I’ve been reading Machiavelli’s History of Florence and it is intriguing to note the very different way in which he describes the events known as the Sicilian Vespers. Infogalactic has the conventional account provided by Stephen Runciman.
The event takes its name from an insurrection which began at the start of Vespers, the sunset prayer marking the beginning of the night vigil on Easter Monday, 30 March 1282, at the Church of the Holy Spirit just outside Palermo. Beginning on that night, thousands of Sicily’s French inhabitants were massacred within six weeks. The events that started the uprising are not known for certain, but the various retellings have common elements. The only town in Sicily not to join the rebellion was a small village called Sperlinga, which protected French soldiers in a castle excavated in sandstone.
According to Steven Runciman, the Sicilians at the church were engaged in holiday festivities and a group of French officials came by to join in and began to drink. A sergeant named Drouet dragged a young married woman from the crowd, pestering her with his advances. Her husband then attacked Drouet with a knife, killing him. When the other Frenchmen tried to avenge their comrade, the Sicilian crowd fell upon them, killing them all. At that moment all the church bells in Palermo began to ring for Vespers. Runciman describes the mood of the night:
To the sound of the bells messengers ran through the city calling on the men of Palermo to rise against the oppressor. At once the streets were filled with angry armed men, crying “Death to the French” (“moranu li Franchiski” in Sicilian language). Every Frenchman they met was struck down. They poured into the inns frequented by the French and the houses where they dwelt, sparing neither man, woman nor child. Sicilian girls who had married Frenchmen perished with their husbands. The rioters broke into the Dominican and Franciscan convents; and all the foreign friars were dragged out and told to pronounce the word “ciciri”, whose sound the French tongue could never accurately reproduce. Anyone who failed the test was slain… By the next morning some two thousand French men and women lay dead; and the rebels were in complete control of the city.
According to Leonardo Bruni (1416), the Palermitans were holding a festival outside the city when the French came up to check for weapons, and on that pretext began to fondle the breasts of their women. This then began a riot. The French were attacked, first with rocks, then weapons, and all were killed. The news spread to other cities leading to revolt throughout Sicily. “By the time the furious anger at their insolence had drunk its fill of blood, the French had given up to the Sicilians not only their ill-gotten riches but their lives as well.”
There is also a third version of the events that is quite close to Runciman’s, varying only in the minor details. This story is part of the oral tradition on the island up to the present time. This oral tradition cannot be verified, but is of interest to sociologists. According to the legend, John of Procida was the mastermind behind the conspiracy. It seems that he was in contact with both Michael VIII Palaiologos and Peter III of Aragon. They were all three later excommunicated by Pope Martin IV in 1282.
Machiavelli’s account is very different, and connects it to a similar anti-French uprising in the Emilia-Romagna around the same time, both of which were inspired by a Aragonese-Papal plot against Charles of Anjou, the younger brother of King Louis IX of France.
At this time Adrian died, and Nicholas III, of the Orsini family, became pontiff. He was a bold, ambitious man; and being resolved at any event to diminish the power of Charles, induced the Emperor Rodolph to complain that he had a governor in Tuscany favorable to the Guelphic faction, who after the death of Manfred had been replaced by him. Charles yielded to the emperor and withdrew his governor, and the pope sent one of his nephews, a cardinal, as governor for the emperor, who, for the honor done him, restored Romagna to the church, which had been taken from her by his predecessors, and the pope made Bertoldo Orsino duke of Romagna. As Nicholas now thought himself powerful enough to oppose Charles, he deprived him of the office of senator, and made a decree that no one of royal race should ever be a senator in Rome. It was his intention to deprive Charles of Sicily, and to this end he entered into a secret negotiation with Peter, king of Aragon, which took effect in the following papacy….
To Nicholas succeeded Martin IV, of French origin and consequently favorable to the party of Charles, who sent him assistance against the rebellion of Romagna; and while they were encamped at Furli, Guido Bonatto, an astrologer, contrived that at an appointed moment the people should assail the forces of the king, and the plan succeeding, all the French were taken and slain. About this period was also carried into effect the plot of Pope Nicholas and Peter, king of Aragon, by which the Sicilians murdered all the French that were in that island; and Peter made himself sovereign of it, saying, that it belonged to him in the right of his wife Gostanza, daughter of Manfred.
Remember, the one thing upon which we can rely is that the official story is seldom the true one. And in most cases, that which is claimed to be spontaneous is nothing whatsoever of the kind.