A Letter From and About Lombardy

Lombardy is ground zero of Italy’s coronavirus crisis. One of the richest regions in Europe, it is home to Italy’s financial capital, Milan, also a world fashion capital, which may be how Lombardy caught the coronavirus. Clothes that are designed in Milan get manufactured in China. Lots of people travel back and forth to make that happen.

Lombardy is, of course, named for the Lombards, the marauding German tribe that conquered Italy in the late 500s. The original Lombards ruled Lombardy for around 200 years, until losing it to Charlemagne in 774. They soldiered on in southern Italy for much longer, in fact until 1077, when they were finally defeated by the Normans. Yes, those Normans.

Eat your heart out, 1066. While William ‘the Conqueror’ was busy subduing a poor, remote, semi-barbarous island in the North Sea, his upstart rival, Robert Guiscard, took possession of the rich, cosmopolitan urban centres at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. William got cold, grey London. Robert got sunny Naples and the Amalfi Coast.

Robert was actually invited into Lombardy (that is, the ‘real’ Lombardy of southern Italy) to help fend off the Muslims armies which ravaged Italy throughout the early Middle Ages. In 846, they attacked Rome itself. The raiders didn’t get into the city proper, but they did loot the old St. Peter’s Basilica on the opposite bank of the Tiber.

They then headed south and took the Lombard capital, Bari. The now-forgotten Emirate of Bari lasted from 847 until 871. The neighboring Emirate of Sicily lasted another 300 years. Robert put an end to it on his way to Naples. He left his brother, Roger, in charge of Sicily.

The capital city of the Muslim Emirate of Sicily was my maternal grandfather’s hometown, Palermo. My maternal grandmother’s hometown of Altamura was burned to the ground by Muslim armies as they tried to fight off the Normans. The destruction was so complete that no one knows the exact date.

I don’t know how my Italian ancestors felt about living under Muslim rule, though I suspect they didn’t like it when Muslims torched their homes. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them joined the First Crusade, which was launched only twenty years later. It’s funny how we remember the Crusades, but not the jihads that prompted them.

Muslim ideologues and their Western apologists like to portray the Crusades as unprovoked attacks on the peaceful Arab lands of the Middle East, precursors to the Western colonial imperialism of later centuries. In reality, Christian-Muslim conflict was near-continuous all across the Mediterranean world for thirteen centuries, from the Muslim conquest of Christian Jerusalem in 638 until Australian cavalry wrenched the city from the Turks in 1917.

My father’s side of the family is Greek, from a village near Kalamata in the Peloponnese. They lived under Muslim rule from the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 to the Greek War of Independence in 1822 — with the exception of thirty years in the middle, when they were occupied by Venetians. They don’t seem to bear a grudge. Neither do the Italians.

That is to say, if my ancestors even were Greek and Italian. A thousand years is a long time, and a lot can happen in thirty or forty generations of intermarriage. Little Prince George of Cambridge is actually a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and of Genghis Khan. We’re all descended from Adam and Eve.

Around the year 1200, the Lombard lawyer Sparano da Bari undertook the codification of the Lombard common law. The Lombards, remember, were Germans, and just like their Anglo-Saxon cousins, they had a common law, too. The problem was that by 1200, no one could remember what it was.

Worse, Lombards and locals had been intermarrying for so long that it had become impossible to tell who was a Lombard (and thus subject to the common law) and who was a local (and subject to civil, or ‘Roman’ law). There were also Greeks and Jews in Bari, each with distinctive laws of their own, though at least they had their laws in writing.

The Normans don’t seem to have had any laws at all, though they certainly enriched southern Italy with their genes. Robert Guiscard’s warrior wife, Sikelgaita, bore him eight children. She was a Lombard princess whose name literally meant ‘victory at the point of a spear’. They played things tough, those old Lombards.

Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conti, is from Foggia in old Lombardy. His birthplace, the little hill town of Vulturara, was made the seat of a bishop by Robert Guiscard in 1059. Conti might have some Norman blood himself. His half-Swedish domestic partner, Olivia Paladino, certainly looks quite the warrior-princess. If she can help him defeat the coronavirus, all the better.

Good luck, Giuseppe the Conqueror. You’ll need it.

Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney

6 thoughts on “A Letter From and About Lombardy

  • Lawrie Ayres says:

    Love it. I do appreciate this sort of history. It proves that Western civilisation was not a simple progression of old white men as the Marxists try to prove but the result of the machinations of men and women through the years. The writer does not know whether he is Greek or Italian but rather the amalgam of both with some German and North African thrown in. Now that is diversity. Greens and leftists take note.

  • padraic says:

    I agree with your point about the deliberate contemporary ignoring by our historians (and other historians) of the violent conquest and settling of parts of Europe by Muslim jihadists well before the Crusades. The progressives have done a similar snow job on slavery. It’s always those terrible white European Christians who were into slavery, whilst ignoring the massive trade in African slaves undertaken by Arab countries over the centuries. The only glimmer of light was a BBC documentary about 2 years ago showing that descendants of African slaves are still slaves in Yemen. I am waiting to hear how an Arab Wilberforce cleaned up their slave trade. Not so long ago I watched another documentary on Al-Jazeera on the slave trade. It was only about the slave trade from West Africa to America – not a word about the flourishing slave trade from East Africa, mainly from Zanzibar up to the Arab countries. Why do we in the West put up with this garbage?

  • DG says:

    Moreover, on the slave business, I understand that a source of Negro slaves were their conquerors in African tribal wars. If my recollection is correct, this lays the slave trade at the feet of other Negros (a much more dignified name, to my mind, than the contentless colour black). Poor Cassius Clay who wanted to join the religion of those who started the business that enslaved his ancestors.

  • padraic says:

    Exactly DG. I had intended to mention the fact that the slave trade, particularly in West Africa, depended a lot on local victors selling the vanquished to the traders. Slavery has been around for a long time in various forms. In ancient Greece, for example, before there was currency, people used to barter, mainly grain harvested each year from basically subsistence farmers who tried to produce enough to provide food for the family, some surplus for bartering and enough left over for next season’s planting. It did not always work out because of drought or other natural disasters or just poor management, so when next year’s planting was to begin they had no seed to plant. So they would approach a neighbour to lend them some seed but they had to agree to the use of a small chunk of their landholding as a guarantee or collateral for the loan with the intention of paying it back after the next season. This did not always work out and if they continued down this path year after year they would have effectively mortgaged all their land and now were still trying to get a year’s seed but not having any collateral offered their person as collateral. If at the end of that season they did not have any surplus seed to pay of the debt or land as collateral the lender would acquire the property and sell the previous owner to a passing Phoenician or Greek trader to be used as a rower on the ship trading around the Mediterranean ports. If the ship ever came back to the port where he was sold relatives could buy his freedom from the merchant if they stumped up the grain price originally paid for him by the trader. It did not often happen, but at least his freedom could be bought. Convicts sent to Australia were de facto slaves but only had to spend 7 years before they attained freedom. It was a more sharing and caring form of slavery that would appeal to today’s progressives.

  • en passant says:

    I did the DNA test on my grand children and can proudly say they are pure bred mongrels with ELEVEN genetic markers, yet a troll on this website accused me of being racist. My ancestors certainly got around and clearly had no biases.
    In the TV series “Who do you think you are?” one of my favourite episodes was on Billy Connolly. He found out that his Great-great grandfather was a soldier in the British Army in India. Wounded and pensioned off he married a 14-year old Indian girl, thus giving Billy Indian genes he never knew about. Billy’s reaction? “That’s just brilliant” – followed by laughter and pride.

  • sbabones says:

    Thanks everyone for reading! I really did enjoy writing this piece. I’ve been digging into the Dark Ages lately, and it really has been an adventure. I’m reading (OK, audiobooking) Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks right now. Fun stuff!

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