Sicily during this time period was generally a quite accepting place, with Roger II and his successors seeming encouraging increased multiculturalism and acceptance of Greeks, Muslims and Jews. This can be seen in the contrasts of art and culture to Northern Europe and the new laws and administration that were introduced, especially by Roger II. Although Roger was in fact a Norman Christian this did greatly influence the way in which he governed, under this new type of leadership, tolerant of difference, Sicily thrived becoming a modern-like state.
It may be argued that the title statement is accurate of Sicily as at this time even though Roger was a Christian and thus Christianity dominated the island, the art and culture present shows a great tolerance and even reliance on other religions and cultures. As with most middle age Christian kings, many churches were built across the island, however the difference lies within the styling of the churches.
Roger merged Muslim and Byzantine art with that of Christianity on several occasion within many prominent and famous buildings. We can see this merging of different artistic ideologies on Roger the II’s coronation mantle, featuring a lion killing a deer, with Arabic lettering surrounding the outskirts. A lion would’ve been alien to Europeans so has must’ve resulted from North African, likely Muslim, contributors. Likewise this can also be seen on the ceiling decoration in the Palatine chapel, Rogers personal prayer space.
This shows extreme tolerance for different religions, which was mutually beneficial, so much so that certain historians argue that Roger was in fact a closet Muslim. Great resemblances to Byzantine works can be seen in Sicily such as the image Christ Pantocrator which is almost identical in Cefalu Cathedral and the Hagia Sofia, however Byzantium was also Christian so acceptance of it may not seem too surprising. Instead a key demonstration of religious acceptance comes from Roger the II’s constant use of Islamic symbols such as the eight pointed star.
The tolerance of different religions can also be seen from statistics presented by historian David Abulafia, whom suggests that Sicily’s population was 55% Muslim, 5% Jewish and 40% Christian of which remained similar throughout his reign. If Roger had little tolerance this would not be so. Many thrived under Roger’s multiculturalist ideologies, such as the Arabic cotton manufacturing industry. Roger the II, is one of the first kings to properly establish new laws and writing them down. These laws may seem lacking in tolerance.
The Assizes of Ariano contains a law of Apostasy, punishing those whom abandon the Catholic faith, with little exception. This can be seen as Phillip of Mahdia renounces the Christian faith and as such is burnt at the stake, this is surprising as he was very high up in Roger’s court. However this law was not applicable to those who stayed with their religions and as such many members of the Kings court who kept their religion such as George of Antioch who managed to rise high in the Kings court. It may also be argued that Roger’s policies were enlightened.
This is because some are comparable to even modern day laws, such as requiring medical practitioners to pass an exam and excusing children and the mentally ill of harsh punishments as they know no better. Roger also shows his acceptance of multiculturalism through his official documentation which was written in Greek. Furthermore, Palermo was also the central hub in the world for the translation of documents from Greek to Latin, translating many works including Plato. Roger also adopts much from the Byzantines, not just their art.
He uses their purple parchment for his royal bills and was even buried in a Byzantine styled sarcophagus. Roger the II also had a great thirst for knowledge, showing a great interest in learning about cultural differences. This pursuit of knowledge can be seen by the commissioning of “The Book of Roger”, which was a compilation of data on geography, culture, weather, appearance etc. of the known world. Although given the majority of the credit for this book that took 17 years to produce, it is known that the large share of the work was done by an Arabic scholar in Roger’s court, Edrisi.
Nevertheless his thirst for knowledge is still clear and his interest in different cultures clear. His thirst goes to such an extent that he even hired a famous diver to explore the depth of the Straits of Messina in order to discover whether the Greek myths of Scylla and Charydbis, even if this is not true it still acts as a representation for his endeavour of enlightenment. His tolerance for religious difference can also be seen as he is taught by Greek and Arabic monks whom he did not dismiss from his court as many kings would’ve done before him.
Historians also suggest that Roger may’ve been quad-lingual, speaking French, Latin, Greek and Arabic, although this is unclear and hard to confirm. In conclusion, “Enlightened and tolerant of religious difference” is highly representative of Sicily under Roger II and his successors. Sicily was populated by a diverse range of people of which the ratio did not change through this time period. The laws he passed were modern and worthy of even today’s society. Roger’s thirst for knowledge built also built bridges to enlightenment.