Thursday, May 24, 2012

Book Review: Before the Normans - Southern Italy in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries

Southern Italian Christianity is, by most anyone's estimation, a unique phenomenon that, sadly, is largely understudied. In general, this stems from the very fact that Southern Italian Christianity is Southern Italian. Southern Italy is notoriously glossed over by many accounts of Italian history and in contemporary Italian culture itself. In some respects, this is a consequence of the region's history as Magna Grecia, niether quite Greek, nor Latin, nor Italian, but a distinct cultural and, very probably, multi-lingual entity in its own right. Before the Normans is one of a respectable handful of books released in recent history that attempts to clear away the historical obscurity of the region and attempt to construct a profile, however, Barbara Kreutz, while succeeding in some areas, adheres to a variety of the glosses that have hindered scholarship on the region as a whole.

Kreutz's study focuses upon the locations of Sicily, Naples and Salerno, although Sicily gets considerably more attention in my estimation, and the cultural consequences of the Arab incursions into the area between the ninth and tenth centuries. Calabria, and the Greek cultural influence therein, is largely down played by Kreutz, a currious move given the bulk of historical and linguistic scholarship argues for the substantial base Greek culture and language supplied to Calabria. However, this is in keeping with Kreutz's positions that Byzantine control of the region was negligable (a point she later seems to contradict) and that Greek language and ethnicity are not as formative of the region as earlier scholars had argued (a point she never really argues). Kreutz does not, as I alluded, often "stick" with her arguments. The historical data she provides would seem to require a revision of earlier statements in the book. When discussing the linguistic composition of Southern Italy, a very important part of the book, in my estimation, Kreutz argues in favor of the position that region was a multi-lingual region. The local populace probably knew Greek, Kreutz contends, and, very likely there was considerable bilingualism among them given the interaction between Lombards and Byzantines (p.177). However, there remains a mystery in the linguistic composition of Southern Italy: how did Southern Italians, whether "Latin" or "Greek" communicate with the Arabs? In a final contradiction with her earlier down play of Greek importance in the region, Kreutz posits the existence of some as of yet unidentified and probably Greek based dialect readily used throughout the Mediterranean. In some ways, one has to sympathize with the difficulty Kreutz encounters when treating of the linguistic composition of the region. The various strata of the Western Sicilian-Eastern Sicilian-Southern Calabrian-Northern Calabrian-Neapolitan languages vex even the most devoted of scholars. Southern Calabrian (or, simply Calabrian) is a fine example. Here we have a language closely related to Eastern Sicilian, however, it has is own notable traits. Calabrian has a considerable Greek base, including some grammar constructions, however, it is clearly a romance language, with a largely Latin lexicon and proximity to Latin grammar. Conversely, we don't know when Calabrian became a  romance language. Whether or not Calabrian's Latin lexicon dates back to the Roman domination of the period or after the Norman Conquest is a point of contention. The orthography of Calabrian is, at times, closer to Latin (be it examples of "vulgar" Latin from grammatical texts or the hypothetical constructions of vulgar Latin among linguists) and there is still the matter of how a probable Italian koine connects Calabrian to Tuscan. A good example of the linguistic proximity can be found when comparing the conjugation of essere with essiri where differences are, in large part, phonetic, resulting from the regional varieties of pronunciation.

Kreutz treats of the variety of Christianity in Southern Italy, although not with as much detail as is needed to fully grasp the dynamics in the region. Nevertheless, it is enough to offer the reader a tantalizing glimpse in the apparently common exchange of ideas between "Latins", "Greeks" and Arabic Muslims in the area of religious matters. It was not uncommon for Christian liturgical vessels, vestments, and churches themselves to be constructed with Arabic symbolism and the famous monastery of Monte Cassino itself was subject Greek influence. It is the presentation of information such as this that makes Kreutz's work relevant for the time being, as it indicates that the as yet cryptic history of Southern Italian Christianity still awaits decoding.