Was the Distance Traditionally Practiced by Various Orders Observed in Norman Sicily?

In the Libellus de diversis ordinibus et professionibus qui sunt in aecclesia (The Little Book Concerning the Various Orders and Professions in the Church), which was likely written in the diocese of Liège, Belgium, in the mid-twelfth century, the work’s anonymous author describes various forms of religious life.1 As he describes the way various members of the regular clergy live, he notes that there are canons and monks – such as the Cluniacs – who live close to men and others – such as the Premonstratensian Canons and Cistercians – who live far away from them. What follows is an examination of whether the distance traditionally practiced by these orders was observed in Norman Sicily, a society that in some ways reflected the Latin European culture in which its rulers has roots but in many others departed from it. Indeed, the Mediterranean world was a highly mutable place. Admittedly, the evidence we have is scarce. But we will work with it as best we can.

Monks who Live Near Men – The Cluniacs

There is evidence for the existence of three Cluniac houses in Norman Sicily: (1) Santa Maria delle Giummare in Sciacca (Agrigento), Santa Maria Nuova in Monreale (Palermo) and (3) Santa Maria di Monte Maggiore in Montemaggiore Belsito (Palermo). An investigation into the location of the last of these is not possible as its exact location is unknown. An examination of the second is also problematic because although we know where it was located (indeed, Santa Maria Nuova is inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and recognized as a cultural jewel), this foundation, which Lynn White has called “the greatest of all the Norman monasteries of Sicily,” was, as we will see, shaped by overt political forces and so the findings are not likely representative.2 What this means is that there is just one Cluniac Norman monastery that we can test against the information provided by the author of the Libellus: Santa Maria delle Giummare.

But let’s first return to Santa Maria Nuova. Its foundation legend, on which doubt has been cast due to lack of corroborating evidence, is that it was founded as a result of a dream King William II had as he napped in a forest during a hunting trip.3 Whether this story is true is unknown, but it does seem that this Cluniac house was located rather remotely. Idrisi does not mention Monreale in the Book of Roger and White notes that the first time the word itself appears is in the title of its archbishop in 1183, nine years after our first recorded reference to the abbey.4 “The site which King William selected for his abbey evidently had no name."5 The fortification that protected the area in which the abbey was located, today referred to as the Castellaccio, may be found at coordinates 38.08353,13.27473, a distance of +/- .95 miles from the abbey. It is also removed from the abbey by elevation, positioned some 1450 feet (442 meters) above it on Monte Caputo.

As for the nearest monastery to Santa Maria Nuova, that appears to have been Santo Spirito di Palermo (coordinates 38.09982,13.3627), which was a considerable 4.04 miles away.

So although the Libellus would encourage us to believe that the Cluniac monks of Santa Maria Nuova were embedded in a previously-existing population center and living closely with the laity, it appears that, at least from a geographical perspective, this community was somewhat removed from the world. But again, we need to keep in mind that Santa Maria Nuova was no ordinary foundation and its creation was influenced by unique forces. So accepting as representative its location vis-à-vis the wider community would be ill-advised.

The remaining house, Santa Maria delle Giummare, tells a different story, one that is more in line with our twelfth-century source. It appears that it was located just +/- 667 feet from the town’s main fortification (coordinates 37.50682,13.08563). In his description of the town, Idrisi writes that Sciacca is a

locality by the sea, developed and pleasant. It is prosperous, endowed with markets and numerous residences. [Sciacca] is currently the head of the various districts and constituencies that surround her. Its port is busy and many ships arrive there constantly from Tripoli and Ifrîqiyya.6

In the case of Santa Maria delle Giummare, it appears that the monks were indeed embedded in a bustling community, near the port and within a few minutes’ walk of the town’s castle. In short, the community at Sciacca conformed to the expectations of the Libellus’ northern European author.

Monks who Live Far from Men – The Premonstratensians

As is noted in another blog post, Norman Sicily’s monastic landscape included just one community of Premonstratensian Canons: the priory of St. George of Gratteri (Palermo). We know its location – indeed, the remains of this house are stunning – and we are able to estimate its proximity to the nearest fortification (coordinates 37.96591,13.97019, though the small castle that at one time existed in Gratteri is today the location of a municipal water tank) as well as to the closest monastic house, Santa Maria Pedale (coordinates 37.9421,13.94185).

The Priory of St. George of Gratteri from the West

Figure 1 The Priory of St. George of Gratteri from the West

Idrisi refers to Gratteri as a small fortified town that “was endowed with all goods possible,” perhaps suggesting that the monks there were fortunate to have access to all they needed to carry out their daily lives in a self-sustaining community.7 The size of the town, the abbey’s location in a valley of the Madonie Mountains, and its distance from the nearest monastic house (+/- 1.41 miles) and fortification (+/- .97 mile) likely provided the Premonstratensian canons of St. George with the isolation the were known to seek. If Dawn Hayes’ belief is correct – that this community was established by Duke Roger, son of King Roger II, as an overture to the father of his bride, a man who had wanted to become a Premonstratensian canon himself – it would stand to reason that the monastery would have been positioned with much care and great attention to detail.8

Monks who Live Far from Men – The Cistercians

Like the Premonstratensians, the author of the Libellus reminds us that the Cistercians, too, preferred isolation. There were seven total Cisterican houses in Sicily during the Norman period. The exact locations of two of them – St. Christopher and St. Michael the Archangel – both of which were located in the area of Prizzi (Palermo), are unknown. The remaining five we can locate with accuracy.

In the case of St. Mary Novara, which appears to have been established in a valley about two miles from Messina, we are unable to locate the next nearest monastery, possibly St. James of Calò, which is recorded as having been in Novara, too. Interestingly, Idrisi does not mention the town. What we do have, however, is Vito Maria Amico’s description of the site. The eighteenth-century historian – and a monk himself – tells us that the monastery sat below a very high and inaccessible hill.9 Holy Trinity of Refesio, located in Burgio, Agrigento, also appears to have been rather geographically removed. The remote nature of its location is hinted at in a charter from 1170 in which Bishop Gentile of Agrigento permitted a castellan of the royal palace in Palermo to build this monastery in a forest.10 Similarly, St. Mary of Roccamadore, established at the very end of the Norman period in 1193, was located four miles south of Messina in Tremestieri, well outside of the main town.11 As for the abbey of the Holy Spirit of Palermo, its location may have been determined by a pre-existing monastery that the Cistercians later reformed. That the dedication was to the Holy Spirit rather than to the Virgin Mary (to which the vast majority of Cistercian houses were dedicated) further supports this interpretation, as White notes. With all this said, still the abbey was located outside of Palermo’s city walls; the distance was not as dramatic as some of the ones discussed previously but still located outside of the city.12 It appears that these communities of Cistercians did, indeed, live far from men.

Yet, with this acknowledged, there was an exception: the abbey of the Holy Trinity of the Chancellor, Palermo, founded by King William I’s notary, Matthew of Agello, sometime between 1177 and 1191.13 Here we may have another example of a Cistercian reform of a pre-existing monastery given its dedication to the Trinity (and not to the Virgin). The monks were certainly not removed as not only were they located in a bustling city, there were a number of other monasteries very close by, including Christ the Savior of Palermo, St. Mary de Crypta and St. Mary of the Admiral, which was just some .3 mile away.

Holy Trinity of the Chancellor was an exception in its proximity to the hustle and bustle of town life. Why that was is unclear. It may have been that Matthew simply wanted to restore a previously-existing house (perhaps one that had been dedicated to the Trinity) but wanted it to have a Cisterican identity. Out of the five Cistercian houses in Norman Sicily with known locations, this monastery appears to have been the only one to deviate from the practice of distance noted by the author of the Libellus. It would be curious to know how – or if – the Cistercians of the Holy Trinity of the Chancellor, located in Sicily’s capital city, were able to lead the simple and austere lives for which the order was known.

Questions to Consider

  1. Why might King William II have chosen a rather remote location for Santa Maria Nuova? In addition to the tradition of the dream he was said to have had, what other factors may have encouraged him to select Monreale for the location of what was perhaps Sicily’s greatest monastery?
  2. How might the volatile political situation that unfolded in late twelfth-century Sicily have encouraged Matthew of Agello to establish the Cistercian abbey of the Holy Trinity of the Chancellor in a city rather than in a more remote location?

  1. Libellus de diversis ordinibus et professionibus qui sunt in aecclesia, ed. and trans. Giles Constable and Bernard Smith, rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003 [1972]). ↩︎

  2. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale, last accessed April 9, 2021, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1487. Lynn Townsend White, Jr., Latin Monasticism in Norman Sicily (Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1938), 132. ↩︎

  3. White, Latin Monasticism, 132. ↩︎

  4. Roger II commissioned the Arab geographer Mohammad al-Idrisi to write the Kitab nuzhat al-mushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaq (The Pleasure Excursion of One Who Is Eager to Traverse the Regions of the World), whose title Idrisi later changed to Kitab Rujar (Book of Roger) around 1139. For the Arabic text, see Opus geographicum; sive, “Liber ad eorum delectationem qui terras peragrare studeant” (Leiden: Brill, 19[70]-1984). A modern French edition based on Pierre-Amédée Jaubert’s nineteenth-century translation is available in La première géographie de l’Occident, trans. Henri Bresc and Annliese Nef (Paris: Flammarion, 1999). A partial English translation is available in Graham Loud, Roger II and the Creation of the Kingdom of Sicily (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), 355-63. White, Latin Monasticism, 142. ↩︎

  5. White, Latin Monasticism, 142. ↩︎

  6. “…localité au bord de la mer, élevée et riante. Elle est prospère, dotée de marchés et de nombreuses demeures. Elle est actuellement à la tête des divers districts et circonscriptions qui l’environnent. Son port est fréquenté et de nombreux navires y arrivent sans cesse de Tripoli et d’Ifrîqiyya.” La première géographie, 317-18. ↩︎

  7. Ibid., 336: “…la petite bourgade fortifiée de Gratteri dotée de tous les biens possibles…” ↩︎

  8. For more about this theory, please see the blog post dedicated to the significance of this outlier community. ↩︎

  9. Vito Maria Amico, Lexicon topographicum siculum, vol. 3 (Catania, 1760), 127: “Tumulo ingens, altissima, atque inaccessa incubat rupes . . . .” ↩︎

  10. White, Latin Monasticism, 172. ↩︎

  11. Ibid., 183. ↩︎

  12. Ibid., 169. ↩︎

  13. Ibid., 180-81. ↩︎