Having recently finished John Julius Norwich’s two volume history of Norman Sicily, The Normans in the South and The Kingdom in the Sun, I was particularly intrigued by some of the information that I absorbed in relation to demographics, despite the fact that the topic only forms a small part of the books. Not only because it once again raises the question of just how timeless the faults of multiculturalism and its relationship with elites is, but also how the author tried to gloss over and make excuses for the obvious realities he was documenting and attempting to explain.
One of the key aspects of the dissident right, both online and in the real world, at least to some degree, is the belief that in the past our ancestors were ‘based’ and that the modern world is ‘cucked’. This theme was probably strongest during the 2016-17 period, and it is largely true in many regards. However, I knew from my own knowledge that this narrative was slightly exaggerated, and Norman Sicily really does lift the lid on the similarities between the past and present. From a military perspective of course, the Normans were brilliant, and there’s no question that they rank far higher than our current ruling elite. They were also much more spiritually aware, and lacked the crippling nihilism so endemic in the modern West. Yet if you peer a little deeper into their society, you find realities that are depressingly similar to today.
One of the most startling revelations in the book was that, once their conquest of Sicily and southern Italy was complete, the Royal Family decided to mostly favour their newly conquered Muslim and Greek subjects over the Norman lords and mercenaries that had helped them literally create a Kingdom. You would think that, as with most feudal societies, the barons would be given top jobs as a way for the monarch to keep them on side, and reward them for the struggles of campaigning. Yet instead, the House of Hauteville gave their fellow Normans land and then essentially abandoned them. The top positions in the civil service and navy went to the Muslims and Greeks, and even at the Royal Palaces these two groups lived and worked where most Norman barons could barely get a look in.
The Royal Family, like most elites in the West today, were primarily concerned with not offending the competing demographic groups on the island, and so played a delicate balancing act in regards to the Greeks and Muslims; the former having lived there since ancient times, whilst the latter had arrived just a few centuries before. These two ethnoreligious groups were appeased in order to maintain stability and prevent societal fractures. This meant that, in practise, if Muslims committed crimes against Greeks in Palermo, or Greeks committed crimes against Muslims in Messina, the Kings made sure it was either swept under the carpet, or dealt with before word got out to the general population. As the decades of Norman rule went by, and more Latins (Italian Catholics) emigrated from the mainland, they themselves were gradually given positions as their population rose, meaning that the House of Hauteville now had 3 populations to appease and placate. Ironically, during their initial campaign of conquest in Sicily, the Hautevilles had used crusading rhetoric to justify both their conquest and the raising of troops. Yet as soon as the war was over, they indulged and rewarded the very people they had sworn to wipe out, and went so far that they alienated their own soldiers and friends who had borne the burden of campaigning.
You would think that, after conquering a foreign island in a volatile region, and being a minority, the Normans would stick together for the sake of survival. Yet in reality the complete opposite happened, and the consequences were dire. The Norman barons, pushed to the side immediately after their conquest, and as a result deeply resentful, launched rebellion after rebellion, siding with all kinds of foreign powers. The Kings, despite dealing with such armed insurrections at least twice every decade, never learnt the lesson of keeping their own group close. After each rebellion was quashed, the Kings went back to their palaces and kept their fellow Normans at arm’s length, and even used Muslims to fight their own Norman Lords when they rebelled. This inevitably led to further animosity.
Interestingly, throughout the entire century-long history of Norman Sicily, there was never an attempt to expel the Muslim population. The Normans never sided with the Greeks (fellow Christians) to forcefully deport them to North Africa, and as far as the evidence suggests no policy was ever seriously considered. Ironically, the Sicilian Normans joined crusades against the Muslims in the Levant, and conquered Muslim cities in North Africa like Tripoli, yet they couldn’t bring themselves to expel the Muslims living next door to them. It reminds me of our current period, where neoliberal governments can launch military offensives and/or occupations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, which result in hundreds of thousands of Muslim deaths, yet those same neoliberal governments also claim that expelling Muslims from the West would be bad for human rights. Selective morality is a millennia-old phenomenon.
The author of the two books, John Julius Norwich, who I mentioned at the start, was a great writer and much missed historian, and his books on the Normans in the Mediterranean are a great read. Yet the mental gymnastics he displays on the issue of ethnicity to keep his liberal narrative on track is sad to read, especially considering the books were written 50 years ago, when political correctness was still in its infancy. He consistently asserts the ‘enlightened multiculturalism’ of the Norman kingdom, yet also admits that affirmative action was needed to stop the Greeks and Muslims from feuding with each other. He also emphasises the tolerant nature of the society, yet several pages later admits all ethnicities were segregated, and that inter-ethnic crime regularly occurred in times of hardship and rebellion.
There are two lessons from these books in regards to demographics – lessons people on this side of the internet have already learnt, yet the author ironically refused to learn. The first is that elites care more about their own power than their own group’s demographic interest, and will impose whatever system keeps them in power, even if it means giving preferential treatment to other groups rather than their own. The second lesson is that as soon as central authority is removed in the cities, the different ethnoreligious groups immediately go to war in the form of rioting, rape, theft and arson. Indeed, even when 12th century Sicily enjoyed peace, the power struggle between ethnic groups in affluent suburbs for civil office is very reminiscent of modern day London or Chicago. The author tried to gloss over all this by focusing on things like the Muslim architecture which the Normans admired and fused with their own, which is almost the medieval equivalent of the ‘amazing range of restaurants’ argument for immigration to modern day Britain.
The overall reality was that the kings were more concerned with appeasing and stabilising the various sectarian entities in order to maintain the Kingdom’s maritime economy, and as a result assisting their own demographic interests was seen as both politically insensitive and dangerous. This medieval reality is all too similar to our own modern day political struggle. Whatever period of history you live in it seems, some things never change.