chapter  15
19 Pages

Developing strategies of protest in late medieval Sicily

ByFabrizio Titone

Among the cases to be examined here, the tumulti of Palermo and of Polizzi were due to such a heightened state of social tension that the socio-professional groups resorted to violence, whereas in Catania, Piazza, and Patti, there were open expressions of dissent without actual outbreaks of large-scale conflict.7 With reference to non-violent protests, especially in Catania, I will discuss dissent in terms of the adoption of a conservative strategy, described here as one of ‘disciplined dissent’. By ‘disciplined dissent’ I mean that those who were the target of policies of marginalisation and/or individuals with a less prominent socio-political role gradually adopted the rulers’ political language, strategies and values.8 The analysis of forms of disciplined dissent makes it possible to identify acts of protest involving the use of existing institutions and the framework of ideas shared by those who held political power. This conservative strategy enabled groups or individuals to expand their socio-political role. I should emphasise, however, that even in assimilating the rulers’ strategies and values, those who were not in a position of authority nevertheless did so in the light of their own needs and expectations. Disciplined dissent also makes it possible to identify acts of protest which were often not overt but camouflaged. Analysis of protest in Sicily allows me to nuance and expand two recent historiographic discussions. First, Patrick Lantschner has proposed a correlation between the absence of major revolts and the lack of pluralism of existing political structures which, when present, provided the rebels with the resources to mount a revolt.9 This is an interpretation that may be generalised, being applicable for example (as I will indicate below) to the tumult in Palermo, but it is not exclusive. In my opinion the existence of a pluralism of political structures may also explain the absence of revolts, by offering an alternative to the outbreak of a major conflict. It was the political context that determined the decision to instigate a revolt or else to seek out an alternative, employing the institutional and cultural means available. Second, explaining the widespread desire for liberty to which the protests gave voice as a reaction to social and political injustices, as Samuel Cohn has argued for the phase after 1355 and up to and including the early fifteenth century, serves to bring out only one possible cause of the protests.10 In fact, protests could also develop in a period when enhanced rights and privileges, and more inclusive governments, encouraged high expectations. Consequently even a brief interruption in access to political and economic resources could be perceived in a dramatic way and trigger firm responses. In this view, it is noteworthy that the highest concentration of revolts is recorded during the reign of Alfonso V (1416-58), that is, under a royal government that tended not to promote an invasive state but rather to extend to a significant degree the spaces of autonomy. In medieval Sicily the reign of Alfonso V was possibly the most favourable phase for the cities’ freedom. Two different causes may account for the higher concentration of protests in this phase. The first is linked to the extension of local autonomy, which generally led to conflicts between socio-professional groups. The second factor refers to possible interventions by the king designed to limit liberty, at odds with a royal policy that generally served to promote local privileges. These interventions prompted a decisive response to those actions of the royal court or of the feudal dominus (lord) that evoked (albeit in a decidedly milder form) the preceding phase of the Vicars’ government and its curbing of the liberties of the communities. Under Alfonso V, royal financial pressure increased significantly, but the king managed to intensify his economic demands while avoiding open opposition from the subjects he taxed by significantly involving local administrations in the choices to be made regarding taxation.11 Consequently there were frequent political clashes between the socio-professional groups, who were determined to obtain some representation in the government and to be accorded the right to decide how taxes were to be allocated. This phase witnessed a significant rise in the attempts made by groups (parcialitates) to obtain the exclusion from government of opposing groups, a

stance that the royal court generally opposed. In this context, I believe it is possible to discern in the revolts a call for decisive royal intervention enabling coordination and the redistribution of resources, and by the same token a rejection of the policies of exclusion pursued by the most powerful socio-professional alignments.12 The absence of any a priori royal opposition to protest movements may be explained in terms of the pursuit of a political equilibrium, in which the universitates had a central role in maintaining the ‘peaceful state’ frequently evoked in the royal chancery’s acts under Martin I and particularly Alfonso V and favoured by the royal court.13