Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

9. Islamic Golden Age |
The Norman intruders foil Islam

Islamic Golden Age is drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 224, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Muslim raiders occupy Sicily, take over Provence, block the Alpine passes, and repeatedly hit Rome until the now-Christian Vikings drive them off

Islamic Golden Age - The Norman intruders foil Islam’s campaign to kill off Christianity

Islamic Golden Age - The Norman intruders foil Islam’s campaign to kill off Christianity
The rugged coast of rocky Crete looks out upon the Mediterranean. The Muslims captured the island in 826, enslaved the Christian inhabitants and held it for 135 years. From Crete, they waged a century-long reign of terror against the Christian inhabitants of the whole Aegean area. The great sea, tranquil by summer, raging in winter, as Hardy observes, has seen many “deep wrongs.” But its beauty has long left man awestruck. “The grand object of traveling,” wrote the British essayist Samuel Johnson, “is to see the shores of the Mediterranean.”

For more than eight hundred years, the Mediterranean Sea had teemed every spring, summer and fall with mercantile traffic. Only the daring or desperate ventured out on its treacherous waters in the gale-ridden months from November to March, but in the sailing season, hundreds of ships crisscrossed its four-hundred-mile width, hauling grain from the Nile Delta and North Africa, exotic commodities from the Far East, and passengers in every direction. Out of this trade the great ports of Barcelona, Marseilles, Ostia, Bari, Corinth, Naples, Thessalonica, Tyre, Alexandria and Carthage had been born and prospered, uniting in a single civilization southern Europe, western Asia, and North Africa.

In the fifty years that followed the close of the seventh century, however, all this abruptly changed. The whirlwind Muslim conquest of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula gave Islam total control of the east, west and south coasts of the great sea, leaving only its north shores in Christian hands, and transforming the Mediterranean’s three-thousand-mile length of virtually tideless salt water into a war zone, almost bereft of mercantile traffic.

For the next three hundred and fifty years, from the mid-700s to the late 1000s, Muslim forces strove to conquer that remaining north coast, and along with it what little was left of the Christian religion. How perilously close they came to success few Christians, then or now, would ever realize. For most of those years, Christian ports along that north coast were under repeated Muslim attack. Three times, Muslim armies would assail Rome itself. One Rome-bound assault force would be beaten back at sea by an elderly and ailing warrior-pope with no naval experience, who personally assembled a grab-bag fleet, captained it to victory, and saved the city.

By the year 1100, the Muslims would be stopped, and all their conquests along the north coast east of Spain recovered. But the chief factor in their defeat would be a new player in the Mediterranean theater, the people known as the Normans, descendants of the Vikings who had settled in northern France, abandoned their tribal past, and with skill and zeal adopted the feudal system. Devout Christians though they now claimed to be, and in many respects doubtless were, they would move into Italy as brigands and mercenaries in search of booty, land, and slaves. The Muslims would quickly learn to hate and fear this new enemy, but no more than the Mediterranean Christians, much of whose land the Normans would unceremoniously usurp for themselves. For the Muslims, however, this dismaying reversal in the eleventh century would come after three centuries of almost unremitting victory, when the Christian lands on the north coast had seemed theirs for the taking.

Go back those three hundred years to the middle of the 700s, and one views Islam on the verge of a grand and final triumph that appeared inevitable. Its only decision was what to attack first. Christian Sicily looked attractive, the ten-thousand-square-mile island whose bulk divided the eastern Mediterranean from the western, its south coast only two days’ good sailing from the African shore, its northernmost point a mere two miles from the toe of the Italian Peninsula. But then, too, there was Christian Crete, lying south of Greece. Its land was mountainous, its coasts hazardous and its ports few, but it was closer than Sicily to the big Muslim base at Alexandria, and once taken, it would offer easy access to all the Christian islands of the Aegean. Churches could be quickly pillaged there, wealthy towns looted, babies and the aged slaughtered, and the able-bodied brought back to slave markets in Alexandria and Damascus, the comely women trans-shipped east to well-paying Turks and Mongols.

Finally, there was the great sea’s western basin. From Barcelona, the big port on the Spanish coast now in Muslim hands, corsairs could hit the whole southern littoral of Christian Provence, perhaps even take the port of Marseilles. Then the Christian islands of Corsica and Sardinia would be easy prey. Furthermore, a relatively small land force could hold the passes of the Alps, cutting off Italy from the Frankish and German Christians to the North, when the great day came for the knockout blow on Christian Rome.

Yet there were problems. By 750, Islam was already ceasing to be a single political entity as the Muslim Empire fragmented. Spain, which the Muslims called al-Andalus or Andalusia, had always shown tendencies to independence, and in 765 declared a separate caliphate. The Berbers of North Africa, now based at Tunis, soon did the same. Even Muslim Egypt was beginning to make its own plans. And it was in 750 that the Umayyad caliphs at Damascus were overthrown. Their mortal enemies, the triumphant Abbasids, lost no time transplanting the Arab capital to Baghdad, moving themselves and their priorities away from the Mediterranean.

From the viewpoint of Mediterranean Muslims, that was unfortunate. Conquering Christendom in the West meant first gaining undisputed control of the Mediterranean. It was superbly navigable. Other than in the winter, it was one of the world’s most benevolent bodies of water. Its tides, measured in fractions of an inch, produced none of the terrifying coastal currents created by the big ocean tides.1 The Mediterranean skies are so sunny that more water evaporates out of it than flows into it from its three major rivers–the Nile, the Po and the Rhone. The loss is replenished, however, from the Black Sea whose four “Big D” rivers–the Don, the Dniester, the Dnieper and the Danube–cause an outflow into the Aegean and Mediterranean. At its western extremity, the Mediterranean swaps water with the Atlantic through the Strait of Gibraltar, its own heavier, more saline flow running outbound along the bottom, while the waters of the Atlantic run inbound along the surface at up to nine miles an hour. This phenomenon, incidentally, made it notoriously difficult for medieval vessels to transit the strait outbound.2

The Mediterranean’s winter gales come out of the northeast, turning its waters into a churning cauldron that can send even heavy modern vessels running for port. Its four terrible winds have names. The mistral sweeps over the Gulf of Genoa. The bora rips across the Adriatic, then crosses the Italian peninsula to become the tramontana over Sicily and Malta. The subsidiary sea, the Aegean, suffers the terrors of the vardarac. The winds move into the northwest in spring and become gentle breezes, making for an easy passage from north to south or west to east. Northbound or westbound traffic must fight head winds, the westbound working along the north coast between the islands to take advantage of the onshore and offshore breezes of morning and evening. As long as the Christians held the north shore ports, this gave them a powerful advantage.

The warship of the age was the dromon–small and fast, with two banks of oars, a square sail on a main mast, and a small mast forward that carried a triangular “lateen” sail. Earlier models included a bow ram, below the waterline, to charge and sink enemy vessels. This was later replaced by a high, beak-like structure used as a bridge, so that boarding parties could capture rather than sink the enemy. Constantinople-based dromons carried siphons at the bow to project Greek fire, an early medieval variant of napalm, so decisive in turning back the Muslim assault on Constantinople in 717. (See earlier volume, The Sword of Islam, chapter 10.) Little is known of Muslim ships during the period, except that they were probably patterned on the Byzantine dromon. As the years passed, ships grew larger; one twelfth-century Egyptian vessel is recorded as carrying one hundred and forty oarsmen plus marines, sailors and officers.

Being in part oar-powered, the dromon had certain advantages over sailing vessels. It could cruise at nearly four miles an hour on a dead-calm sea. In battle, it could achieve seven to ten miles per hour for short bursts (i.e., up to twenty minutes), until the oarsmen were exhausted. But it had two major disadvantages. Each oarsman required a half-gallon of fresh water per day, so that a vessel must carry about one hundred eighteen-gallon barrels of water for a twenty-day cruise. That left little room for anything else.

More critical still, oars must be mounted close to the water to gain the maximum sweep, which gave oared ships a short freeboard (the distance from gunwale to waterline). This meant they could not take heavy seas, and must remain close to land. If they ventured out too far, the consequences could be quick and devastating. An oared dromon could be swamped by a single wave, with the loss of all aboard, and fleets of several hundred vessels could go down in one storm.

As the big Muslim offensive opened at the close of the eighth century, such a catastrophe happened to the mighty fleet sent in September 808 by the warrior sultan Harun against the Mediterranean island of Rhodes. The Muslims failed to take Rhodes, and the fleet commander later tried to pillage the tomb of St. Nicholas at the port of Myra, and robbed the wrong grave. Then, as his fleet headed home in October, a storm arose and sank most of it. Muslim or no, the awestruck commander fell on his knees and begged St. Nicholas to forgive him. He personally survived the disaster.

For the rest of the ninth century and well into the tenth, however, the Muslims suffered few defeats. Their strategy had not varied from the days of Muhammad. First came razzias, or raids, followed by temporary occupation, and finally conquest. Malta fell in 800, followed in 809 and 810 by Corsica and Sardinia. In 813, the Muslims raided Nice on the French coast. On the west coast of Italy, they hit Civitavecchia so hard that this supply port for nearby Rome was abandoned and left a ghost town. (It has lately revived as a port of call for cruise ships visiting Rome.) True to form, they kept up the momentum, invading Crete in 826, Sicily in 827, Italy in 836, and the south coast of France in 838.

The invasion of Crete came about curiously. In a crackdown on religious non-conformity, the Umayyad governor of Spain deported ten thousand Muslim dissidents. The deportees sought refuge in Egypt, where they found another rebellion brewing. So they left their families in Egypt and joined a successful raid against Crete, whose inhabitants they enslaved. But as they prepared to return to Egypt, they found that their own leader had burned their boats. They would get no welcome back in Egypt, he contended; they had better stay in Crete. But what about their families? That was simple, their leader countered–marry the women they’d just enslaved and start new ones!

For the next century and a half, the Muslims based on Crete wreaked havoc on the Christian islands of the Aegean, reducing some to wilderness. Twenty-nine Aegean towns were taken and the inhabitants enslaved. Even the burgeoning monasteries of Mount Athos had to be evacuated. Three times, Byzantine armies tried to recapture Crete. Two were destroyed trying to land. One actually got ashore and defeated the Muslim defenders–then postponed mop-up operations until the next day, made camp and got drunk. There was no next day for them. Surviving Muslims slaughtered them in a night attack, and then pursued their escaping commander to the isle of Cos, where he was captured and crucified.

The Muslim invasion of Sicily began with one of history’s veritable soap operas. Euphemios, the Byzantine naval commander, either seduced or coerced a nun into marrying him. Her two brothers protested to the emperor, who ordered the admiral’s arrest. If found guilty, he would lose his nose. Euphemios took action. He and his sailors defeated and executed the Byzantine governor. Then Euphemios, declaring himself emperor, sought the support of the North African Muslims against the inevitable imperial reprisal. Amiably agreeing, they arrived with ten thousand foot soldiers and seven hundred cavalry, carried in some seventy ships, and informed Euphemios that Sicily would now be Muslim. In the ensuing struggle, Euphemios was stabbed to death by his wife’s brothers.

Over the next two generations the Muslims took one Sicilian town after another. Palermo fell in 831, Messina in 843. Syracuse held on heroically until 878, when the Muslims finally claimed it. Sicily, stepping-stone to Italy, had indeed become a Muslim state. During the Sicilian campaign, however, there had been one prescient event, when a small fleet sailed down the Adriatic to help the defenders. It was easily beaten off, but in hindsight, a new Christian power had arrived on the scene. The ships had come from Venice, whose fleets in the future would not be so easily repelled.

Strife among Christians also allowed the Muslims to gain control of the south coast of France, and Liutprand of Cremona, a tenth-century historian and bishop, leaves a record of how this calamity began. About twenty Spanish Muslims, he writes, were forced ashore one night by a storm. They found themselves near the little town of Fraxinetum (now Garde Freinet in Provence). Breaking into a small manor house, they murdered the inhabitants, then discovered an oddity about the place. A particularly dangerous species of cactus grew thick all around it, a plant whose thorns were like small swords that could fatally impale a man. They also found a hidden trail through the cactus, leading up a hill that overlooked the town. What a superb site for a fort, they thought, but how could twenty men keep control of it once the people of the area discovered their presence?

They need not have worried, Liutprand continues. When the neighboring Christians found them, they recruited the Muslims’ help in fighting another Christian group. Soon the Muslims made themselves indispensable and Liutprand laments the outcome. The Muslims, he says, “who in themselves were of insignificant strength, after crushing one faction with the help of another, increased their own numbers by continual reinforcements from Spain, and soon were attacking everywhere those whom at first they seemed to defend. In the fury of their onslaughts, they exterminated the whole people and left no survivors, so that all the district began to tremble.” The fort at Fraxinetum became an unassailable Muslim base that terrorized southern France for the next two hundred years.

The invaders suffered a brief setback when Charlemagne broke through into Spain and took Barcelona in 797, but without a fleet, he could not use it as a base. Throughout the 800s, nearly all initiative remained with the Muslims. Marseilles fell in 838, but it was already desolate since all trade across the Mediterranean had been stopped.3 Striking inland, the Muslims hit Arles in 842, and worked their way up the populous Rhone Valley. In 852 they took back Barcelona. Meanwhile, they set up camps in the Alpine passes and looted the traffic between Italy and Germany.

“Muslim corsairs succeeded in establishing what amounted to a Muslim province in southern France,” writes historian John H. Pryor (Geography, Technology, and War: Studies in the Maritime History of the Mediterranean). Henri Pirenne (Mohammed and Charlemagne) is even more doleful. “From the Gulf of Lyons and the Riviera to the mouth of the Tiber,” he writes, “the coast was ravaged by war and pirates whom the Christians, having no fleet, were powerless to resist. The ports and the cities were deserted. The link with the Orient was severed, and there was no communication with the Saracen (Muslim) coasts. There was nothing but death.”

The Muslims meanwhile crossed from Sicily and invaded southern Italy. Again taking advantage of Christian feuds, a small force hired itself out to the governor of Bari to fight the Lombards. Instead, the Muslim mercenaries stole through the night, murdered the governor, called in reinforcements, defeated the Lombards, and captured the city that commands the approaches to the Adriatic. The Muslim commander proclaimed himself “sultan of Bari,” and they advanced up the Adriatic coast to imperil Venice.

As he and his compatriots discovered, Italy was another easy target, because the Christians were chronically at war with one another. Three powers jostled for supremacy. The Frankish—German Empire, now run by descendants of Charlemagne, held sway in the North. The papal state, known as the Republic of St. Peter, controlled the center within the Frankish Empire, along with the Lombards whose king was Frankish. The Byzantine Empire uncertainly clung to the South. Naples and the two nearby ports of Amalfi and Gaeta, though nominally Byzantine, were in effect independent. Like the other Italian factions, Naples was so wholly absorbed in the threat posed by its immediate neighbors that it failed to recognize the Muslim enemy advancing upon it from his new bases in Sicily and at Bari. In 836, Naples actually called in the Muslims as allies against the Lombards. The Muslims obliged, beat back the Lombards, then helped themselves to Taranto, the big port on Italy’s south coast.

Not all Christians were quite so myopic, however. As so frequently happens in the Christian story, one man read the situation correctly. Louis II, Frankish king and grandson of Charlemagne, dedicated his life to ousting the Muslims, and a chaotic life it was, fraught with danger not only from the Muslims but from his fellow Christians–from his father’s two brothers, who constantly sought to disinherit him; from the Lombard nobility, who persistently challenged his authority; from bishops, who resented his insistence on sustaining his grandfather’s control of the church; from the Byzantine Empire, which he distrusted and despised; and from factions within his own court. In two respects, however, he was greatly blessed. He was a deeply committed Christian, and this commitment was to stop the Muslims. Second, he had Engelberga, his devoted, highly competent and very beautiful wife, who ran his kingdom from their capital at Pavia when he was at war. And at war Louis remained for nearly all of his thirty-three-year reign.

His first serious collision with the Muslims proved a failure. It came in the fateful year 846, when an invading force landed at the mouth of the Tiber, captured the two harbor towns of Porto and Ostia, then rapidly advanced up the left bank, assembled before the walls of Rome and laid siege to the city. The churches of Saints Peter and Paul, which lay outside the walls, were ransacked and “profaned.”4 Called in to save the city, Louis’s force was not adequate to dislodge the invaders. But a subsequent attack by the margrave of Spoleto beat them off. When the retreating Muslim fleet was lost in a storm, Christians credited its destruction to the hand of God. The chronicle known as The Annals of St. Bertin records some of the aftermath: “The sea tossed up some of the corpses on the shore, still clutching treasures to their breasts. When these were found, they were taken back to the tomb of the apostle Peter.”

But Louis stopped the Muslim offensive in central Italy the following year with a decisive victory near Benevento. He crushed their army in southern Italy in 852, then began the task of recovering Bari. This took more than fifteen years, and required of him a humiliating compromise. He had to summon the help of the Byzantine fleet, which defeated the Muslims at sea, so that reinforcements from Egypt and Sicily were cut off, and Louis personally led his triumphant troops into the city. Although this victory was achieved through the unusual spectacle of the Byzantine East and Frankish West working together, it did not bring about an East—West accord. It had the reverse effect, the Byzantines loudly claiming credit for the city’s fall, Louis issuing a jeering response that the Byzantines had been too late with too little and that his troops had in fact done the job.5 Even so, writes Pirenne, the recovery of Bari probably saved Venice, doomed Muslim efforts in the Adriatic, and made their eventual expulsion from Italy a virtual certainty.

Fortune turned against Louis the following year, however, when he was captured while putting down a rebellion in Benevento. His two envious uncles (brothers of his father, who had inherited the other segments of Charlemagne’s empire) assumed him dead, and moved in to seize his Italian possessions. His wife successfully fought them off. Louis died three years later in 874, at the age of fifty, embattled to the end, with the Muslims before him and the conniving Christian nobility behind. “He was sick of a world which no longer seemed to contain anything save hate, sordid greed and treachery,” writes the historian Henri Daniel-Rops (The Church in the Dark Ages). With his death, the Byzantines occupied Bari.

“The forces of disintegration which had been attacking the empire ever since Charlemagne’s death,” Daniel-Rops comments, “were very near to triumph.” But they did not triumph. Once again, the right man turned up in the right place at the right time. Three years before Louis died, the papacy fell to the aged and ailing John VIII. Once again the Muslims were assembling for an attack on Rome, and a massive Muslim assault force was expected any day off the Italian coast. The pressing Christian need was for a top-notch admiral to meet them at sea, a skilled general to halt them if they landed, and a shrewd diplomat to pull the feuding Christians together. Pope John was no sailor, no soldier, had never been a diplomat, and was a frail seventy-year-old.

The details of what followed are sketchy at best, but the outcome is not. Unable to secure a concerted Christian effort, the old pope hurled himself into the military role. He built a wall around the churches of Peter and Paul, some remnants of which survive to this day, organized construction of a fleet of small, fast dromons, recruited crews, and personally took command. “The pope himself assumed the duties both of a general and an admiral,” writes the Catholic Encyclopedia. “To guard the ‘city of the old dotard Peter,’ as the Muslims contemptuously called Rome, John himself patrolled the coast. He overtook the pirate fleet off the promontory of Circe, and was completely victorious over them.” A contemporary account says, “The insolent invaders were drowned in a bath of blood.”

The enemy had been beaten off, but no one knew better than Pope John that he would certainly be back. Unless Christians could somehow be unified, and another Louis II found to give the Muslim threat top priority, then sooner or later Rome would fall, and Western Christianity along with it. But where was such a leader to be found? Pope John desperately searched for the right man.

The imperial crown was first conferred on Louis’s uncle, known as Charles the Bald, who talked confidently, but did nothing except stir up further feuding among the Christian monarchs. When Charles died, the crown was passed to Louis’s cousin, a feeble-minded epileptic known to history as Charles the Fat. When he likewise proved useless, and Naples again allied itself with the Muslims to ward off the Lombards, Pope John tried one last expedient. He issued an appeal on behalf of an entity that had never before been invoked. He called it “Christendom,” and by it, he meant all the states that called on Jesus Christ as savior. This, of course, included Byzantium, now marking its “golden era” under the direction of the brilliant Macedonian emperors.

The Macedonians heard the call, and the tide gradually began to turn, but it was too late for the ailing John VIII. In his machinations to save his church, he had made many enemies. In December 882, those enemies prevailed, first poisoning him, and when he failed to succumb, beating him to death with a hammer. History accords him a mixed assessment. “He was totally absorbed in aims of temporal dominion,” writes the nineteenth-century historian Ferdinand Gregorovius. He was “ambiguous, intriguing, sophistic, unscrupulous.” And yet, “he put kings to shame and covered his memory with military renown.… His name shines with royal splendor in the temporal history of the papacy.”

The Muslims continued their raids against the north coast while the area around the toe of Italy became a wilderness. In 890, they set up a base at Saracinesco near Rome, and another in the Sabine Hills, though no serious attack against the city itself was mounted. The tenth century began as woefully as the ninth, with raids and devastation on all Christian coastal territories. Then in 931 came what Pirenne calls “an extraordinary incident.” A Muslim squadron was defeated off the French coast. The oddity lay in the fact that its nemesis was a Byzantine fleet, a long way from home, and it proved an omen for the next three decades. In 961, the emperor Nicephorus Phocas recovered Crete and attacks on the Aegean islands ceased. Four years later, the Byzantines recaptured Cyprus, and that same year they sank an entire Egyptian fleet off Tarsus.

Then at Salerno, thirty-five miles southeast of Naples on Italy’s west coast, there was another unusual occurrence. A party of forty foreign pilgrims6 was spending the night there, when Muslim raiders struck. The visitors, appalled and humiliated at the feeble resistance offered by the locals, borrowed weapons and horses from the prince of Salerno, caught up with the raiders, slaughtered some of them, and sent the rest fleeing for their lives. That was in 999, the last year of the first Christian millennium. The visitors were Normans. The decisive player had finally entered the game.

“The career of the Normans in South Italy and Sicily,” writes the historian John Julius Norwich in A History of Venice, “is one of the great epics of European history.” It is less an epic of the Normans, however, than of a single Norman family.7 The family’s patriarch, Tancred of Hauteville, was a minor noble in the service of the Duke of Normandy. Little else is known of him–not even which of Normandy’s three Hautevilles was his original home. One fact is certain, however. He had twelve sons–five by his first wife Muriel and seven by his second, Fressenda–and at least three daughters.

Big families like this had little to leave their many children, so these Norman sons customarily sought their fortunes elsewhere, chiefly in Italy. But this Norman movement was not, like the Norman invasion of England some sixty years later, an official state endeavor. They came to Italy in small groups. It was “free enterprise,” writes one history, and the enterprise began with pillage, rape, murder and destruction. “The contempt for them of the [Italian] princes was mixed with fear,” writes Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “and the fear of the natives was mingled with hatred and resentment.” The twelfth-century historian, Amatus of Montecassino, portrays them as “riding cheerfully through the meadows and gardens–happy and joyful, cavorting hither and thither,” on their mission of death. All this notwithstanding, the sons of Tancred of Hauteville and their descendants personally created much of the history of southern Italy and Sicily for the next one hundred and sixty-five years.

In Italy’s ceaseless internecine feuds, demand for fighters was always brisk, and the Hautevilles, all twelve reared to be knights, were superb fighters. They hired themselves out to all parties, but always made sure that no feudal potentate became so powerful over the others that he didn’t need them any more. So indispensable did the Normans make themselves to the Duke of Naples that he assigned to some of the Hautevilles, and other Norman leaders, the fortress and district of Aversa, just outside the city.

From this base, they joined one of the recurring Byzantine attempts to regain Sicily. William Hauteville, oldest of the twelve, took part in the attack along with his next two brothers. William struck down and killed the emir of Syracuse, earning the sobriquet “Iron Arm,” but the Byzantine invasion failed, and the Byzantines likewise failed to pay off the Normans. In reprisal, the Hautevilles invaded Apulia, the Byzantine province along the heel of the Italian “boot,” taking one town after another. Here they became so hated that the second brother, Drogo Hauteville, was assassinated, and Pope Leo IX organized a polyglot army from Italy and Germany to drive them out.

The pope failed. In June 1053, the Normans defeated the papal army at Civitate on the Fortore River, northwest of modern Foggia. They captured the pope, too, and then as devout Christians, knelt before him, kissed his feet and asked his forgiveness. Leo accepted their pleas before retiring to Benevento, where, conscience-stricken over the men slain at Civitate, he died brokenhearted. Another horrendous problem, namely the collapsing relations with the Greek church, doubtless also weighed upon his tortured soul. (See chapter 6.) Seven years (and four more popes) after Leo’s death, however, the formidable Hildebrand, who became pope as Gregory VII, saw the Normans as a solution, not a problem. They were proclaiming themselves champions of the papacy. They strongly backed Gregory’s reform of the papal election process, which denied the German emperors a role, and is still in use to this day. In return, Gregory made them dukes of Apulia and Calabria, and any other territories they might be able to wrest from Byzantine control.

The leadership of the Hautevilles had by this time been taken over by Robert, eldest of the seven sons of Tancred’s second wife, and known as Guiscard, “the Crafty.” (The name was well earned. His followers gleefully relate how Robert posed as a corpse, and was borne for burial by his men into a wealthy monastery. Then the “deceased” suddenly arose from its coffin, terrorized the monks, and looted the place.) Men feared Robert’s booming voice, but rejoiced to serve under him. How women reacted to him is disclosed by the snooty, but plainly captivated Byzantine princess Anna Comnena: “Though of insignificant origin, he is in temper tyrannical, in mind most cunning, brave in action … stature so lofty he surpasses even the tallest, complexion ruddy, hair flaxen, shoulders broad, eyes that emit sparks of fire, frame well-built where nature required breadth, from tip to toe well proportioned.… Powerful characters are ever like this, people say, even though they be of somewhat obscure descent.”

Under Robert’s direction, the Normans first cleared the Byzantines out of Apulia, and then out of their remaining province of Calabria. They retook Bari in 1071, ending altogether the Greek political presence in Italy. Five years later, the Lombard city of Salerno fell to them, complete with its renowned school of medicine. Thus, the once fearsome Lombards, terror of Gregory the Great more than four centuries earlier, existed no longer in southern Italy. But the Normans’ most lasting accomplishment in the Mediterranean remained to be achieved: the reconquest for Christianity of Sicily, something Byzantium had been futilely attempting for years.

In this endeavor, the man many consider the greatest of the Hauteville brothers plays the major role. Roger was the twelfth son of Tancred Hauteville, and the last to arrive in Italy. His biographer, the Norman monk Geoffrey of Malaterra, paints a striking portrait of him: “tall, well proportioned, eloquent, clever, prudent in counsel, intrepid in arms, agreeable and courteous in all things”–in short, much as Anna Comnena had depicted his older brother. All this wasn’t enough, however, to win him the beautiful Judith of Evreux back in Normandy. How could a kinswoman of the future William the Conqueror marry a man of such inferior rank?

So the spurned Roger left Normandy, joined Robert in the Calabrian campaign, and soon made himself Robert’s indispensable second in command. In 1060, the brothers tackled Sicily, when one Muslim emir provided an opportunity by seeking their aid against another. Roger launched an advance attack by night, and landed on the coast five miles south of Messina. Next day, he caught the defenders unaware, and took the city before brother Robert had even embarked with the main body of his troops and their Muslim allies. Two more Sicilian towns surrendered without resistance, but by then, Roger had departed for the mainland. There had been an opportune turn of events back in Normandy.

Duke William, it seems, had seriously quarreled with his half brother, the abbot of St. Evreux, a monastery renowned for the magnificence of its music. The abbot and his monks fled for Italy, taking with him three children for whom the abbot was godfather. One of them was Judith, about seventeen years old. Duke Robert made them all welcome in Italy. The abbot established a new monastery there, and in one of its first services he married Judith of Evreux to Roger Hauteville. The wedding music, people said, was magnificent.

Roger by now was a powerful Norman magnate. Or was he? He had conquered towns and castles in his brother’s cause–but Robert “Guiscard” had made him lord of none of them. Up to then, Roger had not much cared. Now he did, if only because he needed an adequate title for his wellborn wife. A terrible row ensued,8 resolved by an agreement that each brother would get half of the estates. In the end, Roger became Grand Duke of Sicily, Robert Duke of southern Italy. Roger’s son, as King Roger II of Sicily, would in due course unite the two domains.

But at the time of the marriage, the conquest of Sicily had barely begun, and in 1062, Judith found herself right in the middle of it. The Normans had taken the town of Troina, sixty miles southwest of Messina, and twenty west of famous Mount Etna.9 Leaving Judith with the garrison there, Roger moved on to the next Norman target. The Muslims, seeing his wife as the ideal hostage to recover the whole island, attacked the town in force, assisted by Greek Christians, who by now hated the Normans as much as the Muslims did.

Roger raced back to Troina, made his way past the Muslim positions, then closeted the garrison in a local fort that stood atop a four-thousand foot mountain, and got set for a siege. Short of food, fuel and manpower, his men were hopelessly unprepared for winter, which came early. Roger and Judith took turns wearing their one woolen cloak by day; both slept under it by night. Then fortune favored the Normans. Aware that their quarry would soon have to surrender, the besiegers grew overconfident, and one night most of them got drunk on the local wine. Silently over the snows stole Roger and his men, slaughtered the enemy, and finished the wine.

The following year the Muslims, genuinely alarmed, sent thousands of troops in from Africa, landed them on Sicily’s east coast–probably at Syracuse–and prepared to wipe out the small, upstart Norman force. The showdown came at Cerami, fifteen miles northwest of Troina. There the Norman force of seven hundred knights (plus attendants and infantry) so startled the huge Muslim army of fifteen thousand, says contemporary historian Geoffrey Malaterra, that the Muslims panicked and fled. The Normans looted their camp, hunted down fugitives, killed hundreds of them and sold the rest into slavery. Thanking God for their victory, they sent a special gift to Hildebrand–four prize camels. Hildebrand’s reaction is not recorded.

Palermo next fell in 1072, to a two-pronged Norman attack–Roger by land, Robert by sea.10 Palermo was no mean prize, either. Over the years, Muslims had moved to it from all over the Mediterranean, giving it at one point three hundred mosques, beautiful parks, and gardens with fountains. Some called it the “paradise of the Mediterranean.” Roger’s rule proved as tolerant as that of the early Umayyads in Spain. Muslims were allowed freedom of worship, Greeks permitted to retain the Eastern form of Christianity.11 It took the Normans another eighteen years to free the rest of the island from Muslim power, and the Normans held it until 1194. (Then, after a civil war, the Holy Roman Emperor became king of Sicily and Germans succeeded the Normans in southern Italy.)

The final offensive of the Normans in the Mediterranean proved as disastrous as their Sicilian enterprise had been successful. Their fleets crossed the Adriatic and began a costly and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to take over the Byzantine Empire. Some of the consequences were both lasting and devastating. The ecclesiastical schism between East and West was affirmed as a military and political schism as well, with the Greek church as unsuccessful in Italy and Sicily as the Latin church was to prove in Greece and most of the Balkans. Further, the Normans held their lands on papal authority, giving the See of Peter a powerful legal hold on the churches and government of southern Italy.

Beyond all this, however, a new method had been approved for Christian outreach. It could now be military. The Normans fought in Italy (as in the invasion of England) under a papal banner with automatic indulgence promised to all who fell in battle. “Be not afraid,” cried Robert Guiscard to his little army before the Battle of Cerami. “We have Jesus Christ with us who says, ‘If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed you shall tell the mountains to move and they shall move (Matt. 17:20), and nothing shall be impossible to you.’” Upon this they charged, and an astonishing victory followed. It was a powerful message. In the two centuries immediately ahead, it would be heard often.

This is the end of the Islamic Golden Age category article drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page , of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Islamic Golden Age from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at