The past week (March 23rd to be exact) marked the 650th anniversary of the assassination of Pedro I of Castile-León (r. 1350-1369), one of medieval Iberia’s most controversial, enigmatic and interesting sovereigns. For some, he represents a vicious tyrant whose repressive policies were catastrophic for Castile. Meanwhile, others have memorialized him as a sovereign who promoted a culture of toleration, employed Jews and Muslims in significant numbers within his administration, and sought to curb the power of the nobility. Far from attempting to grapple with or unpack his complex legacy, this post introduces the English-speaking reader to this complicated sovereign in order to encourage further inquiry into his life and times.
The reign of Roger II (r. 1130-1154), who had began his rule as Count of Sicily in 1105, became Duke of Apulia and Calabria in 1127, and then King of Sicily in 1130, has long fascinated everyone interested in Mediterranean history. It marks a particularly significant period for the consolidation of Norman rule in both Sicily and southern Italy. Roger II instituted a strong royal administration, overcame various challenges to his authority (in the form of rebellions) and inaugurated an expansionist foreign policy that resulted in the incorporation of substantial territories in North Africa into his realm (discussed further here).
In addition to overseeing the transformation of the Norman kingdom into a Mediterranean power that controlled Sicily, southern Italy and parts of modern-day Tunisia and Libya, Roger II’s reign is also distinguished by his patronage of a courtly culture colored as much by Arab-Islamic and Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) influences as by Latin Christian culture. This is unsurprising, given the rich Islamic and Eastern Roman history of Sicily in the preceding centuries. Indeed, the island’s large population of Christians, Muslims and Jews was predominantly Greek and Arabic speaking during the early 12th century. This variety of cultural influences and convergence of diverse communities is indicated by the distinctive culture of the Norman kingdom, perhaps best embodied by the wonderful architecture patronized and constructed by Roger II and his successors during the 12th century.