Writing Our Queens' Stories
by Jacqueline Alio
"Margaret, Queen of Sicily should easily become the first point of reference for scholars of Margaret working in English and for general readers interested in her world."
Let's cast a glance behind the scenes to reveal some of the work involved in researching and writing the biographies of Sicily's first queens. While this excursion may prove useful to a few aspiring biographers, it is intended for my general readership, which has evolved into a "tribe" or "fan base" of thousands, in response to questions.
Queens of Sicily 1061-1266 and Margaret, Queen of Sicily (links are to previews in PDF) are reference works of essential queenly biography which, in some cases, had not previously been published. Though scholarly in nature, based principally on original research in medieval sources, these books are not intended exclusively for academics or other hardcore historians. They are meant to be informative for any reader, without the excessive presence of arcane academese or unprovable theories.
There are several reasons for that approach. Amongst others, it was not practical to write two editions of Margaret's first biography – one for fellow scholars and another for general readers. Nevertheless, Margaret, Queen of Sicily has ten appendices of special interest to researchers, and the back matter, consisting of that material plus the genealogical tables, endnotes, bibliography and index, runs to 160 pages in a volume of 512 pages.
A chapter of Sicilian Queenship considers some of the circumstances, conditions, challenges and methods involved in writing about the first queens of Sicily. A few of those points will be outlined here.
• Firstly, we may distinguish between traditional biography as a chronological account of a queen's life, and queenship, which considers a queen's power, identity and agency in the context of her life and experiences. Because no "foundational" compendium of biographies existed for our queens, it was necessary to write one before delving into more "complex," or analytical, discussions of queenship, hence Queens of Sicily. In other words, basic biography must precede further, more specialized study. This is less problematic for a queen like Eleanor of Aquitaine, about whom much has been written, than her contemporary and consuocera, Margaret of Navarre, the subject of Margaret, Queen of Sicily. My books about our Sicilian countesses and queens were modeled on several fine biographies of medieval rulers written over the last few decades, such as The Quest for El Cid by Richard Fletcher, Roger II of Sicily by Hubert Houben, Frederick II by David Abulafia, and Henry Plantagenet by Richard Barber. Those biographies are suitable to general readers as well as scholars. Other inspirations were the various queens' biographies by Alison Weir and Nancy Goldstone, the latter having written about those of southern Italy's Angevin era, and Marjorie Chibnall's biography of Empress Matilda. Among the significant contributors in the academic sphere in recent years are Theresa Earenfight, Lois Huneycutt and Elena Woodacre. Biography takes many forms.
• Secondly, in the case of these eighteen countesses and queens of Sicily, very little had been published in English about what might be called social or cultural "context." This includes, amongst other topics, such things as court poetry and court cuisine. It could be argued that these subjects transcend, or even fall outside of, the "typical" considerations of the concept of medieval queenship, but the fact remains that what was available in English left a paucity of information. It was surprising that certain Sicilian poems and recipes of the thirteenth century had never been translated into English for publication.
• Thirdly, it is not the purpose of a biography to address or debunk every flawed detail ever published about the subject by earlier historians. To note just three of these regarding Margaret worth mentioning here as typical historiographical examples: Isidoro La Lumia, who mentioned Margaret's regency in a biography of her son but otherwise wrote little about her life, erred in dating her birth to around 1128; the late John Julius Norwich repeated this error and others; Carlo Alberto Garufi cited incorrect information in dating Margaret's death based on a false presumption about when the epitaph (shown at the beginning of this page) above her tomb was written. In Margaret's case, some of the misperceptions regarding details such as her year and place of birth required research in Navarre – this photo shows me at the site of La Guardia Castle where the queen was born. One encounters many such errors during the course of historical research. My translation of the Ferraris Chronicle revealed that its author, a monk living near Naples until 1228, believed King William I, Margaret's husband, to have had a black beard, but when the king's tomb in Monreale Cathedral was opened, it became known that his beard, though perhaps slightly darker than expected, was not black.
• Fourthly, important as a review of the existing (albeit sometimes erroneous) literature is, the framework of a biographer's research must be based on contemporary information recorded in the Middle Ages when the subject was alive or shortly thereafter. This incidentally established that the three modern historians mentioned had reached incorrect conclusions, though determining that was not the chief purpose of the research. Secondary literature must always be used critically, and this brings us to the next points.
• Fifthly, in a bibliography, although one may choose to mention various, uncited (non-footnoted) works to "prove" to the reader that these were consulted, it is not necessary to list every book or article ever published that mentions the subject. Here there are various strategies, with some historians favoring the listing even of monographs and papers (journal articles) that contain incorrect information. It is a disservice to direct the curious reader to work that is rife with misinformation; unfortunately, La Lumia's error about Margaret's birthdate made its way into my Women of Sicily, published in 2015 before I went to Navarre to conduct more thorough research on her. Aside from considerations of that kind, historians often disagree on details, interpretations and translations, be it a person's appearance, the exact dating of an event or the meaning of a certain word in a particular context.
• Sixthly, in the case of a subject that has already been treated extensively – like Mary Tudor or Catherine the Great – a biographer should ensure that her work is not defined "dialectically" by earlier books through her zealous refutation of another author's ideas; otherwise, she runs the risk of her own book becoming a mere rebuttal (or antithesis) of a previous one. The dearth of biographies of Sicily's queens obviated this problem and the need for much revisionism.
Contextual comparisons are important, of course, but the lives of two women virtually unknown to each other, even if they happen to have come into contact with a few of the same people, are fodder for a comparative social history, not the biography of a single queen. Margaret of Navarre was not Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the two consuocere may have corresponded but probably never met. True, the Sicilian and English courts exchanged many courtiers, clerics and scholars, but (by way of analogy) a biography of Margaret Thatcher or Queen Elizabeth II need not focus on Sir John Major or others whom both women knew unless this is especially significant. It is important to concentrate on the subject herself, not her every contemporary.
Nevertheless, the quest for information can lead a biographer along unexpected paths. While its geographic focus was Navarre and Sicily, the research on Margaret necessitated a visit to New York, where the only contemporary image of her is conserved in a pendant – a gold reliquary of Thomas Becket given to her when her son wed the daughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1177 – now kept in the Cloisters galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. (This object is shown on the book's cover and this site's home page.)
There are presently several principal forms of historical biography that are most often published. It bears reiterating that the first biography of a medieval personage about whom very little has heretofore been published may have to straddle two or more categories or typologies, and perhaps two or three historiographical ideologies. This will not likely please everybody but it is sometimes necessary. As I noted earlier, the only alternative would be to write two biographies – one for the general reader and one for the academic researcher. As scholars know, academic presses are infamously parsimonious with monograph length, rarely permitting a volume of more than 400 pages while restricting the number of figures or maps and requiring tiny type sizes that are barely legible.
When Queen Margaret's biography was finally published there was no mention of her in such references as Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia (2006), The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe (2013) or Women in Medieval Italian Society (2001). By then, there was a Wikipedia™ entry, and my article on the website Best of Sicily (where some of my articles have had millions of views over the years), as well as the chapter in my Women of Sicily, but little else even in Italian or Spanish.
One encounters numerous – and potentially divisive – ideologies, schools and cliques in historiographical circles, and in the disciplines of social science and humanities generally. Academics will recognize some obvious effects of these phenomena, such as the subtle "heckling" that sometimes ensues when papers are delivered at academic conferences, or bizarre suppositions occasionally expressed in book reviews written by pedantic peers.
Yet it should be noted that my books do not strongly reflect the views of a specific academic mentor, faction of historians, faith tradition or political ideology. I live in Sicily and I am Roman Catholic – facts which may enhance my understanding about queenhood as it existed here – but I do not advocate such movements as Sicilian separatism. I am not affiliated with any political party or governmental institution, nor is my research funded by any. As a historian, I am reasonably objective and unbiased in my views, though I will candidly admit to a certain measure of pride in Sicily's ancient and medieval history.
Sicily's early queens are an important part of Sicilian identity, or Sicilianità, but they are also significant in European, Mediterranean and medieval women's history more generally, and their lives are worth studying for that reason. Biographers vary in their perspectives, with some regarding medieval kings and queens as little more than objects of study. However, it should be noted that the bishops of Palermo and Monreale occasionally celebrate masses in memory of our kings and queens entombed in these cathedrals (Roger II, Frederick II, William I, William II, Henry VI, Constance of Sicily, Constance of Aragon), as well as Louis IX of France, whose heart is preserved at Monreale. To Sicilians, and to southern Italians generally, these are real people emblematic of a monarchy that existed from 1130 until 1860. Countess Adelaide, who was crowned Queen of Jerusalem, rests in the cathedral of Patti near Messina.
This is not the only collective medieval memory preserved in Sicily, where knightly orders known in the time of Frederick II survive. These are the Knights Hospitaller (Knights of Malta) and the Teutonic Order. There are, however, still other vestiges of the Middle Ages, such as the language we Sicilians speak and the food we eat – things with which our queens were familiar. Even a medieval souk survives; this is now Palermo's Ballarò street market.
In response to queries or observations that readers sometimes express about research and information, it is worth addressing those topics, if only perfunctorily. The Sicilian language is not studied in many schools, yet proficiency in that tongue greatly aids the scholar in translating medieval poetry written in it; I have heard and understood this language since childhood. Much has been published about Sicilian and Neapolitan cuisine, and some of the source material (such as recipes) was recorded in those languages as well as Latin, but it helps to live in Sicily if one is to acquire the solid knowledge of local agriculture and the cooking methods required to write about the subject intelligently. Shown in the pic is an arancina, or stuffed rice ball, a Sicilian food (of Arab derivation) probably known to our queens that you can still enjoy in Palermo today. How can one write cogently about reginal culture without considering the places, cuisine and literature known to the women being written about? The Sicilian language heard by our queens after 1200 was written like this passage from the memoir of John of Procida, a counsellor of Frederick II:
Et quandu lu re carlu appi viduta quista lictra, sì fichi cunsiglu cum li soy baruni. Et multu si maraviglavanu li barunj, ki audendu dirj a lu re carlu tantu ultraju quantu li lictri continianu inver di sì et di soy cavaleri. Allura si livau lu conti guidu di munforti e dissi chi multu li paria cosa strania ky un signuri di sì pocu potencia avissi ardiri di livari la terra ad unu di li miglurj e di li mayuri signurj di lu mundu. Standu lu re carlu dissi ki chasquidunu dichissi lu sou vulirj.
Like Alison Weir, I have a personal connection to the place that I write about. For twenty years – if not more – I lamented the absence of a biography of Margaret of Navarre, who rests at Monreale (see the photo at the end of this page) near my home. Having waited decades for somebody else to write it, and seeing that Margaret did not appear even in the reference works mentioned earlier, I realized that I would have to do so myself were I not to go to my own grave without there being a biography of her. That no other biography of this queen has been published since mine (in July 2017) may suggest that nobody else was writing one at the same time that I was. Had I waited much longer, we would have arrived in the 2020s without a biography of her. The book's publication seems to have motivated further interest among casual readers as well as academics. Until then, Queen Margaret was generally ignored. At the first international academic conference I attended (in Palermo in 1994) the only one of our queens accorded much attention at all was Constance, the mother of Frederick II.
Sales of Margaret's biography indicate that others share my curiosity about her, and that it was time to bring her story to an international readership.
Who reads queens' biographies? The reading preferences of many devout reginaphiles seem to be national or dynastic in orientation. Feedback indicates that most readers of the books about Sicily's queens are firstly Siculophiles, among whom there are many men. These readers have a keen curiosity about queens and country. A good number have roots in southern Italy, such as the professor who wrote this review:
"I was visiting the cloisters at Monreale Cathedral outside Palermo and rambled into the bookstore to find Margaret, Queen of Sicily. Being a huge Sicilian history buff, I couldn't wait to read it and was enormously surprised at how wonderfully written it is. I was particularly interested in the woman's perspective, as every other book I'd read about Sicily has been written by men. In this respect, the author did not lecture or pontificate; she beautifully wove into the narrative how women were expected to behave, and then how they were deftly able to control without a heavy hand – of course unless needed. It was great to read in the story about other ruling queens at the time, which inspired me to read further. I very strongly recommend this book, not only for the historical perspective, but also for the strong narrative and attention to detail."
Most of what is published about the Kingdom of Sicily in English is written by xenocentric authors who are not themselves closely associated with southern Italy through ancestry or long-term residency. Am I suggesting "restrictions" on who should write about these subjects, as if Siculophile "outsiders" might be excluded? Of course not! Non-Sicilian academics writing about our island are to be commended and encouraged. Here the key is experience. If more "visiting" scholars could spend more time here among Sicilians in Sicily, more of them might write about our history with greater insight. Knowing the place, its culture and its people is useful if one seeks to write about its medieval history. A six-month research visit never could have provided the experience and knowledge necessary to write these books about our first queens. On the other hand, it's unrealistic to expect a foreign scholar to live in Sicily for several years before writing a monograph.
A chapter of Sicilian Queenship presents a few details involving topography and finding where certain events – such as the knighting of Roger II or the murder of Maio of Bari – took place. In fact, photographs of both locations in Palermo appear in that volume. Not that such sites are as attractive or interesting as the Norman Palace or Monreale Abbey (or even Ballarò), but they are relevant to biographical studies if a biographer seeks to trace her subject's footsteps. The following images are indicative of the use of two complementary sources of information – the diplomatic record (charters) and sites – in research. The charter issued by Queen Margaret in Latin and Greek in 1171 confirming the rights of Sicilian abbeys under her protection is large enough for her name to be legible (on a tablet screen) by paleographers; I cite this as evidence that she sometimes may have acted in her own name, here recorded with the style Margaret by the Grace of God Queen Mother of Sicily, as patron, especially after her son reached the age of majority. The photograph of a street was taken near Saint Agatha's Church (visible up the sloping street) in Palermo, where the gate of the same name – Santagàt in Arabic – stood along the city wall overlooking the Papireto River when Maio of Bari was assassinated there in 1160, precipitating the revolt that led to the death of one of the queen's sons.
I don't wish to suggest that earlier historians, writing into the last decades of the last century, had completely ignored details of this kind, but their work did not constitute a biographical study dedicated exclusively to Margaret.
Looking at the lives of the other women, Adelaide knighted her son, Roger II, in 1112. This was not as unusual as it may seem; other regents of her era did the same thing, dubbing not only their own sons but aristocratic young men in their dominions, as needs be. The source for Adelaide is the chronicle of Alexander of Telese later commissioned by Roger's sister, Matilda. For Sicilian Queenship, I advanced a theory identifying the most likely location of the brief ceremony as the "coronation dais" next to Palermo's cathedral. This photo is shown in the black-and-white (grayscale) form included in the book. Behind the platform, which has been altered somewhat over time, can be seen a wall of the small church that was standing when the Normans arrived in 1071.
As I said, the heart of Louis IX of France reposes in Monreale. Genetic testing proves its provenance, which was affirmed in the biography of the monarch written by Jean de Joinville in 1309 (shown at the end of this page). The last image is Margaret's tomb, located near the altar dedicated to Saint Louis.
It is a rare, God-given privilege to write about the women crowned in the land of my ancestors, but the essential purpose, or "agenda," of my books is to share accurate information about medieval history, including many details virtually ignored by authors and publishers until the present century.
That's what you can expect from my books, and I hope you enjoy it.
Charter of Margaret, 1171
Site of St Agatha's Gate
Norman dais in Palermo
Contemporary biography of Louis IX
Tomb of Queen Margaret in Monreale
Published by Trinacria Editions LLC, New York