Life in the towns

Towns of southern Italy

The urban landscape of southern Italy at the start of the Norman period was heir to a complex history. Places like Naples and Palermo dated back to antiquity and remained large towns. But Naples had independent duchy status, while Palermo was the yet to be conquered capital of Moslem Sicily. Bari and Taranto were strongpoints of the Byzantine administration in areas where it had upheld the traditional imperial organization based on a network of towns (Apulia, Calabria). Elsewhere, places like Benevento, Capua and Aversa were the chief towns of the Lombard principalities, where the grouping of the population into small fortified rural settlements (the "incastellamento") began to compete with the urban network as such.

Thus the presence of the walls, which generally identified a town, was no long necessarily a sufficient criterion to enable it to play a more important role than that of sites (castra) fortified by increasingly independent lords. Lastly, the disorders of the early Middle Ages disrupted the communication routes; roads and bridges, when poorly maintained or cut off, had isolated towns up on the high ground, in areas particularly under threat from incursions by Moslem pirates.

At the time, many towns were no more than villages where even the presence of episcopal sees, too numerous to confer any real importance on the incumbents, was not enough to organize them into a hierarchically ordered network. Only those towns opening onto harbours or based in particularly rich agricultural areas needing markets Naples again, Palermo, Messina, Brindisi etc. stood out from among the mass. By and large, more than any deliberate action the Normans may have taken, what fostered urban expansion, particularly noteworthy in the 12th c., was the economic growth of the period.


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