John Julius Norwich:
John Julius Norwich’s series dedicated to the Normans of Sicily is the ultimate Sicilian historic read.
The Norman period in Sicily was a medieval renaissance, a golden age of enlightenment despite the backdrop of darkness in Europe. Norwich was a formidable historian and storyteller, and these books read like a charming historical novel, shedding light upon a lesser known period of the islands past.
This specific historical period is particularly evocative and is linked to images of crusading knights who left for the holy land from the port of Messina and the French Norman kings who battled with Saracean armies who had been ruling Sicily for centuries as a peaceful Arab Emirate. It’s fascinating to think that in the early middle ages Sicily spoke Arab, Greek and Latin and Palermo was a melting pot of culture, education and science.
The first Norman King Roger of Hautville, actually combined the best of the Arab and Latin worlds which made his Sicilian court a single source of enlightenment and wealth, while the rest of Europe was going through the dark ages.
Today, unfortunately, apart from many medieval castles, dotted around strategic coastal and inland locations there is precious little left in the form of documents which reflect this Sicilian Renaissance, only fragments remain of the developments made in Sicilian literature, science, agriculture and geography.
As the Normans pushed out and exiled the Sicilian Arabs the only evidence of this extraordinary period are the remnants of Arabic in the Sicilian dialect, north African ingredients in the cuisine, converted mosques which have become churches and archaeological ruins of elaborate gardens which used irrigation systems introduced by the middle eastern conquerors of the island.
John Julius Norwich is a well known British historian, intellectual, aristocrat and personality, who chose the Norman Period as inspiration for some of his books and his work will make you fall in love with the rich tapestry of Sicilian history. Norwich discovered Sicily quite by accident in the 1960’s while searching out a sunny place for a vacation with his wife in mid-October they decided upon Sicily. Stumbling upon the island they immediately fell in love with the area, and he became obsessed with the neglected Norman monuments liberally dotted around the island.
Norwich has a gift of turning extensive historical information and jargon into something exciting and readable. While wading through the convoluted ancient texts which are the base of his books he was able to reveal the human element to the stories and mould the material into a fascinating story.
The son of a diplomat and British aristocrat, Norwich claims to be descended from King William IV. His education is impressive, he studied in Canada, at Eton and at the University of Strasbourg. Later he served in the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford.
He has written more than thirty different books on subjects as varied as Venetian history, Britain, the ancient Byzantine Empire, architecture, Shakespeare, Ancient History, The Papacy, several Novels, world literature and books for children.
Norwich’s two most recent books about Sicily (Sicily: A short history from the Greeks to Cosa Nostra and The Middle Sea: A history of the Mediterranean) are excellent introductions to the general history of the island and the whole area of the Mediterranean in. For anyone who doesn’t know much about the history of southern Europe, these books, in particular, are a perfect introduction.
All of John Julius Norwich’s books are available from the Book Depository.
(Featured image from Unsplash.com and others created on Canva)