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Sicilian Vespers

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Vespers, SICILIAN, the traditional name given to the insurrection which broke out at Palermo on Easter Tuesday, March 31, 1282, against the domination of Charles of Anjou. It was only in the fifteenth century, during the excitement aroused by the passing of Charles VIII (November, 1494), that the expression “Sicilian Vespers” and the legend of the Easter bells calling the insurgents to arms seem to have originated. Charles of Anjou, Count of Provence and brother of St. Louis, had received from Urban IV the crown of the Two Sicilies which had been taken from the Hohenstaufens. Having defeated Manfred in 1256, he established his authority by force, and cruelly repressed the Ghibelline revolt led by Conradin in 1268, in consequence of which 130 barons were condemned to death. As undisputed master of the Two Sicilies, he resumed the ambitious designs of his predecessors, the Norman and Hohenstaufen kings, and sought to establish his dominion in the Mediterranean. In 1281 he was on the point of attaining his object; in 1277 he had purchased the rights of Mary of Antioch to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, he was the protector of the Kingdom of Armenia, the Emir of Tunis was paying him tribute, and his soldiers occupied a portion of the Morea. Finally, at his instance Pope Martin IV had excommunicated the Emperor Palaeologus. Then, concluding a treaty which assured him the assistance of the Venetian fleet (July 3, 1281), Charles was organizing a formidable crusade for the conquest of Constantinople, when the revolt of March 31, 1282, obliged him to direct his arms against Sicily and save the Byzantine Empire.

It was long held on the authority of Giovanni Villani (d. 1348) that this revolt was the result of a plot between Michael Palaeologus, Pedro III, and the Sicilian barons, whose active agent was a gentleman of Salerno, Giovanni da Procida. In a famous book, “La Guerra del Vespero Siciliano”, the first edition of which appeared at Palermo in 1842, the Sicilian patriot Amari endeavored to show that the insurrection of 1282 was a wholly spontaneous popular movement due to the oppressive administration and fiscal tyranny of Charles of Anjou. The legend of Giovanni de Procida did not appear until the fourteenth century, in works such as the “Ribellamentu di Sicilia” (Biblioth. Script. Aragon., I, 241-74), or in a letter of King Robert of Naples (1314). Contemporary historians [Saba Malaspina, Dean of Malta (“Rerum sicularum historia”, ed. Muratori, “SS. Rer. Ital.”, VIII, 785-874), who wrote about 1285; Bartolommeo de Neocastro, author of an “Historia Sicula” (ed. Muratori, “SS. Rer. Ital.”, XIII, 1013-1196)1 speak only of a popular outbreak of fury consequent upon injuries and annoyances of all kinds inflicted on the people by French barons and the officers of Charles of Anjou. A search of the State archives of Naples and Barcelona has led to the same conclusion.

What is certain is that on March 31 the insurrection broke out, amid cries of “Death to the French”, after vexatious searches had been carried on by the command of the Governor of Palermo, who wished to deprive the inhabitants of the right of bearing arms. Within a few weeks the revolt spread over the entire island and more than 8000 French were massacred. The towns of Sicily formed a sort of federal republic and placed themselves under the protection of the Holy See. It was only when Charles of Anjou appeared before Messina with all his troops that the Sicilian nobles called to their aid King Pedro III of Aragon, and the other towns only approved this action when it seemed to them impossible to resist Charles of Anjou.

Amari’s theory, though fundamentally correct, is too sweeping. The popular and spontaneous nature of the uprising of 1282 is an indisputable fact, but on the other hand the negotiations between Michael Palaeologus and Pedro of Aragon unquestionably took place. In these Giovanni da Procida played a part which it is impossible to define precisely, and possibly certain of the Sicilian nobles were aware of this intrigue. There was at least a coincidence between the coalition against Charles of Anjou and the popular insurrection of the Sicilian Vespers. The results of this revolt were considerable, as it proved the death blow to all the projects for the domination of the East formed by Charles of Anjou. The crusade against Constantinople did not take place, and Charles of Anjou began the long and fruitless warfare against the House of Aragon, which exhausted his resources with-out obtaining Sicily. A compromise between the rival dynasties was only effected in 1302.


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