The Church under Norman rule

Dioceses & bishops : a complicated network

With the Constitutions of Melfi (1059), the Normans overcame the Pope’s initial opposition, obtaining his recognition of their conquests present and to come. This agreement was forced through and made the Hautevilles papal legates to Byzantine Calabria and Moslem Sicily, while in each county of the provinces of Latin Christendom, the Norman lords backed the creation of new bishoprics. Soon nearly 150 dioceses coexisted in the territories under Norman control.

The Norman lords undertook to reorganize the church hierarchy around their capitals: Capua, Salerno etc. in Campania, and Trani, Bari, Brindisi and Taranto in Apulia. Symbolically, the first Norman county, Aversa, was given an episcopal see directly attached to the authority of the Pope. But these apparent concessions to the apostolic authority only thinly disguised the takeover of the episcopal apparatus, with bishops reigning over small districts as low-ranking personages subjected to the authority of the conquerors.

In return, the Normans claimed to serve the Church particularly in the reconquest of Moslem Sicily and by gradually introducing a Roman Catholic hierarchy into the territories of Christendom with the Byzantine rite in Calabria and the southern part of Apulia. The Greek hierarchy was first confirmed and organized into provinces bringing several dioceses under the authority of a metropolite appointed by the Normans (Reggio di Calabria, Rossano, Cosenza), then Latin bishops were named, without the pragmatic Normans ever rejecting the Christians of the Byzantine rite as heretics or schismatics. Thus Greek communities survived throughout the mediaeval period.

On their arrival in Sicily, the Normans found only two bishoprics tolerated by the Moslem princes, at Palermo and Catania. Reorganization was therefore conducted practically from scratch as and when the Normans advanced. The bishopric of Troina was set up in 1062 at a time when the conquest is far from complete (1092). The sees were restored at places like Messina, Agrigento, Syracuse and Catania, but each time it was the conqueror’s hand that imposed the new incumbents, all Normans.

Throughout the Mezzogiorno, there was a distinct change following Roger II’s coronation in 1130. The king rejected the authority of the Roman pretender and received the crown from the anti-pope Anacletus. The Norman king now claimed to intervene directly, like the emperor, in the frequent wrangling over the papacy. Thus, in 1156, William II obtained a concordat from Pope Hadrian IV, leaving him plenty of leeway to interfere in appointing the episcopal hierarchy.


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