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“The Luxuriant Southern Scene” Textiles as Reflections of Power in the Kingdom of Southern Italy and Sicily

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This chapter explores the reputation of the kingdom of southern Italy and Sicily, c. 1000–1300. Materials ranging from chronicles to legal texts reveal persistent concerns about what noted scholar Evelyn Jamison called the “the luxuriant southern scene” in the Mezzogiorno. I examine high-quality fabric and textile legislation to consider how outsiders characterized the kingdom as a site of luxury and often excess.

(1) What do the sources reveal about production and regulation of textiles? (2) What role do textiles play in the South’s legacy? (3) To what extent does later regulation of luxury reflect a historical consciousness or memory of an earlier Norman past? The intersection of governance, legislation, and commerce reveals sociopolitical attitudes and strategies in the politically and religiously diverse region.


  • Normans
  • Kingdom of S. Italy and Sicily
  • Textiles
  • Fashion
  • Mediterranean culture

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  1. 1.

    “Ibn Jubayr’s Accounts of Messina and Palermo,” trans. Joshua Birk, in Medieval Italy: Texts in Translation, eds., Katherine L. Jansen, Joanna Drell, and Frances Andrews (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 240.

  2. 2.

    Alex Metcalfe, The Muslims of Sicily (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2009), 227.

  3. 3.

    “Regno” refers to the kingdom of southern Italy and Sicily during the period of Norman-Hohenstaufen rule, the mid-eleventh century up through the reign of Manfred, 1266.

  4. 4.

    There is too much literature in the vibrant, multifaceted field of medieval southern Italy and Sicily to list everything here but notable works from the past decade include: Joanna Drell and Paul Oldfield, eds., Rethinking Norman Italy: Studies in Honor of Graham A. Loud (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021); Theresa Jäckh and Mona Kirsch, eds., Urban Dynamics and Transcultural Communication in Medieval Sicily (Paderborn: Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh, 2017); Sandro Carocci, Signorie di Mezzogiorno: società rurali, poteri aristocratici e monarcha (XII–XIII secolo) (Rome: Viella Libreria Editrice, 2014), also now available in English as Lordships of Southern Italy: Rural Societies, Aristocratic Powers, and Monarchy in the 12th and 13th Centuries, trans. L. Byatt (Rome: Viella Libreria Editrice, 2018); Sarah Davis-Secord, Where Three Worlds Met: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017). See also the articles in Jean-Marie Martin and Rosanna Alaggio in “Quei Maledetti Normanni”. Studi offerti a Errico Cuozzo, 2 vols (Ariano Irpino: Centro Europeo Di Studi Normanni, 2016); For a helpful overview of the field see, Davis-Secord, “Medieval Sicily and southern Italy in recent historiographic perspective,” History Compass 8 (2010): 61–87. Paul Oldfield, “Urban Communities and the Normans in Southern Italy,” in Keith J. Stringer and Andrew Jotischky, eds., Norman Expansion: Connections, Continuities, Contrasts (Abingdon: Ashgate, 2013), 187–91; Hubert Houben, “Between Occidental and Oriental Cultures: Norman Sicily as a ‘Third Space’?” in Stefan Burkhardt and Thomas Foerster, eds., Norman Tradition and Transcultural Heritage: Exchange of Cultures in the “Norman” Peripheries of Medieval Europe (Farnham, Surrey, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), 19–34; and Graham A. Loud, “Norman Traditions in Southern Italy,” in Burkhardt and Foerster, Norman Tradition, 35–56. Graham A. Loud, “The Nobility of Norman Italy, c. 1085–1127,” in The Normans in the Mediterranean, eds., Emily A. Winkler and Liam Fitzgerald (Turnhout Belgium: Brepols, 2021), 139–61.

  5. 5.

    Evelyn Jamison, “The Sicilian-Norman Kingdom in the minds of Anglo-Norman Contemporaries,” Proceedings of the British Academy 24 (1938): 6.

  6. 6.

    Jane Burns, Sea of Silk (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); Medieval Fabrications: Dress, Textiles, Cloth Work, and Other Cultural Imaginings, ed. Jane Burns (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); Karla Mallette, The Kingdom of Sicily, 1100–1250, A Literary History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005); Anna Muthesius, “Silk in the Medieval World,” in Cambridge History of Western Textiles, vol. 1, ed. D. T. Jenkins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 325–54.

  7. 7.

    Emily A. Winkler, Liam Fitzgerald, and Andrew Small, Norman Italy: Designing Norman Sicily: Material Culture and Society (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2020).

  8. 8.

    David Jacoby, “Silk Economics and Cross-Cultural Artistic Interaction: Byzantium, the Muslim World, and the Christian West,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 58 (2004): 198.

  9. 9.

    Jacoby, “Silk Economics,” 199.

  10. 10.

    Jacoby, “Silk Economics,” 200. Documents from before 996 confirm mulberry trees and leaves and sale of silkworms in Tunisia. Moshe Gil, “References to silk in Genizah documents of the eleventh-century AD,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 61 (2002): 31–8.

  11. 11.

    Alex Metcalfe, The Muslims of Medieval Italy, 149; David Abulafia, The Two Italies. Economic relations between the Norman Kingdom of Sicily and the Northern Communes (Cambridge and London: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 38.

  12. 12.

    Quoted in Musto, Medieval Naples, 221. For the original passage in Italian, see Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, “Velluti di seta, e drappi di seta, e drappi a oro e ciambellotti, e bucherami, e zendadi, tutti si vendono in Napoli a pezza tale com’elle ene,” La Practica Della Mercatura, ed. Allan Evans (Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1936), 180. According to Evans’ glossary to Pegolitti, “camlet” is a “woolly substance” possibly mohair (416), “buckram” is a fine material woven of cotton or linen (415), and “sendal” is a fine silk (434).

  13. 13.

    Otto of Freising related that silk-workers were carried off by the Normans during the Norman attacks on Greece in 1147. Abulafia, The Two Italies, 80–81. Abulafia relates that the kings of Sicily “maintained in their treasury a group of specialized silk-workers, at least some of whom were servile captives brought from a raid on Thebes, in Greece, in 1147.” Abulafia, Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor, 17. Metcalfe challenges this interpretation, The Muslims of Medieval Italy, 150.

  14. 14.

    Abulafia, The Two Italies, 323.

  15. 15.

    Abulafia, The Two Italies, 43; Jacoby “Silk Economics,” 200. On the Cairo Geniza, see the works of Shelmomo Dov Goitein, including: A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. 6 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967–1993), and A Mediterranean Society: An Abridgment in One Volume, ed. and rev. by Jacob Lassner (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

  16. 16.

    Andre Guillou, “Production and Profits in the Byzantine Province of Italy (Tenth to Eleventh Centuries): An Expanding Society,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 28 (1974): 92–3.

  17. 17.

    Eleni Sakellariou, Southern Italy in the Late Middle Ages: Demographic, Institutional and Economic Change in the Kingdom of Naples, c.1440-c.1530 (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 379.

  18. 18.

    Charles Homer Haskins, The Normans in European History (Houghton Mifflin: Boston and New York, 1915), 246.

  19. 19.

    This chapter discusses only a few examples of textile gift-exchanging in the Norman south. Emma Edwards comprehensively addresses diplomatic textile exchanges in “Patronage and Tradition in Textile Exchange and Use in the Early Norman South,” in Designing Norman Sicily, ed. Winkler, et al., 90–113. Edwards, 90, argues that “Norman involvement in the procurement of luxury textiles helped to build and bolster Norman identity as the legitimate rulers of the Italian south. It is this identity that would be enshrined in the art and architecture of the court of Roger II and in his crimson silk mantle.”

  20. 20.

    Amatus of Montescassino, The History of the Normans, trans. Prescott N. Dunbar (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004), Book I, Ch. 18, 50.

  21. 21.

    Amatus of Montescassino, The History of the Normans, Book I, Ch. 19, 50. Amatus suggests that a group of Normans sent “messengers with the victorious Normans” to invite “all the princes of Normandy because of the wealth that was present.” For this episode, see Loud, The Age of Robert Guiscard. Southern Italy and the Norman Conquest (London and New York: Longman, 2000), 60–2.

  22. 22.

    Joanna Drell, “From Lemons to Legislation, Welcoming Foreigners in the Medieval Regno,” Quei Maledetti Normanni. Studi offerti a Errico Cuozzo per I suoi settant’anni, ed. Jean-Marie Martin (Ariano Irpino, Naples: Centro Europeo Di Studi Normanni 2016), 371–84.

  23. 23.

    Amatus of Montecassino, The History of the Normans. Book II, Ch. 3, 64.

  24. 24.

    Amatus of Montecassino, The History of the Normans. Book VIII, Ch. 22, 198. H. E. J. Cowdrey, The Age of Abbot Desiderius, Montecassino, the Papacy, and the Normans in the Eleventh and Early Twelfth Centuries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983). Cowdrey, 19, remarked on the “munificences” that Robert Guiscard and his wife Sichelgaita bestowed on Montecassino. Also see G.A. Loud, “Coinage, Wealth and Plunder in the Age of Robert Guiscard,” The English Historical Review 114 (1999): 822, 825, 840.

  25. 25.

    Amatus of Montecassino, The History of the Normans, Book VIII, Ch. 23, 199.

  26. 26.

    Edwards offers an extensive treatment of Norman textile endowments in “Patronage and Tradition.”

  27. 27.

    Edwards, “Patronage and Tradition,” 94.

  28. 28.

    Additional information about gifted textiles can be found in studies of marriage goods or dowries. While not addressed in this chapter, southern Italian dowries often describe different qualities of fabrics included in a bride’s dowry by her family. See “The Customs of Salerno on Dowries (1251),” trans. Drell, in Medieval Italy, 434–5.

  29. 29.

    Jane Burns, Sea of Silk (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 42–5. For more on the silk workshops see Jacoby, 214–7 and Loud, “Coinage, Wealth and Plunder,” 820–6.

  30. 30.

    Ibn Jubayr, trans. Broadhurst, 341. Also, Alex Metcalfe, Muslims and Christians in Norman Sicily (London: Routledge, 2003), 110.

  31. 31.

    The History of the Tyrants of Sicily by “Hugo Falcandus” 1154–69, translated and annotated by Graham A. Loud and Thomas Wiedemann (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), 259.

  32. 32.

    Falcandus, History of the Tyrants, 252.

  33. 33.

    Falcandus, History of the Tyrants, 253.

  34. 34.

    Metcalfe, The Muslims of Medieval Italy, 149. Edwards, “Patronage and Tradition,” 89.

  35. 35.

    Alexander Telese, trans. Loud in Roger II and the Creation of the Kingdom of Sicily, 79.

  36. 36.

    Burns, Sea of Silk, 37–69, especially 44–5.

  37. 37.

    Alexander of Telese, in Roger II and the Creation of the Kingdom of Sicily, 79.

  38. 38.

    Alexander of Telese, in Roger II and the Creation of the Kingdom of Sicily, 79.

  39. 39.

    Metcalfe, The Muslims of Medieval Italy, 149.

  40. 40.

    Ibn Jubayr, The Travels of Ibn Jubayr, trans. Roland Broadhurst (London: Goodword Books, 1952), 340–1.

  41. 41.

    GuillaumeDe Palerne, An English Translation of the twelfth Century French Verse Romance trans. and ed. Leslie A. Sconduto (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland and Company, 2004), lines 8625–31, 8635–6: pp. 231–2. Also Burns, Sea of Silk, 44–5.

  42. 42.

    William Tronzo, “The Mantle of Roger II of Sicily,” in Robes and Honor. The Medieval World of Investiture, ed. Stewart Gordon (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), 241.

  43. 43.

    Tronzo, “The Interplay of Media: Textile, Sculpture and Mosaic,” in Designing Norman Sicily, ed. Winkler et al., 48. Here Tronzo quotes Isabelle Dolezalek, Arabic Script on Christian Kings. Textile Inscriptions on Royal Garments from Norman Sicily (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017).

  44. 44.

    Tronzo, “The Mantle of Roger II of Sicily,” 243. See also Tronzo, “The Interplay of Media,” 47–59. Clare Vernon links the style and embroidery of Roger’s cape with Byzantine style. She also concludes that “[i]n the silk, gold and pearls the audience would have seen, not just beauty and wealth, but also the kings’ engagement with trade networks and the diplomacy required to sustain and grow them. Perhaps the mantel demonstrated to the kingdom at large that the king was fostering diplomatic and mercantile relationships. The acquisition of the materials and the production techniques would have been as meaningful as the iconography and inscription, if not more.” Claire Vernon, “Dressing for Succession in Norman Italy: The Mantle of King Roger II,” Al-Masāq 31, no. 1 (2018): 95–110. esp.110.

  45. 45.

    Metcalfe, The Muslims of Medieval Italy, 150. According to Tronzo, after Frederick II the mantle passed “through his successors to the empire—to the Palatinate, Prague, Karlstein, Nuremburg, and other venues, and finally to Vienna—where it is documented in use from the thirteenth century.” Tronzo, “The Mantle of Roger II of Sicily,” 242.

  46. 46.

    For one of the best discussions of sumptuary legislation in Italy see Catherine Kovesi Killerby, Sumptuary Law in Italy, 1200–1500 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

  47. 47.

    Sarah-Grace Heller, “Angevin-Sicilian sumptuary statutes of the 1290s: fashion in the thirteenth-century Mediterranean,” Medieval clothing and textiles (2015): 83. Heller’s article is based on her analysis of Giuseppe Del Giudice, Una legge suntuaria inedita del 1290 (Naples: Accademia Pontaniana, 1886). Though little used by scholars, the Del Giudice text has been discussed by Kovesi Killerby, Sumptuary Law in Italy, 86, 138–9. Heller has taken on the challenge of translating the complicated fashion terminology in Del Giudice’s text.

  48. 48.

    Heller, “Angevin-Sicilian sumptuary statutes,” 88–9. Del Giudice, 157–9.

  49. 49.

    Heller, “Angevin-Sicilian sumptuary statutes,” 83. Del Giudice, 159. Such limitations to furs, trains, and embellishment is not unusual in sumptuary legislation. See Kovesi Killerby above.

  50. 50.

    Heller, “Angevin-Sicilian sumptuary statutes,” 84–5. Del Giudice, 159.

  51. 51.

    Is it possible to understand these views as a response to a culture of indulgence and excess attributed to Frederick II, stupor mundi, only half a century earlier? This is unlikely or at least not supported by evidence. Frederick was clearly a man of many interests—for example, his establishment of the University of Naples, and passion for falconry—but excessive display was not among them. According to Abulafia, “The prohibitive cost of magnificent display meant that Frederick’s court was, contrary to general assumption, a pale shadow of the opulent Norman court, and a less grandiose affair than under his Angevin successors.” Abulafia further notes the “cautious spending” of Frederick’s reign. Abulafia, Frederick II, 266. While the Church excommunicated Frederick II twice, it was due to their condemnation of his associations with Muslims and his perceived heretical beliefs.

  52. 52.

    Heller, “Angevin-Sicilian sumptuary statutes,” 88. Del Giudice, 157–8.

  53. 53.

    Heller, “Angevin-Sicilian sumptuary statutes,” 83. Del Giudice, 159.

  54. 54.

    Del Giudice includes in his volume three other Latin documents that repeat or confirm parts of the 1290 law: King Fredrick III, 1308 (Appendix I, doc. 5, 165–76), King Peter III, 1340 Messina (Appendix I, doc. 6, 177–8), Queen Maria, 1385, Catania (doc. 7, 178–80).

  55. 55.

    Susan Stuard, Gilding the Market: Luxury and Fashion in Fourteenth-Century Italy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 245 n. 53, 253 n. 23. Kovesi Killerby, 25; Del Giudice, 120–3.

  56. 56.

    Del Giudice, 122. Del Giudice also provides the Latin text for the document in Appendix I, doc. IV, 165.

  57. 57.

    Musto, Medieval Naples, 212–5.

  58. 58.

    Musto, Medieval Naples, 212, 215.

  59. 59.

    Musto, Medieval Naples, 213–4.

  60. 60.

    Kovesi, “Sumptuary Law in Italy,” 62.

  61. 61.

    Musto, Medieval Naples, 212–3.

  62. 62.

    Nicole Phelps, “Dolce & Gabbana Fall 2013 Ready to Wear,” Vogue Runway, Feb. 2013 (, accessed 27 May 2021). See also Beth Duce, “Fashion by Numbers: Dolce and Gabbana, autumn/winter 13–14,” The Guardian, 4 July 2013 (, accessed 27 May 2021).

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Drell, J. (2022). “The Luxuriant Southern Scene” Textiles as Reflections of Power in the Kingdom of Southern Italy and Sicily. In: Sohmer Tai, E., Reyerson, K.L. (eds) Mapping Pre-Modern Sicily. Mediterranean Perspectives. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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