The mystery of Churchuro: conspiracy or incompetence in twelfth-century Sicily?

The mystery of Churchuro: conspiracy or incompetence in twelfth-century Sicily?

By Jeremy Johns and Alex Metcalfe

Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 62 (1999)

Introduction: Immediately after his successful conquest of Muslim Sicily (1060-92), Roger de Hauteville set about dividing the spoils amongst the small band of Norman, French and Italian knights who were his closest followers. This distribution of the land of Sicily and its inhabitants was in part based upon the fiscal documents of the Muslim administration, which were salvaged and adapted to post-conquest circumstances by a small cadre of Greek bureaucrats imported from Calabria. The documents were of two types: listes of tax-payers, known in Arabic as jara’id and descriptions of estate boundaries, known as hudud. These were the foundations of the Arabic administration of Norman Sicily.

For some 20 years after the conquest, the Norman rulers issued Arabic documents to their feudatories and officials. These included jara’id of the subject population, who are generally referred to as ‘villeins’ for, in the topsy-turvy world of Norman Sicily, the Muslim population was reduced to the status of dhimmis and required to pay the jizya. Typically, the preamble and conclusion of these jara’id was composed in Greek, while the names of the villeins were listed in Arabic. Boundary descriptions were also compiled and, when appropriate, issued to feudal landholders; in western Sicily, where the vast majority of the population continued to be Arab throughout the twelfth century, these were composed in Arabic.

Bilingual, Arabic-Greek writs were also issued to local officials who, at this early date, tended to be drawn from the Arabic- and Greek-speaking communities. Little more than a generation after the conquest, the Norman administration suspended the issue of Arabic documents, although there is reason to believe that it continued to use Arabic for internal records relating to the administration of the de Hauteville demesne in western Sicily, which was maintained as a sort of Muslim reservation.

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