The idea for this book began with a question: How did Western Europe, which was militarily, technologically, and socially far behind its immediate neighbors in the Middle East, manage not only to catch up with them, but to rise to global dominance? 

At the start of the second millennium, a gambler certainly wouldn’t have placed their bet on the West. It was much more likely that the sophisticated and sprawling Islamic Caliphate would continue to dominate, or perhaps the cultured, resurgent Byzantine1 Empire. Europe was a battered shell, crumbling under the hammer blows of invasion and disease. And yet, it was a group of Viking descendants – the very ones who were ripping Western Europe apart at the time – that would provide the catalyst for its future greatness.  

Few events in European history are as remarkable as the sudden rise of those Normans in the latter half of the eleventh century. In the space of a single generation they carved out kingdoms from the North Sea to the North African coast, and transformed Europe. They lived in a world where the old order was passing away and the clever among them had seemingly unlimited possibilities. For the bold no ambition was too lofty, and no dream was impossible. They were among the West’s first great entrepreneurs; a powerful example that in the new world of the tenth century low birth was no bar to success.  

But who exactly were the Normans? Despite their prominence, there is an air of ambiguity to them. They settled in France and can most famously be seen on the Bayeux Tapestry, but were not strictly French. Their most famous king ruled over England so they can just as easily be called English, but they can also be seen as Norse, or even Italian. Even their legacy is conflicted. They appear in the story of Robin Hood as oppressive villains, and at the same time are regarded as the founders of the English state who established modern law and eliminated slavery.  

One of the reasons for the confusion is that the whole Norman story is not widely known. The Norman identity is dominated by William the Conqueror, the illegitimate son of an absent father, who famously landed at Pevensey Beach in 1066 and conquered the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England.  

There is another Norman conquest, however, which is in some ways even more remarkable. Six years before Duke William launched his invasion, the sons of an impoverished Norman knight headed south, creating a kingdom that extended from southern Italy to the Tunisian coast. Full of the restless ambition of their Viking ancestors, they presided over a century of commercial expansion that turned Palermo (in present day Sicily) into the cultural and economic capital of the western Mediterranean. Most importantly, they fostered the rising fortunes of the papacy at a critical period in the history of Christendom, playing a pivotal role in the formation of a European identity.  

It was an astonishing achievement for men with such humble beginnings. Tancred de Hauteville, an obscure Norman knight living in northern France, had little he could offer his twelve sons and most left to seek their fortunes in the south. They arrived as humble mercenaries, but quickly proved to be among the most inspired of medieval leaders. From William ‘Iron-Arm’ who killed the Emir of Syracuse in single combat, to Robert Guiscard who captured a pope and nearly overthrew the Byzantine Empire, the sons of Tancred combined ambition with tenacity. For three quarters of a century they carried out a systematic campaign to enlarge their territories, culminating with Count Roger who accepted the unconditional Saracen2 surrender of Sicily and adopted the dress and customs of a Byzantine emperor. By the time the youngest Hauteville brother died, his relatives sat enthroned in Palermo, Tripoli, Malta, and Antioch, and the family possessed the strongest and wealthiest kingdom in Europe. 

The Hauteville family, however, is important for more than just colorful individuals. They are also part of a larger Norman story, embodying the energy of a continent poised for rapid growth. At the start of the eleventh century, Europe was largely agrarian, politically divided, defensive, and economically undeveloped. Three non-European powers – the Byzantine Empire, the Spanish Caliphate, and the Fatimid Caliphate of Cairo – dominated the Mediterranean. England was part of the Scandinavian cultural orbit, Rome was mired in the corruption and politicking of the early papacy, and Christendom was under attack from the formidable powers of Islam.  

Within a generation of the arrival of the Normans, much of Europe was transformed from a collection of feuding states to a culturally united and politically strong region. In place of a patchwork of French fiefdoms, they created an Anglo-Norman empire, stretching from Scotland to the Pyrenees. In Italy they found Lombard, Byzantine, and Saracen princes controlling a confused array of provinces, and replaced them with a single Norman kingdom. The Byzantine Empire was driven out of Italy, the Saracens were expelled from Sicily, and a revived papacy began the Western offensive against Islam that would spawn both the Reconquista and the Crusades.  

Norman power also coincided with several more fundamental shifts. From the eleventh century to the twelfth, the population of Europe nearly doubled. With a larger workforce came a greater specialization of labor, the founding of guilds, and technological innovations like the windmill and stern-mounted rudder. The growth of cities and towns encouraged the formation of communes and the first medieval experiments with democracy. Trading organizations like the Hanseatic League brought the West into contact with the Byzantine and Islamic worlds and partially reintroduced Europe to Greek learning and advances in medicine and science. The new Gothic form of architecture began to spread from France to the rest of the continent, and with it came a reform movement fostered in Norman monasteries that resulted in a revival of learning broad enough to be called the Renaissance of the twelfth century. Vernacular literature emerged, Latin poetry and Roman law were revived and the first European universities were founded. Lastly, the stability that the Normans gave to the Italian peninsula allowed the reforming pope, Gregory VII, to spread his idea of a universal Christian society far beyond Italy – and with it the concept of a united Europe.  

In each of these movements, a Hauteville played a catalyst role, sparking events that would begin the European rise to dominance on the world stage. Yet for all their accomplishments, the southern Normans remain largely unknown, eclipsed by their famous northern compatriots. Knowledge of the Normans for far too many seems to begin and end with the Battle of Hastings, while the Hauteville’s central role in the growth of Europe is largely unexplored.  

This is somewhat surprising, because the brothers are the most prominent example of the Norman genius of adaptability that transformed Europe. They had the instinctive ability to recognize which local traditions were superior to their own and to combine the various cultural and legal elements into a cohesive whole. Perhaps because they were a cobbled together people themselves, they displayed this pragmatic streak in every place they inhabited. 

The first Normans were Scandinavian Vikings hopelessly outnumbered amid a French population, and they quickly learned how to govern a people without alienating them. In Sicily, the Hautevilles perfected this skill. They took over the existing structure of the Muslim and Byzantine administration intact, combined it with French efficiency and gave Sicily a prosperity it hadn’t seen since the days of imperial Rome. The former mercenaries transitioned into southern kings, exchanging war for trade and mercantile activity. At the time of the First Crusade, when Christendom was internally divided and at war with Islam, Roger de Hauteville protected the Sicilian Kingdom with an army composed of Saracen infantry, Greek generals and Norman cavalry. His example provided a template for the Hauteville governance of Sicily, and the great cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale, with their fusion of Norman, Islamic and Byzantine architecture, are still a testament to the success of his efforts.  

This story needs to be restored to its proper place in the history of European development. Unlike the Norman Conquest of England, the Hautevilles did not have the backing and resources of a dukedom. Their progress was slow – the conquest of Sicily alone took over thirty years of sporadic fighting – and the obstacles they had to overcome were daunting. Yet in the end their determination paid off, and their success proved enduring. They were a blend of ambition, greed and daring that was often repellent but never dull. In the most unlikely of places – the center of the Mediterranean – they created a bridge between the East and West, Christian and Muslim, ruling with an effectiveness that was unparalleled in the Middle Ages and has rarely been equaled since. They played a crucial role in explaining how the West emerged from the chaos of the early Middle Ages to a place of global prominence, and took the first steps in creating the modern world. This is their story. 


This is a web preview of the "The Normans" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App