entry Mar 2012, revised Sept. 2020
Sichelgaita — Warrior Princess
and then some!
plus a separate section on the Salerno medical school
What bizarre, zigzag chain of events, even for the Middle Ages, led to the unlikely sight, in May, 1076, of a fair young princess, clad in shining armor and astride her mount, riding next to her husband, Robert of Hauteville (known as Robert "Guiscard"—the Resourceful), right up to the walls of her own native city of Salerno, ruled by her own brother, and demanding its surrender?
Thereby hangs quite a
tale, and you can keep it straight only if you know the
cast of characters who were competing for the upper hand
in Europe — and particularly in the case of our story,
southern Italy — between the years 1000 and 1100. There
are at least 5 major players. In no particular order, they
(1) The Holy Roman Empire was formally proclaimed in 800 with Charlemagne as emperor. It essentially replaced the loose hodge-podge of "barbarian" states occupying the former western Roman Empire. It was the first great northern power base in Europe and was the forerunner of individual European nation states such as France and Germany. The Holy Roman Empire lasted until 1806 when Francis II, faced with Napoleon's proclamation of a new empire, abdicated.
(2) By the Church of Rome is meant here the territory of the Papal States, taking up much of central Italy and coming into being as result of the so-called "Donation of Pepin" in the mid-700's. That gift of land turned the Church into a secular power with enough might to field armies and crown emperors.
At this point, note the "Holy" in Holy Roman Empire. The Empire and the Church of Rome started out in a symbiotic relationship, each depending on the other for validation or military support, depending on the times. It is significant that Charlemagne was crowned emperor by the Pope, himself. That event marked the end of secular Europe (pre-Europe, really) and the beginning of large-scale involvement by the Church in continental politics, involvement that would last until the Empire, itself, was dismantled by Napoleon a thousand years later. The infamous Church vs State enmity (typified by the 'Guelph' and 'Ghibelline' factions of the 14th century) can be traced to the great reform movement within the Church in the mid-1000s, spearheaded by the monk Hildebrand, later to become Pope Gregory VII. His call for what amounted to a theocracy and a totally subservient Empire alienated the "princes of the earth".
(3) The Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, had its beginnings under Constantine the Great, the founder of the city in 330 that would bear his name until the fall of that city to the Turks in 1452. After the fall of Rome in 476 and even through and beyond the Lombard rule in Italy (568-774), Byzantine forces actively contested much of Italy and did not totally withdraw until well into the 1100s.
(4) Few peoples have been as explosive and expansive as the Normans. They started as Danish Vikings, the Norsemen who invaded Britain in the mid-800s. In that same period, they marauded almost everywhere, sacking cities from Canterbury to Paris to Constantinople; yet they also founded lasting Russian dynasties in Kiev and Novgorod.Then in 911 they took the area of northern France that would be named for them—Normandy. In the late 900s and early 1000s the Vikings were sailing to Iceland and North America; by 1015 their cousins from Normandy would be probing southern Italy. They would then retake Sicily from the Arabs in the mid-1000s—a very difficult struggle. They would invade and subdue Britain in 1066. All in all, they were a swashbuckling race of people—and they were ambitious. Just how ambitious would not be clear until the greatest of them, the Robert Guiscard mentioned in the first paragraph, above, revealed his plans not just to rule southern Italy, but to take over the Byzantine Empire and reunite the Eastern and Western churches and, then, possibly, to move even further east as had Alexander the Great.
(5) The Lombards really have two histories in Italy. The first is as the great Lombard kingdom of Italy from 568-774. They were the last "barbarians" to invade the Italian peninsula after the fall of the western Roman Empire and ruled much of the peninsula as a loose confederation, contesting much of the territory much of the time with the Byzantine Empire. That grand Lombard kingdom came to an end when Charlemagne invaded Italy and defeated the Lombards in the north of Italy in 774.
The other Lombard
history concerns our story. Charlemagne, though calling
himself "King of the Lombards" (and annexing the north of
Italy to the Holy Roman Empire) left undefeated and
largely intact the vast area of southern Italy with its
separate residual Lombard holdings, most important of
which was the Duchy of Benevento. That duchy, itself,
underwent a civil war in 839, giving birth to an
independent Duchy of Salerno.
[Also see main entry on The Lombards.]
The Medical School of Salerno
The medical school at Salerno is an historically interesting and important chapter in discussions of what universities are
and how they spread throughout Europe. A number of sources says things such as
"The first European university was Salerno in Italy, established in the 9th century, followed by Bologna, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge and Montpelier in the 13th century" (from the QPB Dictionary of Idea, entry on "Universities". Helicon Publishing, New York 1994 ).
This also gives the modern university of Salerno a chance to tout its history: "The historic interest of the university derives from an antecedent medical school in Salerno, which was the earliest and one of the greatest medical schools of the Middle Ages." (The modern university of Salerno, by the way, rates high on most education indices — one of the top 400 universities in the world, according to the ratings in the British Times University Index.
In addition to medicine, its lectures included philosophy, theology and law. The School, which earned Salerno the title of Hippocratica Civitas (City of Hippocrates) was the most important medical school in Europe between the 10th and 13th centuries. Following the rise of university medical schools, it briefly merged with the University of Naples, which moved to Salerno from 1253 to 1258 before returning to Naples and establishing its own medical school there.
Thus, in the course of the 11th - 13th centuries Salerno was one of the cultural centers of Europe. The medical school, was the first of its kind in Europe. It was here that disease became something to be diagnosed, treated and, potentially, cured, thus adopting what one day would be called a "scientific" approach and abandoning the Christian monastic treatments of prayer and mortification of the flesh. Herbal pharmacology was studied, as was anatomy and surgery —even early attempts at anesthesia. Lectures included philosophy, theology, and law. The school also hosted a group called the "Ladies of Salerno", foremost of whom was Trotula, who taught about and wrote important early works on the medical problems of women. Women studied there, as well, and one such student was the not-yet "warrior princess", Sichelgaita (see section below). The medical school attracted scholars from throughout Europe.
Also, given the pre-Crusades anything-goes atmosphere of the independent ports of commerce such as Naples, Salerno, Amalfi and Gaeta, there was surely exchange of information —as well as goods— between them and the Muslim world. Wary of the post hoc fallacy of confusing sequence with cause and effect, we may nevertheless note that there were early Muslim models of medical schools and that both sides must have benefited from such exchange. The photo (left) is a miniature in the amazing (because it remained in use for the next 700 years!) Canon of Medicine by Persian Muslim physician-philosopher Avicenna (Ibn Sina) completed in 1025. It presents an overview of the contemporary medical knowledge of the Islamic world, which had been influenced by earlier traditions of medicine, including that of the Salerno School. This miniature, indeed, show the Salerno school receiving Robert of Hauteville for treatment. (He was Sichelgaita's husband. More on those two, below.)
update: Sept 2015 - There is now an interesting and very instructive virtual museum of the Salerno Medical School, located on the premises of the church of San Gregorio at via Mercatini 74 in the historic center of Salerno.
So, with that...
The Duchy of Salerno in the 11th century,
before the Norman consolidation of
southern Italy. (From Muir's Historical Atlas, 1911).
Sichelgaita was born in 1035 into the ruling family of the Duchy of Salerno. She was the daughter of Gaimar V, who was murdered in a palace coup. Her brother, Gisulf, retook the Duchy, and she retook her place as the most privileged woman in the Duchy. She spent much of her time studying medicine and — an unlikely combination, perhaps— pursuing the "manly" arts of horseback-riding and swordplay.
Her native Lombard Duchy of Salerno was by 1050 already in trouble, at least potentially. It had held the ever-encroaching Byzantine forces at bay, but the Normans would be more difficult. The Normans had come on the southern Italian scene in the early 1000s. Depending on the source you choose to believe, they originally were either pilgrims who liked what they saw and decided to stay, or they were itinerant warriors who actually helped the Salernitans repel a Saracen (Arab) raid. The Normans were then asked to stay and did. Or, perhaps, they were simply following the same Norman nature that sent them out from Denmark centuries earlier, seeking worlds to conquer. In any event, by the mid-1000s, Robert Guiscard and a number of his Hauteville clan were firmly entrenched in the south. They set about taking over, piecemeal, what was left of Lombard holdouts, Byzantine enclaves, and brigand and pirate hideouts, as well as taking on the great Arab armies on the island of Sicily.
"Guiscard" is a by-name meaning "resourceful". Apparently, Robert was given the name of "Viscardus" somewhat ironically by his first wife's nephew (1) for knowing whom to marry and (2) for his uncanny ability to know when to be ruthless and when to be forgiving. There is no doubt that he had the rough-and-tumble Norman lust for battle, but he could also be diplomatic. His wisdom extended to not being vindictive in war; he was not driven by the petty need to brutalize those whom he defeated. You fought, you won, and you consolidated, and you do that by turning enemies into ex-enemies and then into allies. But—here's the very wise Robert—why wage war against a formidable enemy, Salerno, when you could merge both your dynasties by marriage? Why not blend the ancient, noble Lombards of Salerno with the vigorous, warrior Normans? All you needed was a handsome, robust and willing groom—himself, and a beautiful, robust and willing bride—Sichelgaita.
There is no report that the young noblewoman, Sichelgaita, was dragged kicking and screaming into a marriage she detested. Quite the contrary, if sources are to be believed. Yes, it may have been an arranged marriage of convenience, and who knows if she was truly smitten, but—for Heaven's sake!—it was marriage to Robert of Hauteville, that great, good-looking, charismatic warrior and the one all-mighty walker-on-water figure of the 11th century in Italy. She, herself, was astute and knew what her duchy stood to gain by such a union. She had seen the handwriting on the wall, and it was all writ large in Norman French. Now, at least, the Norman and Lombards might rule much of Italy together.
The marriage came about in 1058. It didn't exactly enjoy the blessings of Sichelgaita's brother, Gisulf, but he, too, was intelligent enough to know that his duchy could use some friendly Normans in the family. He was beset by the nearby Duchy of Capua as well as by marauding bands of very unfriendly Normans under the leadership of Robert's younger brother, William of Hauteville. image, above: Sichelgaita, seated on the right; husband, Robert of Hauteville stands in centerIn order to enter the holy bond of matrimony to his Lombard princess, Robert had to have his first marriage annulled, which he managed to do by admitting to incest. Robert and his first wife, a Norman, were nowhere close to the forbidden degree of kinship that defines incest, but it was a ploy that worked. Robert took his new, young bride off to his capital city of Melfi.
Sichelgaita spent the next 18 years of her life leading up to the siege of her own home town of Salerno as a constant companion of her husband, helping him solidify his hold on southern Italy. All accounts of her activities report that she was his trusted adviser in affairs of state and military matters. Also, she was very devout, which helped her smooth over Robert's difficulties with the Church. She was genuinely troubled over the fate of her husband's immortal soul, since he had the bad habit of getting himself excommunicated every now and then for his devil-may-care invasions of Papal land. Sichelgaita's diplomatic skill was crucial in straightening out many of these thorny problems. On one such occasion, Pope Nicolas II wound up blessing Robert as the rightful ruler of the land he had already taken (most of southern Italy), all this in return for Robert's oath of allegiance to the Pope and the Church.The Church's stance vis-à-vis the Normans in the middle of the 1000s changed from ambiguity to support. Though Stephen IX, Pope in 1057/8, actually proposed military campaigns against the Normans, he was followed by Nicolas II, a believer in strong ties to these people whom he no doubt saw as somewhat of an irresistible force. Then came Alexander II, noted for approval of that other Norman Conquest, the invasion of Britain in 1066. Then, of course, came Hildebrand, Pope Gregory VII, the great reformer, friend of Sichlegaita's, a friendship that would play a great role in the life of this Pope, one of the most important in Church history.
When the time came, as it had to, for Robert of Hauteville to demand the surrender of Salerno, the last remaining large Lombard Duchy in the South, it was no doubt his wife who kept him from simply attacking her native city outright. And, thus, the opening scene of this story came to pass. Sichelgaita went into the city and begged her brother to surrender. He wouldn't, so Robert simply lay siege to Salerno and, bluntly, starved them out. It took months, but it was effective. Sichelgaita's had managed to save her brother's life. He went into exile in Rome.
Interestingly, the fortunes of Salerno took a turn for the better under the combined rule of Robert and his hometown princess, Sichelgaita. The medical school returned to its splendor of old when one of the great itinerant scholars of the Middle Ages, Constantine of Carthage, called the "African", was caught secretly wandering around the premises of the medical school, admiring it. He had seen the great medical schools of Islam, but he had not seen anything like this, he told Robert, at which point Robert hired him to teach there. Also, the Lombard-Normans built a new city wall and a new cathedral.
Robert's grip on the south of Italy was still shaky, however. His own brothers—even if they lacked the military might to confront him directly—often agitated against him. It would be an error to view the Hauteville Brothers as a united conquering army. Quite the contrary; Robert had to be everywhere all the time, putting one brother in place and routing a renegade baron or duke somewhere else.
His ambitions, however, went well beyond southern Italy. Just as he had woven himself into the old and venerable Lombard line to fix his grip on the south, he and Sichelgaita in 1074 had arranged the marriage of their daughter, Olympiade, into the ruling Dukas dynasty of Constantinople. Such a marriage would set up Norman rule not just of southern Italy but of the entire Eastern Roman Empire. It would be a force without equal in Europe. Potentially, Robert saw, if not himself, then his children as the reuniters of the recently splintered Christian faith. (The great Schism between the eastern and western churches had occurred in 1054 when Pope Leo IX and the Greek patriarch, Michael Cerularius, mutually excommunicated each other.) There would again be a true empire, and here, some sources say, Robert spoke of his ambitions to conquer Persia, as had Alexander.
A palace coup in Greece, however, caused the new Byzantine dynasty to back out of the proposed merger of dynasties. Robert would have to do it the hard way, and it is in this adventure that Sichelgaita's reputation as a warrior is grounded. It is true that on a number of earlier occasions she had taken the field of battle with her husband. He trusted her to lead his men and she did so, successfully. But the oft-told story of the Valkyrie-like blonde berserker—the into-the-jaws-of-death princess, charging into battle, spitting fire and railing at her men to stand their ground and fight—comes from her heroics at the battle of Durazzo on the Albanian coast in October, 1081. Here the Normans set out to do militarily what they had failed to do through the diplomacy of marriage: conquer Byzantium.
The best description of Sichelgaita in battle on that occasion comes from Anna Comnena, the daughter of Alexis I Comnenus, the emperor of Constantinople at the time of Robert's invasion. She writes of the Norman invasion of Greece in her 15-volume history, The Alexiad, written a few decades after the events took place. The Norman invasion was massive, meant, as it was, to overthrow the rulers of Byzantium. They met forceful Greek resistance, however, at which point the Norman advance stalled. One front was commanded by Sichelgaita. Her men faltered, and, here, Comnena writes admiringly of her ferocious enemy [cited in Norwich, below]:
Directly Gaita, Robert’s wife (who was riding at his side and was a second Pallas, if not an Athene) saw these soldiers running away. She looked fiercely after them and in a very powerful voice called out to them in her own language an equivalent to Homer’s words "How far will ye flee? Stand and fight like men!" And when she saw that they continued to run, she grasped a long spear and at full gallop rushed after the fugitives; and on seeing this they recovered themselves and returned to the fight.
In spite of being badly wounded, Sichelgaita fought valiantly and held her part of the battlefield until Robert arrived with reinforcements. The battle was won, but the planned takeover of Byzantium had to be shelved. Matters back in Italy commanded Robert's attention. Relations between the Papal States and the Empire had taken a turn for the worse. There were two reasons for this. The first was that Pope Gregory had supported this invasion of Byzantium by a Norman force friendly to him. He saw it as a means to bring the Eastern Church back into the fold, and a way to stem increasing Muslim pressure on Constantinople. (The Seljuk Turks had recently inflicted a devastating defeat on Byzantine forces, and the Eastern emperor had already approached Pope Gregory about the possibility of launching a Crusade against the Muslims.) Thus, a Norman victory would be a Papal victory—something that the Holy Roman Emperor could not tolerate. The second reason for the sour relationship between the Church and the Empire was Gregory's call for a theocracy in Europe, one in which the princes and kings of the earth would be subservient to the Church of Rome.
Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, the emperor, Henry IV, declared Pope Gregory VII to be deposed. The emperor invaded Rome and set up his own puppet "anti-Pope", Clement III. This situation was dangerous for Robert in the South. He had counted on a strong buffer state between the Holy Roman Empire and the Norman south. That buffer was the Church State. Robert had taken great pains in his life to renew his pledges of loyalty to the Pope and to use Sichelgaita's influence with the Church and her great diplomatic abilities to stay in the good graces of the Papacy. He would now have to honor his commitment of loyalty and free the Pope from the imperial usurpers. These strategic reasons were reinforced by his wife's closeness to church fathers. She was a lifelong friend of the archbishop of Salerno, who was a close friend of Pope Gregory. Robert really had no choice.
At this point, Robert made one of his few strategic blunders — necessary, perhaps, but a blunder, nonetheless. He simply lacked the manpower to take a city such as Rome, defended as it was by an imperial army. To make up for this lack, he brought in mercenaries, bands of Saracens (Muslims) still roaming the south. Let that point sink in — he hired Muslims to invade Rome! The strategy worked, militarily. The imperial forces withdrew, but the behavior of Robert's troops in the city of Rome was so outrageous that the entire populace was alienated. Pope Gregory, himself, was seen as a collaborator of those who were pillaging the city and was forced to flee, leaving the anti-Pope still in charge. Gregory went to Salerno, where he was welcomed as the "real" Pope. He died there in 1085, no doubt saddened by his inability to rejuvenate the Church with his reforms (or, at least, unaware of the great, long-term moral influence his reign as Pope would have on later Church history).
In 1084, Sichelgaita again went with her husband to the battlefields of Greece to try and finish what they had started. They immediately met and defeated a combined Venetian-Byzantine fleet in a ferocious encounter; they took the island of Corfu and then Cefalonia. At that point, the story of Robert of Hauteville, this greatest of Norman conquerors (his better-known cousin, William the Conqueror, is said to have bolstered his own morale by thinking of Robert's exploits) comes to a sudden end. After the battle of Cefalonia, he took ill and died quickly in July of 1085. Sichelgaita was by his side when he died, and she arranged to have his mortal remains returned to Italy to rest in the Hauteville crypt in the Cathedral of Venosa in Puglia.
death of Robert left a great question mark hanging
over Norman rule in the south. None of his children had
his abilities—nor should that be surprising. The Norman
campaign in Greece fizzled out. Rule in southern Italy
fell, by default, to Robert's brother, Roger I, the
conqueror of Sicily, whose son, Roger II (photo, left),
would then become the founder of the Kingdom of Sicily
(later called the Kingdom of Naples).That kingdom began in 1130 and then
passed quickly out of Norman hands to the German
Hohenstaufen line. Through later dynasties, it lasted
until 1860 and the unification of Italy.
Sichelgaita died in March of 1090 in Salerno, the city of her birth. She had more or less "retired" after her husband's death and spent much of her time with her old teachers or in religious seclusion in the Abbey of Montecassino, a place to which she had a lifelong bond and devotion. She willed that she should be buried there.
There are two nasty rumors about Sichelgaita: one, that she had tried to poison her husband's son by his first marriage and, two, that she had actually poisoned Robert, himself, after the battle of Cefalonia. She was, after all, an accomplished student of herbal wizardry from her years at the medical school in Salerno. Neither of these rumors is given any credence at all by historians. It all seems to be just more medieval backbiting.
Other than that, she comes
across as somewhat low-key, living, as she did, in the
shadow of her husband, but then bursting forth at times.
Her role as a battlefield fury has lent itself to
caricature over the centuries, which is as unfortunate as
it is natural. There is really nothing to indicate that
she was even very ambitious, at least not for herself. And
she was certainly neither conniving nor bent on being the
power behind Robert. She was simply an intelligent and
devout woman with diverse interests — spiritual,
scientific, and military — and she was quite willing to
put her considerable skills at the disposal of a cause, a
Lombard-Norman empire. Was she a good warrior? No doubt.
By all accounts, she was a good wife and mother, too. In
between her bouts of diplomacy and battlefield heroics,
she managed to bear Robert 10 children.
Comnena, Anna. The Alexiad
transl. by E. Dawes. Routledge, Kegan, Paul. London,
1928. More information on this fascinating medieval
document—indeed, the complete text of the Dawes
translation— is available at
A biographical sketch of Anna Comnena, herself, is at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01531a.php Also, a more recent translation (1985) by Sewter has been published as a Penguin Classic.