The Church under Norman rule

Monasticism under the Normans : the Benedictine abbeys

In southern Italy, the Norman conquerors encountered powerful ecclesiastical seigniories organized around the large Benedictine monasteries. Some were foundations of long standing which had struggled through the periods of disorder in the early Middle Ages: St Benedict’s of Monte Cassino, in the border zone between the papal states and the territories conquered by the Normans, St Vincent’s at Volturno and St Clement’s at Casauria in the mountains of the Abruzzi, St Sophia’s in the principality of Benevento. Others were more recent, like Holy Trinity of La Cava, in Campania, founded in the early 11th c.

The Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino dominates the history of the period on account not only of its prestigious origins – it was here in the 6th c. that St Benedict laid the ground rules of Western monasticism – but also owing to the personality of the two abbots at the time of the Norman conquest: Desiderius (1058-1087) and his successor Odesirius (1087-1105). Desiderius served as a middleman between the papacy and the Normans and as such contrived to take his abbey to the acme of its spiritual, political, economic as well as cultural and artistic influence. The symbol of this rebirth was the large Romanesque basilica consecrated in the presence of the Norman lords in 1071. Desiderius of Monte Cassino was elected pope towards the end of Robert Guiscard’s reign, notably through the backing he received from his Norman allies.

The Normans also continued to support many Benedictine restorations and foundations. As a rule, the alliance was mutually advantageous and, the circumstances being different from those of the conquest, did not involve a direct takeover by Norman abbeys or abbots, as it had in England. Norman monks came along with the conquerors or followed later. The best-known example is the abbot of Saint-Evroult-en-Ouche, Robert of Grentmesnil, who was banished by William the Conqueror in 1062 and taken in by Robert Guiscard. Monasteries were handed over to Norman abbots at Aversa in Campania, Venosa in Basilicata, and St Eufemia and Mileto in Calabria. This presence was sometimes associated with new dynastic sanctuaries: Robert Guiscard and his elder brothers were buried at Holy Trinity, Venosa. But the major contribution of the Norman presence remains the area opened up in the lands of the reconquista, particularly in Moslem Sicily.


previous page  The Normans in the Mediterranean  next page