We are Normans, see us build

By Lorenzo

This is the (small) castle at Acicastello, on the Sicilian coast north of the Roman and Aragonese capital of Catania, from a distance.

A castle on a volcanic spur

This is a model of the castle on display inside the castle.

A modest little castle

This the approach to the castle.

You only get in if I say so

The castle is a case of sheer determination frozen in stone and brick. The contrast, back in Catania, between the finish of the Greek and Roman brick and stone work (even after two millennia) with the much rougher looking medieval brick work built around a millennia later was a bit sad. Until you come to a place such as the castle at Acicastello. Suddenly, the energy and determination of the Normans, who wrested Sicily and Southern Italy from the Rhomanoi (the Eastern or Greek Romans) and the Saracens stands revealed.

The Norman Kingdom of Sicily was a brilliant flowering of art, literature and enquiry. It faltered a bit under their Hohenstaufen successors, though more due to the centralising of Frederick II Stupor Mundi, who the Sicilians call Frederick di Svebia (Federick of Swabia) and make something of a fuss over (because it was the last time Sicily seriously mattered). Frederick himself was a crowned polymath who presided over a brilliant court and who can seem very “modern”. He was also an orphaned control freak who left little in the way of positive legacy.

The brilliance of the Norman and Hohenstaufen kingdom came to an end due to the French, in the person of Charles of Anjou. Given Papal dispensation to replace the existing king Manfred, Frederick’s illegitimate son, he defeated and killed Manfred in 1266 at the Battle of Benevento. Arrogant and grasping, Charles as King managed to enrage the Sicilians into revolt, the infamous Sicilian Vespers of 1283, which saw every last French person in Sicily slaughtered or driven out. (Though Charles did better than the Revolutionary French in Malta in 1798; it took them less than three months to enrage the Maltese into revolt–the French held out in Valletta, behind the greatest fortifications in Europe, slowly starving and eventually surrendering to the British, a much more attractive option than surrendering to the Maltese.)

After the Sicilian Vespers and subsequent war, Sicily passed into the hands of the Kingdom of Aragon. The first King of Aragon and Sicily was Peter III, who was married to Constance, daughter of Manfred and granddaughter of Frederick. Thereafter, Sicily remained an appendage of first Aragon and then Aragon-Castile (which became Spain) until the C18th. At first, the Kings of Aragon actually preferred to reside in Sicily, but its comparative economic decline (in part a product of control-freak Frederick’s suppression of any possibility of merchant power) saw it relegated to rule by viceroys. Though Aragon’s experience in such rule was put to good use as a model of governance when the Spanish Empire came to dominate much of the globe.

But the story starts with the sort of thrusting energy that built the small castle on the volcanic spur at Acicastello.


  1. kvd
    Posted June 15, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo I must confess I’ve never seen the strategic sense of castles, and this particular example does not alter my opinion. I mean, I can admire the dogged building thereof (more particularly those ones high on a mountain, basically unassailable) but in the end what have you got?

    This one you visited seems as if it would comfortably fit 10-100 able bodies and a week’s supply of sandwiches. And I know there are many bigger, but what have you got except a concentration of immovable forces? For mine, I would have just bricked up all visible exits, left a monitoring force just outside projectile range, and waited for the invention of bulldozers or dynamite – or death and starvation.

    But forever, we see these pointless objects being beseiged, and attacked. Whatever for?

  2. Posted June 15, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Castles are basically bases for cavalry. (This one, not so much; but it was a potential base for a small sea force.)

    Cavalry could ride 40km in a day. Which means a castle could dominate ?20sq kmsq or 1,256kmsq (i.e. ? r squared, where r = 20km).

    As for blocking the entrances, you have to get that close in the first place, with folk shooting at you with crossbow, pouring boiling pitch down, etc.

    Assaulting a castle was actually a major effort, which was the point. Plenty of castles fought off siege attempts (even some quite small garrisons).

    In modern day strategic jargon, they were “force multipliers”. Even if they only delayed you, that gave time for other folk to respond. And ignoring them meant that raiding forces from it could operate in your rear, forcing you to entirely “live off the land”.

    During the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, the Knights’ cavalry was based in Mdina, and made quite a pest of itself for the Turks, raiding their camps and making venturing too far outside their own encirclement lines dangerous.

    Castles were visible statements of power. There is a reason Edward I built all those big castles in Wales. They provided protection for market towns he could control and tax, bases of residual power during the first wave of any putative revolt which then became bases for counterattacking forces re-establishing royal power.

  3. Posted June 15, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Astonishing!!! Thanks for the photos. What desperate war and wearisome creatures humans are. So much to admire and even more to deplore. Your travel/picture diaries are most engaging.

  4. kvd
    Posted June 15, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo, castles are basically immovable objects, built for defence, not attack. They imply a mindset unwilling to engage with an enemy, or one more interested in a display of power rather than projection of same. (And I forgot about the horses; make that three sandwiches and 500 bales of hay – you gotta keep the horses edible) But taking your points:

    – your ‘domination of 1,256kmsq’ assumes no opposing force. Unlikely.
    – where do the ‘castle people’ get resupplies of arrows and tar and such?
    – assaulting? Why bother, is my question? The enemy is self contained. Never poke a snake.
    – they only delay you if you consider the taking of them strategically important – think of a river in flood: it doesn’t stop at each impediment; more just finds a way around. And invading forces always “live off the land”.
    – Siege of Malta. A great victory for a small force, but again – why bother? – or as Wikipedia puts it The failure of the siege did nothing to reverse the increasing dominance of Ottoman naval power in the Mediterranean
    – ‘visible statements of power’. Agreed. And inevitably, as you say, “They provided protection for market towns he could control and tax”. Now there’s a surprise.

    Actually the more I think about it the more I think the sieges were more about the commanders’ egos than any strategic imperative.

    But I certainly do agree with [email protected] that your traveltales are very engaging!

  5. Andrew Reynolds
    Posted June 15, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    One of the points with castles was that you could not afford to leave an (unreduced) castle in your rear. If you did then the knights (heavy cavalry) could come out at any time and threaten your supply lines. With medieval government, sustaining a large force in the field for any time was a serious drain on your treasury.
    You therefore either had to take the enemy’s castles quickly or give up.

    What ended up making them meaningless was firstly the development of cannon that could make an assailable breach relatively quickly and, more importantly, more efficient economic and taxation systems that allowed for bigger armies to be sustained in the field for longer. This meant that you could actually afford to besiege (rather than take) several castles until they starved.

  6. AJ
    Posted June 15, 2012 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    The contrast, back in Catania, between the finish of the Greek and Roman brick and stone work (even after two millennia) with the much rougher looking medieval brick work built around a millennia later was a bit sad. Until you come to a place such as the castle at Acicastello.

    At least some of the Rome’s great projects were useful (public baths, aqueducts). In comparison, spending so much of a poor society’s resources on castles and cathedrals seems kind of tragic. I have similar problems enjoying the Great Pyramids.

  7. Posted June 17, 2012 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Castles were first and foremost bases for the imposition of public order. That is what I meant about how large an area to dominate; that is how you paid for the castle.

    You have to see castles as bases for mobile forces. Basically, you see castles where and when mounted shock cavalry are the key military force. Having a secure base to operate from was extremely useful; for control of an area, for stopping raids, for harassing invading forces.

    Given the difficulty of raising and supplying forces, you could not conquer an area until you took the castles. This is why much of the Kingdom of Jerusalem collapsed after the Horns of Hattin–their castles no longer had sufficient garrisons. If the crusaders had simply stayed in the castles, Saladin would have likely had a much worse time of it.

    As for the Great Siege of Malta “not affecting Ottoman naval dominance” that is a massive non sequitur. The issue was whether the Ottomans could get a naval base from which to better raid the Italian coast and shipping. They failed, and so Malta became a base for raiding Ottoman shipping. Again, it is about a fortified base from which you could project power.

    [email protected] It is easy for us moderns to underestimate how difficult just getting some public order was in the medieval period. Castle building could often be associated with increased economic growth because public order improved.

  8. kvd
    Posted June 17, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] and [email protected] while I completely accept your points as to the strategic and commercial value of castles in peacetime, I was more concentrating upon their worth (and particularly the worth of attacking them) during conflict. I’m simply saying that the effort involved in overrunning the fortification is not worth it from the attackers’ perspective, while from the defenders’ perspective it involves the concentration and containment of otherwise valuable assets.

    Anyway, don’t rely upon me: The worst policy is to attack cities. Attack cities only when there is no alternative. – Sun Tzu. or maybe read the conclusion of this old USMC paper – the first sentence of which says: The US military should lay siege to cities before having to fight in them.

    Castles are old versions of fortified cities. And the tactical principal remains true: attacking them is a waste of valuable resource, and defending them is in no way a ‘projection’ of force.

  9. kvd
    Posted June 17, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    And I must add that I make no pretense of expertise; just looking at it from a layman’s pov.

  10. Posted June 18, 2012 at 1:23 am | Permalink

    [email protected]

    Castles are old versions of fortified cities

    Actually, castles are quite different from fortified cities in that there is no civilian population to worry about and they are entirely about basing mobile forces.

    As for Sun Tzu, part of the point of castles was to force people to attack them or else give up because they couldn’t. And the US military has a scale of resources, and logistical support, way beyond the wildest dreams of medieval armies.

    Castles were a rational investment for the time, that is why so many were built.

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