Although the conquest of England in 1066 is better known, the Norman conquest of Sicily and parts of southern Italy was just as impressive an achievement, and probably had a bigger immediate impact. Their involvement in the area began at a time when the Greeks, Byzantines and southern Italians were under great pressure from Muslim raiders and invaders, and in which Muslim fleets dominated much of the Mediterranean. The Hauteville dynasty changed all of that, conquering Sicily, southern Italy and for a short period parts of North Africa. They also took control of the seas around their kingdom, thus giving them control of maritime trade between the eastern and western Mediterranean. The link they established between Sicily and southern Italy lasted until the nineteenth century when the Kingdom of Naples or the two Sicilies became part of a united Italy.
The book is built around a narrative history of the Norman involvement in the Mediterranean, from the earliest appearance of Normans in the area to the decline and fall of the Hauteville dynasty at the end of the 12th century. Stanton's reason for choosing this arrangement is that the sources don't really provide enough details of individual naval battles, the types of ships or the organisation of the Norman fleets for the book to be organised by topic. One of the appendices does examine the types of ships available to the Normans, with twenty pages dedicated to that topic. The organisation of the fleets and the location of shore facilities are also covered in the same fifty page appendix. The author's approach also makes the book more accessible for the non-expert, making it easier to follow the events of this unfamiliar period, and thus the significance of the naval operations being examined.
This is essentially the tale of the rise and fall of the Hauteville dynasty. At the start the early Hautevilles had little experience of naval warfare, and suffered a series of defeats. As they gained in expertise they gained in success, and the most successful of the Hautevilles combined excellent political skills with a firm grasp of the naval technology of the day. One of Stanton's main arguments is that maritime success in this period depended on control of the shores around a body of water - the galley fleets of the day couldn't stay at sea for more than a few days before they needed to take on fresh water. The Normans were thus at their peak when they controlled Sicily, the coast of southern Italy and the coast of North Africa, thus making it very difficult for anyone to sail between the western and eastern Mediterranean without their permission. The later members of the dynasty failed to understand the basis of their power, and despite being able to create some sizable fleets went into a terminal decline, hastened by the dispatch of vast fleets into the eastern Mediterranean, where their victories did little to aid their kingdom while their defeats left it increasingly defenceless.
The text is well written and supported by a good knowledge of the contemporary sources and some useful maps. Overall this is a fascinating study of an important but little known topic.
1 - The Conquest (827-1101)
2 - The Apogee (1101-1154)
3 - The Eclipse (1154-1194)
4 - The Impact
Appendix A: The Fleet (ships, sailors, shipyards, strategies)
Appendix B: The Sources
Author: Charles D. Stanton
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