The rural world

The rural settlements

The Normans encountered a whole range of situations in the organization of the habitats of the mainland Mezzogiorno and Sicily. In the old Lombard principalities of Benevento and Salerno, the Abruzzi or the small independent duchies along the coast around Naples, the population had already gathered into fortified villages ensuring both its defence and its oversight by the political authority (incastellamento). In Byzantine Apulia, the imperial administration traditionally reserved fortifications for the towns as capitals of an administrative district; villages and boroughs large and small were generally open and merely places where people lived. Sicily however kept a hierarchically ordered network of habitats, controlled by fortified towns or sites set up by the Moslem authority.

The originality of the Norman presence, consisting primarily in the imposition of lordly rule based at the castle thus came in various guises. Wherever the fortified borough system existed, it was pursued and furthered. The Normans took over from whoever had previously wielded power, settling in their castles or building new ones. The Byzantine towns and villages were surrounded by walls and the presence of the castle was imposed on the population.

In other poorly controlled or underpopulated areas, we find a proliferation of castra, fortified boroughs built by the Normans, or of casals (casali). The casal was the most original hallmark that the Normans stamped on the area. It was a hamlet with no fortifications other than perhaps a moat, where the lord assembled a population over which he ruled. The casal became the setting for community life: a place of worship, husbandry, customs, administration, taxation etc.

The casal corresponded to several distinct realities. It might be the means used to draw people to previously sparsely populated regions where the lord wished to set up the manpower he needed, among other things to work his own domain Abruzzi, northern Calabria, southern Basilicata, the Capitanata. Some casali then grew to fortified borough status, even into towns, in a region where the distinction between country settlement and urban habitat was not always very clearcut. In Sicily, by contrast, the casals were used to enfeoff the knights of the Christian reconquest, and some became the seats of castles or fortified houses.


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