits in the 1960s - and partly written up when he was stuck in Sudan by the 1967 Six Days War).
The political focus means there is less space for economic and social history - what life was actually like for Sicilians during the Golden Age. But the sheer fascination of the period makes up for that. It has everything: Byzantine, German and Muslim Emperors; Saints and Popes (rarely the same people); noble rebellions and religious wars; Sicilian Muslims, Greeks and Jews; and castles, palaces and cathedrals. And the great overarching drama of Norman Sicily's spectacular rise, and then decline, ending a uniquely tolerant era in an intolerant age.
This is both a great piece of medieval history writing and a fascinating insight into Sicilian history. So good for either those interested in history or anyone visiting Sicily - if you are both, you are really in luck.