Life in the towns

Norman rule and city government

Southern Italy did not see anything like the movement experienced by the towns and villages of northern Italy, where the top traders and merchants rose to status enabling them to take over government of the cities. The strongest trend towards a form of urban autonomy came early in the Norman period in Apulia, where the great families actually called upon the Normans to back such and such a party in their internal conflicts or revolts against the Byzantine Empire. In particular, the machinations of the Lombard Meles of Bari opened the door to Norman intervention in the early 11th c. Elsewhere, the autonomy of the duchies of the Tyrrhenian coast (Naples, Gaeta, Amalfi…) remains a special case, and even larger towns the size of Benevento failed to attain any form of independent government.

In fact the Norman conquerors were wary of the towns. The period of conquest was marked by the construction of castles built into the walls, a sign of the takeover of the towns, and the distribution of their territories among several lords. The episcopal towns were no exception to this rule, and the bishop seldom managed to play a role in the administration and justice of his own town comparable to that of his Norman or Anglo-Norman counterparts.

As the Normans consolidated their power, especially after the advent of Roger II, who was crowned king in 1130, the new dynasty kept a firm grip on the government of the towns through representatives of its administration (the baiulatio). The granting of certain local freedoms in administration or finance really only appeared at times when the royal power was weak, during the reign of Tancred of Lecce in the late 12th c., or during the minority of Frederick II. So the few public buildings there were, apart from the church and the castle, were used for economic and tax administration purposes, and their lack of autonomy meant that the towns of the Mezzogiorno had no palaces for communal assemblies.


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