The Hard vs. Soft Power of Medieval Monasticism: A Comparison with English Data

1Quantifying the evidence and harnessing the power in technology to render it visually opens up new ways of understanding Sicily’s landscape. Take, for example, this stacked bar graph that represents the breakdown of Norman Sicily’s monastic houses by gender and order.2

With occasional exceptions, we have a good sense of the religious houses’ identities. Female communities on the island were divided evenly between Basilian and Benedictine foundations with six houses each.3 The one known exception was the Cistercian house at Prizzi, at first a male foundation but later converted to a community of nuns.4 Male communities were more diverse. In addition to Basilian foundations, which comprised about 41% (64 of 158) of the male houses we have identified, there were also houses of Benedictines (56), Augustinian Canons (22), Cistercians (7), Cluniacs (3), Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem (2), Knights of the Hospital of St. Lazarus of Jerusalem (1), Premonstratensian Canons (1) and Knights Templar (1). If we compare this to Burgundy, a region to which some of the Norman rulers had ties, a different picture emerges. By 1200, Benedictines comprised some 65% of the monastic population as a whole (compared to Sicily’s +/- 32%) whereas approximately 25% were canons (though just 13% in Sicily); 10% belonged to other orders or were hermits, a percentage much smaller than Sicily’s.5 The dramatic difference is largely attributable to the strong presence of Basilian houses, which not only mirrored the large number of Greek Christians on the island, but also reflected Norman public policy; the Benedictine monasteries, on the other hand, many of which were founded during the early years of Norman rule, were largely expressions of “spontaneous piety."6 One wonders, though, given the broader campaign of Latinization that occurred across the island during the Norman period, whether the rulers preferred to leave the establishment of Latin houses to individuals to avoid the outward appearance of divided loyalties. By establishing four important Benedictine abbeys (Lipari-Patti, Catania, St. John of the Hermits and Monreale), to which, as White observed, the majority of the other houses were either colonies or subordinates, the Normans could allow donors to endow Benedictine houses with relatively little concern while they themselves supported the Basilians and cultivated goodwill among their Greek Christian subjects.7

It is noteworthy that some orders had little influence.8 For example, Cluniacs and Cistercians combined comprised just 6% of Sicily’s houses. It is very likely that Roger II did not want to contend with the personalities and agendas of politically powerful abbots like Peter the Venerable and Bernard of Clairvaux as he worked to consolidate political power and build a kingdom in southern Italy and Sicily.9 Welcoming significant numbers of monks from these orders could have destabilized an already complex political landscape. Similarly, Hospitallers and Templars were poorly represented, a fact that may be explained, as Loud has noted, by the humiliation of Roger’s mother in 1118 as well as by his reluctance to raise the ire of the Muslims both in his kingdom and in North Africa.10 There does appear to have been a number of Augustinian communities, perhaps as many as 22 over the course of the Norman period, but compared to their presence in other areas of Europe as well as in the Crusader states, their influence was relatively minor.11 As for the Premonstratensian Canons, please see the blog post on the significance of St. George of Gratteri, the only Premonstratensian foundation in Norman Sicily.

Distribution by gender is also instructive. Of the 169 houses whose genders are known with a relative degree of certainty, just 12 (7%) seem to have been populated by nuns. The remaining 158 houses (93%) were inhabited by monks. Even if we take into account that the gender of the inhabitants of 35 houses (17% of the total number of houses recorded) is unknown, it is clear that from a monastic perspective, Sicily appears to have been very much a man’s world. For more on why this may have been, please see the blog post dedicated to the question of gender.

Clearly, the monastic makeup of Sicily was quite different from much of western Europe. The strong presence of Basilian monks and nuns is perhaps the most obvious evidence of this and can be largely explained by Sicily’s specific historical and geographical contexts. But it would be interesting to compare this data to other areas in twelfth-century Europe, particularly to the French lands to which the Normans had ties. It is possible to compare Sicily’s monastic data to England, largely thanks to Alison Binns’ (1989) Dedications of Monastic Houses in England and Wales, 1066-1216, whose catalog is based on male communities and excludes Cistercian foundations.12 Nicholas Orme has conveniently extracted the English data from her study, recording the spiritual patrons in the kingdom who had been honored by five or more dedications, a process that created a subset of 514 houses established between 1086-1216.13 If Binns’ parameters are applied to the Sicilian data – male, non-Cistercian monasteries whose dedications are known to us - 153 houses remain.14 This results in the removal of seven Cisterican houses and one monastery whose subject of dedication is unknown. And when we extract from them the names of patrons who had five or more dedications, that number becomes 70.15

There were 101 subjects of dedication among the English houses during these years, with 24 of them honored by five or more foundations, revealing a relatively high concentration of dedications to approximately one quarter of the spiritual patrons identified.16 A similar trend is not found in the Sicilian data. Yet, England did not experience a dramatic rupture in its religious culture nor did it contend with such widely disparate cultural forces. As a result, the Sicilian sample offers a different picture, one that suggests a more diverse spiritual landscape. Just four of the island’s spiritual patrons (+/- 14% of the total) had five or more monasteries dedicated to them.17 In other words, the vast majority of Sicily’s monasteries shared a spiritual patron with four or fewer houses. Whereas its profile of religious orders was relatively small when compared to other areas of Europe at the time, the number of spiritual patrons reflects the diversity of the island’s population. Like England, some Sicilian foundations bore the names of local saints, such as Agatha, Elias, Lucy, and Venera.18 But the subjects of its monastic dedications also betray a strong Greek Christian presence on the island; Sts. Barbarus, Basil, Constantine, Cosmas, Mercurius, Nicander, Onuphrius, Pantaleon, Philip of Thrace and Theodore are some examples. It is noteworthy, though, that all four of the saints who were particularly popular in Sicily were also venerated enthusiastically in England. The celebrity of Sts. Peter, George, Michael the Archangel, Nicholas and Philip extended across Europe as did the devotion to the Virgin Mary who, in both lands, was the most popular spiritual patron by far.19 A look at the 64 male Basilian foundations so actively supported by the Norman rulers reveals that the number of repeat spiritual patrons was even more restricted with just two saints – Nicholas and the Virgin Mary – having more than three dedications to their names.20

As Paul Oldfield has noted, with the exception of St. Agatha, Sicily’s Greek monks, Latin clerics and Norman rulers only revived in a limited way the cults of the Sicilian saints that pre-date the Muslim conquest of the island.21 And although efforts were made to revive Agatha’s cult during the Norman period, her name seems to appear in just one monastic dedication. Although a few new saints appeared during the Norman period, their influence was limited.22 In addition, although the Normans in Sicily favored some cross-cultural saints, cultivating devotion to a specific holy person, a campaign that would have constructed a coherent cultural narrative, would have been ill-advised in a kingdom with such a diverse population.23 In short, an examination of Siculo-Norman monasteries and their dedications reveals that although the Normans maintained control over the monastic orders – the “hard power” that could have strong political ramifications on the island – they were less focused on streamlining the softer power that was represented by the cults of the saints. Whereas it was in their interest to direct the former – presumably an attractive opportunity to exert real control over one of the kingdom’s many intricate dynamics – the power of sanctity was left diffuse, a religious and cultural force largely allowed to express the varied concerns and interests of the subjects of an up-and-coming state located at a crossroads of civilization. On the whole, cultivating spiritual patrons was not a concern to the Norman rulers of Sicily, even if managing external political influences that could be exerted through monastic channels was.24


  1. This is an updated excerpt from Dawn Marie Hayes and Joseph Hayes, “The Norman Sicily Project: A Digital Portal to Sicily’s Norman Past,” Digital Medievalist 12 (2019): 1-31. DOI: https://doi.org/10.16995/dm.68↩︎

  2. The data represent the entire Norman period. Given that foundation dates are often unknown, it is not possible to chart with precision the growth of monastic settlements over time. Lynn Townsend White, Jr., Latin Monasticism in Norman Sicily (Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1938) includes the date of the earliest surviving record for a number of the foundations, but these are not enough to track the development of monasticism in Norman Sicily with any degree of specificity. ↩︎

  3. Basilians were Eastern Orthodox monks who followed the Rule of St. Basil. It should be noted, though, that they did not comprise a distinct religious order as monasticism in the Eastern Church was not organized by this principle. ↩︎

  4. Sant’Angelo di Prizzi, which is attested as early as 1161, has been added to the male Cistercian count as the house’s colonization by nuns from Tripoli, Syria also took place at the rather late date of 1188, suggesting that it had spent the majority of its time during the Norman period as a male establishment. ↩︎

  5. Giles Constable, “Religious Communities, 1024-1215,” in The New Cambridge Medieval History, ed. D. E. Luscombe and Jonathan Riley-Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 336. See also Bernard Bligny, L’Église et les ordres religieux dans le royaume de Bourgogne aux XIe et XIIe siècles (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1960). ↩︎

  6. See White, Latin Monasticism, 53. Also Graham Loud, The Latin Church in Norman Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 89. ↩︎

  7. White, Latin Monasticism, 54. Please see the blog post on the recent research by Dawn Marie Hayes on the Abbey of St. Bartholomew in Lipari where she argues that the location of one of Norman Sicily’s most important monasteries was influenced by the leprosy suffered by Roger I’s illegitimate son, Geoffrey. ↩︎

  8. Loud, Latin Church, 484-86. ↩︎

  9. Pietro De Leo, “L’insediamento dei Cistercensi nel ‘Regnum Siciliae’: i primi monasteri cistercensi calabresi,” in I Cistercensi nel Mezzogiorno medioevale, ed. Hubert Houben and Benedetto Vetere (Galatina: Congedo, 1994), 317-52, at 349-51. Also, White, Latin Monasticism, 163-65. Bernard of Clairvaux died in 1153, just one year before Roger II, and Peter the Venerable outlived the king by two years, dying in 1156. Just one Cluniac monastery appears to have existed during Roger II’s reign; the priory of St. Mary de Jummariis of Sciacca, founded by Juliet, daughter of Roger I, was in existence by 1136, but could have been established as early as 1100. Please see the blog post on distances for additional information about the remaining two Cistercian houses that were established during the later part of the Norman period. As for Cistercian houses, the first in the kingdom was Santa Maria di Sambucina, Calabria, c. 1144 whereas the earliest in Sicily may have been the priory of St. Christopher of Prizzi, c. 1150. ↩︎

  10. Loud, Latin Church, 492. ↩︎

  11. Ibid., 485-86. ↩︎

  12. Alison Binns, Dedications of Monastic Houses in England and Wales, 1066-1216 (Woodbridge, Eng.: Boydell, 1989), 2-3 and 18-19. Cistercian houses were usually dedicated solely to the Virgin Mary; the exceptions were Neath (Holy Trinity and the Virgin), Revesby (St. Laurence and the Virgin), Combermere (St. Michael and the Virgin), and Buildwas (St. Chad and the Virgin). Binns excluded female houses in anticipation of Sally Thompson’s Women Religious: The Founding of English Nunneries after the Norman Conquest (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991). The author reminds us that all monastic churches were dedicated to God and simply in honor of a spiritual patron (or collection of patrons). ↩︎

  13. We have followed Orme’s lead and have separated the dedications to a single saint from those dedications that include an individual saint in a larger group. For example, we have separated dedications to St. Peter alone from those he shared with St. Paul and, in the case of Cefalù, St. Paul and Christ. ↩︎

  14. Nicholas Orme, English Church Dedications: With a Survey of Cornwall and Devon (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996), 25. ↩︎

  15. From the 158 male houses we have recorded, we have subtracted the 7 Cistercian monasteries as well as one whose monastic affiliation is unknown. ↩︎

  16. Orme, English Church Dedications, 27. ↩︎

  17. Sts. George, Michael the Archangel, Nicholas, Peter, Philip, and the Virgin Mary. There were also some seven dedications to St. John, though it is not always clear to us whether these monasteries were honoring the Baptist, the Apostle, or perhaps even an altogether different John. ↩︎

  18. St. Venera was also known as St. Parasceve and the three dedications to the saint have been counted under a single spiritual patron. ↩︎

  19. Forty-six percent of the non-Cistercian male houses in England and 24% of the same subset in Sicily. ↩︎

  20. Eight and 14, respectively. St. Mary of Pedale may have been a Basilian house and we have included it in the Basilian statistics. ↩︎

  21. Paul Oldfield, Sanctity and Pilgrimage in Medieval Southern Italy, 1000-1200 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 147. ↩︎

  22. Ibid., 165. ↩︎

  23. Ibid., 177. ↩︎

  24. It does seem, though, that Roger II had a personal attachment to Nicholas, a saint whose appeal transcended geographical bounds and whose cult had been focused in Norman-controlled lands since 1087. See Dawn Marie Hayes, Roger II of Sicily: Family, Faith and Empire in the Medieval Mediterranean World (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020), Chapter Four and Charles Jones Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 220. ↩︎