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Several years ago after reading John Julius Cooper 2nd Viscount Norwich's peerless three volume set on the history of Byzantium, I was on the lookout for more of his material. His earlier two volume work on the history of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily had alas been out of print for some while.

All hail to Faber then for deciding to republish - may their paths be strewn with rose petals and may angels carry then to their rest. I have not been disappointed in my anticipation. Norwich here in this first volume displays the same masterful storytelling on this amazing period of history, covering the years from the first semi-mythical visit of some Norman pilgrims to Monte Sant' Angelo in 1016, through the arrival of the numerous sons of Tancred de Hauteville including the larger than life figure of Robert Guiscard and his Amazonian warrior-princess wife Sichelgaita, and finishing with the founding of the Kingdom of Sicily under Roger II in 1130. He writes with knowledge and wit, and unlike many historical writers does not depart into flights of speculation where details are vague.

Norwich embarked on the writing of this work after a holiday to southern Italy when he found to his dismay that there was no accessible English language account available covering the Normans in that region, and decided to write one himself. "I only wish I could do [the Normans] greater justice" he declares in conclusion to his introduction. The only person he does an injustice to is himself with that remark. Historical narrative doesn't come any better than this.

I'm now eagerly awaiting the forthcoming republication of the second volume, The Kingdom in the Sun, 1130-1194.
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on 11 August 2012
Norman rule in Sicily is one of the most fascinating episodes of medieval history (and a contrast to the simultaneous Norman Conquest of England). Starting first as pilgrims in south Italy, then mercenaries for Byzantines and Lombards, the Normans became first feudal lords, then Dukes, then Kings of Sicily, in a remarkably short time. This rapid expansion was led by the Hautevilles - minor lords in Normandy who founded one of Europe's leading dynasties, including, in Bohemond and Tancred, some of the greatest/most notorious of the crusader princes. This book (the first) covers this remarkable rise to power. The second book covers the Norman Kingdom of Sicily - famous for its wealth, arts, scholarship and above all tolerance of Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic subjects - in stark contrast to the intolerance of the Crusades and most of medieval Europe.

John Julius Norwich visited Sicily himself, became fascinated with the history, couldn't find any accessible books in English, and so wrote one himself (and went on to write better known classics, on the Byzantines, Venice and the Popes). So he is deliberately telling a fascinating story in a readable way, rather than an academic history - which makes it a reasonably easy read. It sometimes shows its age (using Gibbon's Decline and Fall as a source) but his style means it has dated well.

It is perhaps not an absolute classic - it doesn't have the depth of knowledge and skill of writing of for example Runciman's 'Sicilian Vespers' (more recently, Tom Holland's Millennium covers this and and much more) . And it is quite long. But I would highly recommend it either for anyone interested in early medieval history, or planning a holiday to Sicily and interested in a fascinating period of its history.
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on 18 December 2012
Excellent, witty, urbane summary of the astonishing adventures of a small group of mercenary freebooters from what became north west France in the 11th and 12th centuries. The Norman combination of courage, ingenuity,luck, brutality and taste for the outline of legal support for their rapacity creates a saga that bears much re-telling.
The Kingdom of Sicily remained for many years a brilliant tribute to the Norman genius for state making, a Mediterranean echo of the chillier conquest of England.
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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 successor, Kingdom in the Sun, 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.
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on 31 May 2017
I have always resisted the over-exposed JJN whose books could probably stretch around the perimeter of the Mediterranean but I have to say I was won over by the way he brings the historic characters to life, the apparent authority of his research and the simple pleasure of the good writing. However the Kindle version is much less good value that the best paperback version which includes the two Sicilian Norman books in one.
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on 4 September 2010
History is incredibly fortunate to have biographers such as Norwich.

Yet another extraordinary book that gives the non-historian insight into specific periods in history without burdening you with too many dates or too many peripheral characters. I so enjoyed this book that we are travelling to Sicily next year to see the sights where no other tourists will be. Norwich is very clever in revealing the personalities of his subjects whilst trying not to take sides, he also manages to illustrate how the main characters thought strategically which is unusual and difficult in a book that specialises in the C11 and C12.

Even if you are not particularly interested in the Normans in Sicily, the whole structure and speed of this book is utterly absorbing and is a must if you like history at all
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on 29 May 2013
I did like very much. Am a fan of John Julius Norwich and have several books by him. I like his style informative, light going, funny where necessary. Finding that it was a Faber production added a point because their bindings are generally much more durable than the majority. The price was also a factor in favour.
Talking about prices: when I did research the following book "The kingdom in the Sun" also by J.J.N. I was horrified at the cost so that one you can read it yourselves. Ciao for now.
E. Buffa
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This is an excellent popular history of the Normans - the Viking people that occupied NW France, got feudal recognition and were absorbed into the local culture, and then expanded outward with exceptional dynamism. Theirs was an absolutely remarkable rise, from pillagers to nobility and finally, statesmen and relatively enlightened sovereigns. While their takeover of Britain (the last time the island was invaded, let alone conquered) is well known, their career in the South has received relatively little attention. This wonderfully readable book remedies that in a series of stories that are at once scholarly and fun.

When the Normans arrived in southern Italy, they were little more than a mercenary force, indeed thieves. They may have been able to boast they were born of French feudal lords, but they were essentially adventurers with nothing. Their brutality was as remarked upon as their thirst for status and glory. At the time of their arrival in 1016, Italy was uneasily divided between the germanic Lombards, Greeks with ties to Byzantium, and the papacy. Sicily was occupied at the time by various sultans, a culturally rich if unstable mix with Greeks and Latins as well.

The Normans, and in particular the family of the Hautevilles, came onto the scene and clawed their way to the top. Robert, dubbed the Guiscard, became a major figure, eventually gaining the title of Duke of Apulia from the Pope, who annointed sovereigns all over western christendom. With his brother Roger, with whom he occasionally warred, he brought order to the South and opened an invasion of Sicily. Though constantly at war with unruly lords sworn to him under feudal obligation, Robert was merciful and tolerant once in power, to the surprise of his critics. Both of them were leaders of genius, combining brute force with diplomacy, winning loyalty from locals, if sometimes allowing their knights to pillage conquered territories. Their rise is all the more remarkable in that they rarely had more than a few hundred Normal followers in their fighting forces, with locals making up the difference in infantry and shock troops.

Once Robert installed Roger in Sicily - with the barest beach head bases and a fighting force of 300 knights or so - he left him to his own devices. SLowly, Roger conquered the island, toppling one Emir at a time, developing a navy, and patiently waiting out many a rebellion. Because he needed local support, he was tolerant of both arabs and greeks, allowing them to keep their religious observances and cultures while opening administrative and military careers to talent from their ranks. The result was an astounding success, with a leadership unusually enlightened for the times. Roger's only surviving son, Roger II, took over and continued these shrewd and prudent policies, playing off the rivalries of the papal court to be ordained as King of the South. That is where the book ends, with Sicily on the verge of becoming the greatest beacon of culture and commerce of its age.

This is a delight to read, though it took me a while to get into it. There are flashes of analyses of historical forces, wonderful sketches of the personalities, and painting of the wider context as the Crusades begin.

Recommended warmly.
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on 17 March 2015
JJN has an eye for detail, a way with a phrase and a gift for drawing personalities out of a dry history that really brings it to life.
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on 21 August 2014
A very interesting "history" book which is also extremly entertaining.
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