Bartolomeo da Neocastro’s Histora Sicula

I have been very bad about keeping up this blog for the last… year or so. What I predicted at the opening happened and the actual work, which usually is not very blog-o-genic, kicked in. Apologies to all four of my readers! I thought I’d get back into the habit of writing here, by presenting a shiny, new, and very interesting text, I recently happened upon, which fits in very well alongside my other texts.

Historia Sicula: text and context

This new text is the Histora Sicula written in Medieval Latin by the Sicilian lawyer Bartolomeo da Neocastro. It covers the history of the Kingdom of Sicily between 1250 and 1293 and is regarded as one of the best sources for the history of Sicily and Southern Italy in the second half of the 13th century, in particular for the so-called Sicilian Vespers. It is relevant for the purposes of this project, because it also contains a passage on the loss of Acre, but more about this later.

Few details are known about the author: the Calabrian commune Nicastro now part of the city of Lamezia Terme has been identified as the likely Neocastro from where the Historia’s author Bartolomeo hailed. He seems to have been a lawyer, active mostly as a judge in Messina, and later also one of the four councils elected to assist the new mayor of Messina, after the dust of the Sicilian Vespers had settled. This is the extend of what can be gleaned from the historical record.

The Sicilian rebellion against King Charles, Nuova Cronica § 61. 14th century

From his writing it is clear that he was highly educated, not just in law, but also in literature: e.g. in the prooemium of his chronicle, he claims to have written his Historia in two versions, the first one in metrico stylo, probably in dactylic hexameters, and the second one in prose. He did so in response to his son asking for a more accessible version of the chronicle. Of these two only the prose version survives, but this one too is filled with references to Vergil, Lucan, and other authors of classical Latinity. Scholarship has also made it plausible that Bartolomeo was involved in several translations from classical Greek, in particular of the works of Aristotle, for King Manfred of Sicily.

Bartolomeo begins his chronicle with a clear mission statement: to tell Siculorum gesta […] contra Gallos (Remind you of anyone?). The conflict between the Sicilians and the French, in Bartolomeo’s account a conflict between between freedom-loving (Sicilian) rebels and their tyrannical (Anjou/French) oppressors, forms the backbone of his chronicle. It is addressed to the sons of Emperor Frederick II – mainly Konrad and of course Manfred. This historical narrative opens with Frederick’s, the origo […] operis huius, death at the Castell Fiorentino in Capitanata in 1250. It is depicted as the peaceful and dignified passing of an ideal and illustrious king. His mortal remains were then carefully transferred to Palermo, the burial site of his royal and imperial ancestors. After this the Historia focusses mainly on the struggles of the Hohenstaufen in Southern Italy and Sicily and later on the Sicilian Vespers. But toward the end chapter 12o stands out, and it is this chapter that makes the chronicle so topical for this project.

Themes and comparison to the Book of Acre

Chapter 120 frames news of the fall of Acre arriving at the papal court of Nicholas IV as a kind of „Botenbericht“: a Greek monk of the order of St Basil, called Arsenius, is presented to the pope and tells him what happened at Acre: „From a bitter heart, oh Holy Father, I will tell you about the most wretched event at Acre, if this pain has not already spread to your ears.“ In the monk’s now following account several interesting points stand out, which – interestingly and maybe surprisingly- show the most similarities to Ottokar’s aus der Gaal Middle High German version of the events in his Book of Acre.

Arsenius begins to describe the seemingly infinite size of the army amassed by the enemies in front of the city to conquer Acre: „There came together the numberless peoples of Damascus, of the Parthians, and an uncountable mass of Arabs. India, Libya, and all parts of the world, which were beholden to the realm of Babylon, sent their troops there.“ This is of course topical for the depiction of „heathen“ armies in medieval Christian narratives: their size spans the size of the world. From all ends of the globe the heathens come together to wage war on the Christians. Facing an endless sea of enemies has several advantages for the Christians: it builds on the Old testament-tradition [Gen. 10: Hae sunt generationes filiorum Noe, Sem, Cham et Japheth: natique sunt eis filii post diluvium] that only the descendants of one of Noah’s sons (Japhet), who went on to populate Europe, became Christians and that the other ones (the children of Sem and Cham), who went on to populate Asia and Africa, remained heathen. Thus it creates the sense of Christianity as an island surrounded by a sea of hostile heathens and imbues the ongoing confrontation with biblical authority. It also helps to rationalise the subsequent military defeat and the loss of the city: surely, if only a few Christians stood against an endless horde of all the heathen nations, from all ends of the world, there was no other way for this to end.

The generations of Noah, as depicted in an early print (Augsburg 1472) of Isidore’s of Seville 7th-century Etymologiae

The Book of Acre follows the same pattern by inserting a lengthy mustering of the heathen host, in which dozens of kings from far-flung fantastic locations pledge their armies to the leaders of the heathen world: the old and ailing soldan, his son and successor the young soldan, and the baruc, who is presented as a heathen analogon to the Christian pope. The outlandish numbers of the troops the heathen kings promise to bring forward against Acre amount to over 2 millions and the chronicle confirms that never in recorded history, not even when Babylon was captured by the Persians and King Balthazar was slain, had there been a host of such boundless size.

In the Historia Sicula’s report the Greek monk Arsenius then continues to berate the pope for his lack of action to support for the Christians of Acre. „But for you the thought of Sicily and its reclamation was too powerful, even if it is was not at all possible for you to reclaim it, and even though you knew of the suffering of Acre you slept, despite the perils of the world, and when the evil of Babylon grew and they learned of your lack of interest in the Egyptians, they moved across the desert with great clamour!“ The point of criticism that the pope is too focussed on reclaiming Sicily is shared again by the Book of Acre, which names this as the main reason why the pope does not come to help Acre. Later, when the Historia starts developing a topical catalogue of the many sufferings and inflictions that befall the people of Acre during the siege, the narrator has Arsenius come back to this point again and again. Throughout the siege they maintain hope that they will be saved by a papal intervention: Illi semper dabant faciem pelago, expectantes si ab occidente praesidiorum optata ventus vela portaret.

But, of course, this intervention never materialised.

Criticism of the papacy and peccatis exigentibus

The narrative voice of the Historia finds itself, like many other texts of this time too, compelled to come up with an answer to the question of how the loss of Acre fits into the larger scheme of (salvific) history. How can God, who is supposed to have ordained and decreed everything that is occurring in his creation, permit that his chosen people, the Christians, are losing, and their enemies, the Muslims, are winning? Isn’t history supposed to be the visible surface of his invisible plan for his creation? The established answer this question finds in Western thought since well before the crusades, is the recurring phrase peccatis (nostris) exigentibus: (our) sins require it! „Bad things happen to us because we ourselves have been bad and therefore are deserving of punishment!“ Historiographical texts from all over Europe, whether they reference the event only in passing or whether they are almost exclusively committed to relaying the course of events that led to the loss of Acre, resort to the logic of punitive divine pedagogy underlying this narrative.

Just one example, of many which could be referred to here, for this comes from the Gesta Boemundi archiepiscopi Trevirensis. This episcopal chronicle, written in Trier between 1299 and 1302, focuses on the life and deeds of archbishop Bohemund of Trier (1286-1299), but it does include a sizeable excursus regarding the subsequent falls of Tripoli and Acre, which leans heavily into the template of peccatis exigentibus. Both cities are explicitly destroyed due to the sinfulness of their inhabitants. And in the case of Acre its this sinfulness is further exacerbated by the city’s inability to learn from the example of Tripoli, conquered by the Mamluks two years previously: post dolorosam eversionem Tripolis soror eius Achon, habens oculos et non videns, aures et non audiens [Psalms 113:13–14], velud spis surda, nec tot et tantis sororis prostrate flagitiis emendata, diadema regni sola adhuc erecta cervice portavit indigne, peccatorum multitudine miserabiliter excecata.

The idea is fleshed out in the Gesta as an answer to the underlying question of theodicy: Et quare hoc? Quia dereliquerunt fontem sapientie; nam si in via Dei ambulassent, habitassent utique in pace sempiterna.

According to the Gesta destructions comes over the cities of the Eastern Mediterranean Littoral due to their inability to follow God’s via. Had they been able to stay on the via Dei, they would not have been punished in this way.

In the Historia Sicula Bartolomeo too gestures towards this idea, when he proclaims that it seems apparent that what is happening to Acre happens propter peccata populi but syntactically synchronises this with Romanae Sedis inconstantiam. The sinfulness of the people is only one reason moving God to allow the destruction of Acre. Equally important as divine movens is the unreliability of the Roman see. The narrator carries on with this theme, either by making the pope the target audience of adverse historical occurrence ordained by God, in order to spur him into action, or by implying his responsibility for the defeat. E.g. In his report to the pope Arsenius identifies the crusaders who fail to do their part in defending the city of Acre as crucesignati tui. Not just any crusaders, but the pope’s own crusaders. Furthermore, God does not answer the prayers of the Acconians to save them and leaves them to the heathens (filiis pravitatis) mostly for the reason that the pope himself would be educated: ut corripias temetipsum. Again, God’s dark pedagogy breaks through to shape historical occurrence. Thus in the Historia Sicula even the ubiquitous peccatis exigentibus argument is primarily used to implicitly and explicitly criticise the papacy.

The strong focus on criticism of the papacy fits well together with the pro-Staufen impetus of the Historia Sicula. And again it shares these two traits with the Book of Acre. There also is another extra-textual common trait between these two texts: they both can be contextualised with the crown of Aragon, after the Sicilian Vespers the emergent power in the Western Mediterranean. But exploring this connection might be a topic for another blog post.

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