Sicilian Vespers

The Sicilian Vespers is the name given to a rebellion in Sicily, in 1282 against the rule of the Angevin king Charles I, who had taken control of the island with Papal support in 1266.

The rising had its origin in the struggle between the Holy Roman Empire, represented by the Hohenstaufen emperors, and the Papacy for control over Italy. When the last Hohenstaufen Manfred of Sicily was defeated in 1266, Pope Urban IV entrusted the kingdom of Sicily to Charles of Anjou.

Charles regarded his Sicilian territories as a springboard for his Mediterranean wide ambitions, which included the overthrow of the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus. His French officials who governed Sicily badly mistreated the native Sicilians, including rape, theft and murder without reproach.

There are two interpretations, not necessarily mutually exclusive, of events. One stresses the weltpolitik of Michael Palaeologus and the Aragonese king Peter III in fomenting the revolt; the other concentrates on the grassroots unpopularity of Charles's rule among the native Sicilians. The latter view gained popularity during the Risorgimento, when the patriot Michele Amari propounded it during the nineteenth century.

In researching the subject, the majority of the source material revolved around the politics and the intrigue surrounding the revolt. Very little was written about the unpopularity of Charles of Anjou and his cruel and oppressive treatment of the Sicilian population.

The event is so named because the insurrection began at the start of the evening prayer service of vespers on Easter Monday (March 30, 1282) at the Church of the Holy Spirit just outside Palermo and eventually led to the massacre of thousands of Sicily's French inhabitants over the course of the next six weeks. The exact events that started the uprising are not known for sure, but all the retellings have common elements.

According to one story, Charles invoked the European custom of "droit du seigneur" (French for right of the lord) on the Sicilian population. Brides were compelled to spend their wedding night with the local feudal lord before going to live with their husbands. If the bride was of noble birth, such as the daughter of a Baron, she had to spend the first night with a French officer. If the bride was a peasant girl a French common enlisted man enjoyed the first night.

Likewise, the local population was heavily taxed to support Charles's ambitious plans.

According to Steven Runciman, 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 the church bell at the Holy Spirit and all the church bells in Palermo began to ring for Vespers.

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 started a riot, the French, were attacked first with rocks, then weapons, killing them all. The news then spread to other cities leading to open revolt through out 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.

According to one legend, that has no source or attribution, the rebellion started after a Sicilian woman went to a church in Palermo to look for her young daughter, who had spent the whole day there praying, only to find her being raped in the church by a French soldier - whereupon the mother then ran into the streets, shouting Ma fia/ Ma fia/ (meaning "My daughter! My daughter!" in medieval Sicilian dialect). Some have claimed that this tale provides a plausible explanation as to where the word "Mafia" might have originated; it must be admitted, however, that it has all the earmarks of folk etymology.

According to Sicilian lore, most of the French troops had been stationed in Sicily for quite some time. Most had learned to speak Sicilian quite fluently and some even married Sicilian girls and settled down in Sicily. When the revolt started the French troops and their Sicilian wives were massacred. In panic, many of the French troops discarded their uniforms and donned Sicilian attire trying to mingle with the Sicilian population for safety. One giveaway was that the French, no matter how well versed in Sicilian, still had a certain French accent. The word "Ceceri" (meaning Chickpea or Garbanzo bean) was the key giveaway. The Sicilian pronounced the word with a soft Ch sound, phonetically "Checheri". The French said the word with a hard "K" sound, "Kikiri' When a Sicilian suspected one as being French, he was asked to say the word "Ceceri", if the pronunciation was with a hard "K" the individual was immediately slaughtered and his ears; nose and other "hidden appendages" were cut off. The story further states that Charles of Anjou was fond of Sicilian wine. These "appendages" were collected, preserved in wine barrels and shipped to Charles, thus showing the utter disdain the Sicilians had for him and his regime.

Taking advantage of the revolt, King Peter III of Aragon launched a successful invasion, becoming also Peter I of Sicily.

Charles remained in control of the mainland Kingdom of Naples until his death in 1285, and his heirs continued to reign there until Peter's successors reunited the two territories in 1442.