« PreviousContinue »
induced to leave their native country only by the hope of obtaining the spoils of victory. The most futile pretences were resorted to in order to dispossess the landholders of their property. The new barons, in their turn, gratified their retainers with smaller grants, and thus a new feudal division was established in Sicily upon the ruins of the former one.
Another evil inflicted by this prince upon the unhappy Sicilians was the debasement of the coin. During the dominion of the Hohenstauffen, the coining of money had been conducted upon more strict principles than in any other part of Europe. But by order of Charles of Anjou, the ancient agostalis was displaced by carlinis and half-carlinis, which professed to be of pure gold and to have the same weight as the agostalis, but were in reality far inferior to it in value. By this fraudulent contrivance, the treasury gained eighty per cent. on the coining of money.
Among other tyrannical decrees promulgated during this reign was one which ordered that no grain should be ground in any mills except in those belonging to government; and which threatened with severe punishment, not only those who should disobey this order, but even those who might purchase the forbidden article. No person in Sicily was safe ; the lands of the peasantry were seized without assigning any cause or pretext for the forfeiture. At the tables of the foreign lords, men of the most illustrious and noble families were obliged to serve as menials, and young men, born to command in the field, were employed like slaves in the kitchen of their masters. Neither age nor sex was respected; married women and young maidens were grossly insulted in the presence of their husbands and parents. During the reign of the Emperor Frederic the Second, the laws of the state had been for the most part equitable. Charles caused many of them to be changed, and the administration of justice in Sicily was reduced to a degrading traffic. The ancient parliament, which might have obliged the king to retract some of his oppressive decrees, was never assembled.
Charles was not content with thus violating the fundamental laws of the state, and treating the inhabitants of Sicily with so much cruelty ; 'he inflicted a still greater injury upon their pride by transferring the seat of government from Palermo to Naples. Thus, whilst the island was groaning under the tyrannical yoke of its foreign ruler, the continental part of the kingdom was in the most Hourishing condition. Charles had restored the University of Naples to its pristine splendor, and this city presented an uninterrupted scene of gayety, whilst Sicily was suffering all the evils and privations which a despotic power can inflict upon a conquered and dependent country.
The impolitic conduct of the French in Sicily had excited against them the indignation of the natives, and an occasion alone was wanting to convert this feeling into open rebellion. Besides Sicilians, the French had other enemies. Constance, granddaughter of Manfred, had sworn to revenge the death of her grandfather. She was married to Peter, Infant of Aragon, who was called to the throne of that country in 1277, and she had never lost an opportunity of instigating him to undertake an expedition against the French in Sicily, in order to restore her to the throne of her ancestors. Giovanni da Procida, one of the king's favorites and the avowed enemy of Charles, inspired his master with similar thoughts of conquest. This celebrated person, whose name has been handed down to posterity as the hero of the Sicilian Vespers, was born at Salerno. He had distinguished himself at the court of Naples as a physician and a scholar.
It has been generally thought that he left that court, because Charles bad refused to give him satisfaction for the insults offered to his wife and daughters by some Frenchmen; but from evidence adduced in the work before us, it seems that he was banished because he had taken part with Conradin and the Ghibellines when they conspired against the French dominion. Be this as it may, he sought a refuge at the court of Aragon, where his efforts, combined with those of Queen Constance, succeeded in prevailing upon Peter to attempt an invasion of Sicily. This, according to our author, is the only share which Procida had in the revolution of 1282. Mr. Amari does not believe what has often been asserted, that Procida was sent to form an alliance with the pope. He admits, however, that Peter may have had a secret understanding with a few Sicilian nobles, and that Procida may have been employed in these negotiations ; but he insists that the people of Palermo took arms before this conspiracy was ripe.
As we have said, Palermo suffered more than any other Sicilian city from the oppressive government of the French.
In the spring of 1282, the preparations which Charles was making for a war with the Emperor of the East caused new taxes to be assessed throughout Sicily. Heavy contributions were levied on the inhabitants of this devoted city, and even on Easter Sunday, while the people were offering their thanksgivings in the different churches, the rapacious agents of the exchequer did not scruple to penetrate into these sacred places, and to drag from the altar those unhappy persons who had not yet been able to pay the taxes. These and similar acts of cruelty, added to the general ill-feeling which was entertained in Sicily against the French, exasperated to the last degree a people, who, although crushed by a despotic foreign dominion, had not yet lost all hope of seeing their country once more independent.
On Tuesday, the 30th of March, two days after Easter, a religious ceremony was to take place at the church of Santo Spirito. The inhabitants of the town, at the appointed time, hastened to the place of worship, and every thing wore an aspect of contentment and happiness. Among the crowd which was going towards the church was a young lady holding the arm of her husband. A Frenchman who was in the press, under the pretence of searching for hidden weapons among the people, met this couple, and offered a gross indignity to the lady. His brutality alarmed her so much, that she fainted, and her husband, pale with rage, exclaimed, “Death, death to the French !” At these words, a young man advanced from the crowd and plunged a knife into the heart of the insolent Frenchman. This deed had a more prompt and powerful effect upon the people than any deliberate act of conspiracy could have produced. It seemed to animate them at once with the same purpose, and the air was filled with cries of “Death, death to the French !” This cry, says an author of the time, resounded through the whole country like the voice of God, and penetrated every heart. The ground was soon covered with victims. The multitude, increasing at every step, searched every part of the town, and every person who could not pronounce the word ciciri without the hissing sound usually given to it by foreigners was immediately put to death. The French, as if they knew they had merited their fate, made no resistance, and were massacred without pity. Neither women nor children were spared.
But the details of the horrors committed during this dreadful night are too revolting to be related ; no less than two thousand Frenchmen were slain before morning. Horrible as this indiscriminate butchery seems to our modern notions of justice and humanity, it is hardly to be wondered at, considering the fervid temperament of the Sicilians, and the magnitude of the provocations they had received. Mr. Amari certainly is less inclined to condemn his countrymen for the cruelties committed by them during the Vespers, than to deplore the atrocity of those acts which urged them at last to set aside all the laws of humanity, in order to free themselves from the chains which their oppressors had riveted upon them. Nine of the principal citizens of the town were chosen by the people as their chiefs, amidst cries of Buono stato è libertà, whilst the ancient gonfalon of Palermo was unfurled.
The spirit of rebellion spread like a conflagration throughout the island. Letters were despatched to the inhabitants of Messina, to induce them to imitate the example given by Palermo, and to take arms against the French. In these letters, Charles was termed a Nero and a monster, whilst Messina was represented as the innocent victim of his cruelty. This town soon embraced the cause of the revolution, and from one end of Sicily to the other the French were threatened with total extermination. Charles was at the Papal court when the news of the dreadful massacre of Palermo reached him. Such was his astonishment at the news, that he seemed at first disposed to bow to the stroke as if it were a dispensation of Providence. He was heard to say in prayer, — “Since it has pleased Thee to change my fortunes, grant that my downfall may not be too rapid.” His feelings on the subject, however, soon changed, and he hastened to Naples, where he gave way to the most unbounded passion, and made preparations in great haste to inflict a sig. nal act of vengeance upon the rebellious Sicilians. solved to proceed immediately, at the head of large forces, to Sicily, and to storm the city of Messina. On the 25th of July, he arrived before this city, which the inhabitants were prepared to defend with the utmost energy. While the siege was going on, the Sicilians, finding that the republican form
government which they had established was not sufficiently strong to enable them to remain independent, resolved to call
Peter of Aragon to the throne. This prince arrived in Sicily about the end of August, and the appearance of his admiral with a powerful feet shortly afterwards obliged Charles to raise the siege of Messina.
From this period, nothwithstanding the reiterated efforts of the French to reconquer Sicily,
their dominion in this island may be said to have ceased. Mr. Amari, in the work of which we have attempted to give a rapid outline of the most important part, has not terminated his account at the Sicilian Vespers, but has brought down the narrative until the peace signed in 1302, at Callabelletta, between Charles the Second, king of Naples, and Frederic, king of Sicily, that being the first cessation of hostilities since the Vespers. From the title of his work, it is evident that his design was not merely to give an account of the massacre at Palermo. in 1282, but to embrace the whole period of Sicilian history of which this celebrated event was the principal incident.
In the present article, we have endeavoured to present only a brief sketch of that part of the work which gives an account of the Vespers. It seems to us, after an attentive perusal of this account, and of the highly interesting appendix to the work, in which Mr. Amari has minutely examined all the authorities from which he has gathered his materials, that it is impossible not to view this insurrection in the same light as the author has done. If Peter of Aragon and Giovanni da Procida were the real contrivers of the massacre, it is singular that none of the most esteemed historians of the time should have mentioned the fact. Thus, for example, Saba Malaspina, the secretary of Pope Martin the Fourth, in his history, makes no mention of any conspiracy. Yet this author was a Guelf, a friend to the pope and to Charles of Anjou, and the enemy of Peter; he was, moreover, as he says in his Preface, an eyewitness of nearly all the events which he relates. *
Is it likely, then, if the Vespers were the result of a conspiracy, that he would not have said so? And Dante, who in the Divina Commedia is considered most exact in all that appertains to Italian history, mentions the Vespers without saying any thing of a plot formed by Giovanni da Procida. But it would be trespassing too far on the indulgence of
* “ Nec ambages inserere, aut incredibilia immiscere, sed dera, vel similia ; quæ aut vidi, aut videre potui, vel audivi communibus divulgata sermonibus.”