The Church under Norman rule

Monasticism under the Normans : the Greek orders

The territories under Norman rule included wide areas where the majority of the population spoke Greek and which were characterized by the presence of monasticism in the Eastern tradition. In the southern Italian peninsula this mostly meant Calabria, the south of Basilicata and the Salento peninsula in the south of Byzantine Apulia. The origin of this monastic movement is doubtless traceable to Sicily, where communities had been long established before coming under Moslem pressure starting in the 9th c.

Greek monasticism differed from the Western tradition in the way it was organized. There were no hierarchical orders based in large monasteries, and the traditions of the old Christianity remained powerful: the monks were scattered, living as hermits around sanctuaries away from where people lived. This eremitic movement continued to be driven by charismatic personalities like Nil de Rossano, the founder of many monasteries all the way to "Latin" Campania.
There were also however some large urban communities like St Peter’s at Taranto. And, as with Western monasticism, such prestigious communities centred on a character held to be a saint ended up drawing the faithful and helping to populate the territories.

Readily presenting themselves as champions of the Catholic Church, the Norman conquerors therefore had to see to reining in these monks with their foreign practices. Of their own accord, the monks began to imitate certain aspects of the Benedictine organization by adopting rules inspired by the fathers of the Eastern Church, especially St Basil of Caesarea. The Normans nudged this rapprochement a notch further by placing certain Greek communities under the authority of the large Benedictine monasteries; thus St Benedict’s at Monte Cassino and Holy Trinity at La Cava were endowed with the lands of the conquest in the south. But this attitude indicated no hostility on the conquerors’ part. Monasteries were founded under the Greek rite in Calabria and Sicily conquered under Robert Guiscard’s brother Roger the Great Count, or on the land of his son, Bohemund of Taranto. Most of all, the Norman princes strove to build up a hierarchy around the major sanctuaries like San Salvatore at Messina, in reconquered Sicily.


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