Who, What and Where: Monastic Patrons in Norman Sicily

The question of monastic patronage - the founding or rebuilding of monasteries - in Norman Sicily is an interesting one about which the sources provide data. Below are two tables that offer information about the monasteries whose founders or rebuilders are known. The individuals have been divided into two groups, one for the “royal” founders (in other words, the rulers - Robert Guiscard, Roger I and the kings from Roger II onward). A quick glance shows a heavy investment by the Norman rulers in Basilian foundations, followed by Benedictine and Augustinian houses (the two Cluniac and Premonstratensian communities are outliers, as noted in separate blog posts). Founders not in the ruling class also favored Basilians and Benedictines, but they also created Cistercian communities, too.

Recorded “Royal” and Non-Royal Foundations by Order

Order “Royal” Non-Royal
Augustinians 3
Basilians 19 13
Benedictines 7 6
Cistercians 5
Cluniacs 1 1
Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem 1
Premonstratensians 1

A closer look at the Hauteville family foundations reveals that Roger I was the most active founder by far, followed by his wife, Adelasia (who once was a joint founder), and Roger II. After Roger II, successive Norman rulers appear to have made just 3 additional foundations. In short, two-thirds of the monastic foundations known to have been established by the Normans were founded by 1101 - very early in the society’s history - and just over 90% of the known “royal” monastic foundations were established by the end of Roger II’s reign in 1154.

Recorded “Royal” Foundations by Order

Order Robert Guiscard Roger I Adelasia Roger II Duke Roger William I William II
Augustinians 1 1 1
Basilians 16 2 2
Benedictines 1 4 2 1 1
Cluniacs 1
Premonstratensians 1

We can also determine for these two distinct groups of people where they were establishing their foundations. Following is a table that shows the locations of the “royal” and non-royal foundations. The territory that comprises the modern provinces of Messina, Palermo and Catania - in that order - were the locations of the vast majority of the monasteries for both groups, suggesting a northern bias that skewed toward the northern and eastern coasts. The center of the island, what today would be the province of Enna, had few foundations in general and only two for whom we have the names of founders. Trapani also contained relatively few houses, with just two non-royal founders for whom we have names. Note the relative solitude of Ragusa for not only those for whom we have names. Even if we include monasteries whose founders are unknown, Ragusa was a relatively lonely place. This may explain why, when faced with the need to give his leprous son who was severely physically compromised a domain, Roger I chose to make him lord of Ragusa. For more on this, see Dawn Hayes’ forthcoming research on this question of Geoffrey of Hauteville.

Recorded “Royal” and Non-Royal Foundations by Geography (Modern Province)

Modern Province Royal Non-Royal
Agrigento 1 2
Caltanissetta 1
Catania 2 3
Enna 2
Messina 18 6
Palermo 6 11
Syracuse/Siracusa 1 2
Trapani 2

A more focused table that shows the location of the Hauteville rulers’ foundations shows again the active nature of Roger I as well as the preference for the three provinces noted above (Messina, Palermo and Catania, in that order). Note how the number of foundations peters out after Roger II as well as the focus on Palermo from the king’s reign onward.

Recorded “Royal” Foundations by Geography (Modern Province)

Modern Province Robert Guiscard Roger I Adelasia Roger II Duke Roger William I William II
Agrigento 1
Caltanissetta 1
Catania 2 1
Enna 2
Messina 1 13 3 2
Palermo 1 2 1 1 1
Syracuse/Siracusa 1

Beyond the questions for which orders and in which locations these founder established houses, the data provide insight into the spiritual patrons (mainly saints but also Christ, the Holy Spirit and the Holy Trinity) they honored. Given the level of devotion to her throughout Europe at this time, we should not be surprised that the Virgin Mary was, by far, the most popular spiritual patron, both among the rulers as well as among those they ruled. St. Michael was also relatively popular, as was St. Nicholas. For more about the latter’s significance to the Normans, see Dawn Hayes’ Roger II of Sicily: Family, Faith and Empire in the Medieval Mediterranean World (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020), Chapter 3.

Recorded “Royal” and Non-Royal Foundations by Dedication

Dedication “Royal” Non-Royal
All Saints 1
Holy Savior 3
Holy Savior and Sts. Peter and Paul 1
Holy Spirit 1 1
Holy Trinity 3
St. Agatha 1
St. Anastasia 1
St. Anne 1
St. Bartholomew 1
St. Elias 1
St. George 2
St. John 1 1
St. Lucy 1 1
St. Michael* 2 3
St. Nicander 1
St. Nicholas* 2 3
Sts. Peter and Paul 2
St. Pantaleo 1
St. Philip 3
the Virgin Mary* 8 11

* - 5 or More among all Founders

What follows below is a table that sorts the dedications by ruler. Note how Roger I honored a relatively large number of spiritual patrons during his reign, a time when the Normans were in the process of conquering Sicily and needed the support of the Orthodox Christians who were already there. The number goes down significantly under Adelasia (indeed, one of the foundations she is listed with, Santa Maria di Maniace, she co-founded with her husband). With their son, Roger II, there are just 4 known Sicilian foundations, three of which were to either Christ, Sts. Peter and Paul, or a combination of the three - all universal patrons. The foundation of St. George of Gratteri by Duke Roger is somewhat exceptional (please see the blog post on this monastery, which we have included in the “royal” category because although Duke Roger died before becoming king, this foundation was directly related to marriage and continuation of dynasty) and we are unsure whether the spiritual patron was chosen for very specific interests. The later foundations, under William I and William II, are to the Virgin Mary - another spiritual patron with wide universal appeal. In short, the diversity of spiritual patrons contracted very quickly under the Norman rulers.

Recorded “Royal” Foundations by Dedication

Dedication Robert Guiscard Roger I Adelasia Roger II Duke Roger William I William II
All Saints
Holy Savior 1 1
Holy Savior and Sts. Peter and Paul 1
Holy Spirit 1
St. Agatha 1
St. Anne 1
St. Bartholomew 1 (with Roger I) 1
St. Elias 1
St. George 1 1
St. John 1
St. Lucy 1
St. Michael 2
St. Nicander 1
St. Nicholas 1 1
Sts. Peter and Paul 1 1
St. Philip 3
the Virgin Mary 5 2 (one with Roger I) 1 1

Questions to Consider

  1. Commenting on the schism between Popes Innocent II and Anacletus II, Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux noted in 1131/1132 that a number of religious orders - including the Cluniacs and Cistercians - supported the former against the latter. Anacletus (d. 1139), however, was the pope who supported the coronation of Roger II as Sicily’s first king. How might this papal schism help explain the relatively low numbers of Cluniac and Cistercian communities in Norman Sicily and the chronological trajectory of their foundations?

  2. The Augustinian Canons were known for their pastoral care, including serving at hospitals for the sick and poor. Is it possible to make an educated guess about the intentions of the 3 known royal patrons (Roger I, Adelasia and Roger II) based on the locations of their three Augustinian foundations?