Life in the towns

Craftmen, merchants and clerics : the urban society

The weakness of urban institutions during the Norman period does not necessarily mean that society was not very much hierarchically organized. The urban aristocracy handed down from earlier times often clung on to its status and entered the conquerors’ service.

Thus, during the Norman period, we find names cropping up that will continue to rank highly in later centuries. Such was the case in the Lombard city of Benevento, in Naples, Capua and Salerno in Campania, and in Bari and Trani, in Apulia. By the late 12th c., these families had often intermarried with elements of the feudal aristocracy set up by the Normans. The situation was even more complicated in Palermo, where the presence of the Norman sovereigns’ court drew people from various backgrounds into the ranks of the ruling class: Greeks, converted Moslems, or important dignitaries arriving from Normandy, England or other regions of the Frankish countries, in response to the call of the Norman kings.

The wealthiest formed a class of leading citizens who held the top jobs in government and law and order, a class that produced characters like Maio of Bari, head of Roger II’s chancery in 1151, and who remained a high-ranking official during the reign of his successor William I. Their fortune invested in land enabled them to rub shoulders with the aristocracy of knights and superior clergy. But the example of this same Maio of Bari, who aroused jealousy and hatred among the Norman counts, shows that there were limits to how well the urban elites could get on with the cream of the Norman aristocracy.

The lower-ranking Greek or Latin clerics, the cultured men needed in the customs and finance offices or the courts, the merchants and craftsmen about whose organization we know very little, form the intermediate layers of urban society essential to the smooth running of the increasingly centralized government and an expanding urban economy towards the end of the period (12th c.). But it is only in the large ports that we also find colonies of merchants from the industrious towns of northern Italy: Milan, Genoa and most of all Venice, whose seafaring republic kept a close watch on the affairs of the Norman kingdom in the Mediterranean.


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