The perception of difference and the differences of perception: The image of the Norman invaders in southern Italy in contemporary western medieval and Byzantine sources
By Eleni Tounta
Βyzantina Symmeikta, Vol. 20 (2010)
Introduction: The subject of the present study is the image of the Norman invaders of southern Italy as it emerges from Western and Byzantine contemporary sources. The chronological limits of the examination will be from 1017-1018, when the Normans arrived in southern Italy to fight as mercenaries on the side of the Lombard rulers of the area who had risen in revolt against Byzantine control, to 1085, when they had succeeded in establishing their authority in the area after conquering a large part of southern Italy as well as Sicily. Contrary – as well as complementary, of course – to most studies which have focused on the reasons of the Normans’ arrival in southern Italy, the subject under examination here is the way their presence and actions were perceived.
More specifically, I will examine the conceptual notions that medieval men had at their disposal during the process of perception, which eventually shaped their view of the Norman invaders. A further point of interest for the present study is to determine to what extent the conquerors of southern Italy were seen through an ethnic perspective, i.e. whether their Otherness was described in terms of ethnicity. This examination is important, as it corresponds to a vital debate in modern historiography, as to whether belonging to a certain gens, an ethnic group, constituted for the medieval man a basic framework of defining the Self and the Other.
A comparative approach, i.e. the comparison of the way Westerners and Byzantines perceived the image of the other, was deemed necessary not only because the Normans encountered a sizeable Byzantine population in southern Italy which they eventually subdued, but mostly in order to highlight any similarities or differences in the mentalities that defined Western and Byzantine perceptions of the “other”. In fact, on account of the Byzantine presence in Italy, the Western sources which make mention of the Norman invaders cannot but view them in conjunction with the Byzantines of the area. Therefore, at a second level, the results of such comparisons enrich the question investigated by historiography in recent years on whether to include or not certain cultures into medieval Europe. They can also offer an answer to the question whether Byzantium was one of the centres or one of the peripheries of medieval Europe, or it belonged to an entirely different cultural grouping; an answer to which, as it becomes evident, determines both the perspective and the methods of modern historiography.