During the first half of the thirteenth century, Sicily had given the Italian peninsula its first corpus of lyric poetry in a local vernacular; at the turn of the fourteenth century, Dante celebrated the literary achievements of the Sicilian poets and their monarch, a poet himself, Frederick II. A half century later, however, the fortunes of the island had changed dramatically; as a Sicilian poet of the era would lament: “pirduti su li rigi et li singnuri naturali, / non ch’à nixuna ligi nin raxuni a cui pur vali” (“the kings and lords by birth are lost / there is no law and no reason which prevails”). By the midpoint of the fourteenth century, Sicily had already been engulfed in civil war for decades. The Aragonese had come to power following the Sicilian Vespers in 1282, but the Angevins – who still held Naples, the northern half of the Kingdom of Sicily – made regular attacks on the island in an attempt to overthrow Aragonese rule. The situation deteriorated further when the plague reached Messina in October 1347, brought by Genoese boats returning from the Crimea. Though it would decimate the Sicilian population, the plague was not, finally, as much a drain on Sicilian resources as the constant battling between Aragonese and Angevin rivals for the throne and, especially, the devastating contests between the barons of Sicily. Precipitated by a feud between two powerful families, this battle would escalate into a four-way division of the island following the death of Frederick IV (sometimes called Frederick III) in 1377 and the ensuing disputes over succession. The power vacuum on the island – or, more precisely, competitions between a plurality of petty warlords – would create conditions of anarchy which would be ameliorated but scarcely resolved when, following the accession of Aragonese Martin I to the Sicilian throne, parliaments were held in Catania and Syracuse in 1397 and 1398, the first since 1350. Martin died in 1409, and scrabbling over succession led again to civil war. In 1412, Fernando I of Castile would be elevated to the throne of Sicily; for the next four centuries Sicily would be ruled by a non-resident monarch.
As Braudel taught us, as Horden and Purcell have showed, however, the constant upheavals among the aristocracy had less effect on the lives of the populace than one might expect. Between 1282 and 1374, Sicily lost 70% of its population. Following this demographic crisis the island was appreciably more urbanized than other European territories, and its population (presumably because of political instability and the insecurities that this created) appreciably more mobile. Sicilians followed available resources, moving restlessly between the countryside and the city and, especially, between the major cities on the island.
Against this backdrop – a reduced population faced with political uncertainty, increasingly urbanized and dwelling in increasingly metropolitan cities, with an elevated level of mobility between urban centers – Sicilians got on with the business at hand for writers throughout the Italian peninsula at the moment: the creation of a local literary tradition modeled on developments pioneered elsewhere but using the dialect spoken locally as a literary medium. This was the era of the vulgarizzamento on the one hand and dialect Petrarchism on the other. Sicilians, like writers on the mainland, wrote dialect cribs of the monuments of Latin literature: during the first half of the fourteenth century, Sicilians wrote vulgarizzamenti of the Aeneid, the Dialogues of Saint Gregory, and Valerius Maximus; during the second half of the century, Simone da Lentini created a vernacular version of a history of Norman Sicily, Geoffrey Malaterra’s De rebus gestis Rogerii Calabriae et Siciliae, and Niccolò Casucchi di Agrigento wrote a Sicilian version of the Gospel of Matthew. The great flowering of Sicilian dialect poetry written on the Petrarchan model would come later, at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century. Before 1418, Sicilians wrote lyric poetry above all on devotional themes (for Mary, Saint Ursula, Saint Agatha; vernacularizations of the Paternoster, the Credo and the Te Deum) or historical themes (the 1408 eruption of Etna or the interminable battles over dominion of the island), but always in the Sicilian dialect. The Sicilian poetry written during the era of Frederick II – the poetry celebrated by Dante, which provided a model for the poets of the peninsula – has been preserved only in Tuscan manuscripts which standardized its language to meet Tuscan norms; Tuscanization sometimes garbled the formal structures of the early Sicilian poetry. The poetry of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, survives in Sicilian versions that (like the brief passage cited above) present the poems in an untouched poetic Sicilian, its rhythms, vocalic melody, and rhymes intact.
The multilingualism for which Sicily had been celebrated in earlier centuries also survived during this later period, though in an attenuated form. A much-loved earlier Aragonese monarch, Frederick III (d. 1337), had promoted the production of Byzantine manuscripts with lavish and striking illustration programs, nodding to Sicily’s reputation as a cradle of Greek culture; Sicilian libraries would later furnish Greek manuscripts for the Renaissance scholars of the Italian mainland. And Jewish Sicilians maintained fluency in the languages of Mediterranean Judaism, especially Hebrew and Arabic. Later in the fifteenth century, on Good Friday of the year 1481, a Sicilian Jew who had converted to Catholicism – Gullielmus Raimundus Monchates, best known as a teacher of Pico della Mirandola – would preach a sermon at the Vatican, in the presence of Pope Sesto IV, in five languages: Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, and Greek. Thus did Sicilians contribute to the two complementary linguistic trends of the early Renaissance: on the one hand, the dynamic growth of a new literary vernacular; and on the other, a voracious linguistic appetite for the great lingua francas of antiquity and the Middle Ages and the literary masterworks they generated.