The best books about medieval Sicily

Why am I passionate about this?

Like many travelers and writers, I was drawn to the Mediterranean Sea because of its vibrant cultures, sun-drenched landscapes, and delicious foods. As a medieval historian, I am attracted to stories of people and cultures in communication with each other across religious and cultural divides. I found the perfect combination in the history of Sicily, which in the Middle Ages had populations of Greek Christians, Latin Christians, Muslims, and Jews living together in both peace and conflict. I study the histories of travel, trade, and exchange in and around Sicily, which allows me to think about big questions of how medieval people related to each other even when they came from different religions or cultures.

I wrote...

Where Three Worlds Met: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean

By Sarah Davis-Secord,

Book cover of Where Three Worlds Met: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean

What is my book about?

My book takes a long view of Sicily’s history from the period of rule by Constantinople in the sixth century, through two centuries of control by Muslim emirs, to the eleventh-century conquest of the island by Latin Christian warriors called the Normans. By examining individual acts of travel, trade, and communication among Greek Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Latin Christians, the book uncovers patterns of connection that brought worlds together, or kept them apart. Ultimately, the book argues for the centrality of Sicily in larger networks of trade, diplomacy, war, and migration in the medieval Mediterranean.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce AD 300-900

Sarah Davis-Secord Why did I love this book?

No other book has inspired my own work as much as this one, although it is about far more than the history of Sicily.

McCormick found extensive evidence for travel and communication in the early medieval Mediterranean—a period in which it was previously thought that long-distance trade had all but stopped after the decline of the Roman Empire.

McCormick’s method was to collect every tiny anecdote he could find about something or someone that went from one place to another across the Sea. All these tidbits of data added up to something huge, and showed clearly that travel and exchange across the Mediterranean did not end when the Roman Empire did. To the contrary, the Mediterranean Sea in these centuries was teeming with people of all faiths, carrying coins and packages of trade goods on ships sailing between Christian and Muslim controlled regions.

His method, of collating masses of data that in isolation might look inconsequential, but which together showed clear patterns, essentially gave license to my own method of using travel accounts to research a period of Sicily’s history that is poorly represented by surviving chronicles or other traditional textual sources for medieval history. 

By Michael McCormick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Origins of the European Economy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For fifty years debate has raged about early European commerce during the period between antiquity and the middle ages. Was there trade? If so, in what - and with whom? New evidence and new ways of looking at old evidence are now breaking the stalemate. Analysis of communications - the movements of people, ideas and things - is transforming our vision of Europe and the Mediterranean in the age of Charlemagne and Harun al Rashid. This is the first comprehensive analysis of the economic transition during this period for over sixty years. Using new materials and new methodology, it will…

Book cover of Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor

Sarah Davis-Secord Why did I love this book?

One of medieval Sicily’s most well-known rulers was the man known as the “Wonder of the World,” the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.

He was born in Sicily, where the intellectual and artistic culture of the royal court was still deeply influenced by Byzantine and Islamic traditions. Frederick was learned in Arabic, wrote a manual on hunting with falcons, and was excommunicated three times by popes who were both his greatest allies and his greatest enemies.

This biography of him by one of the most important living historians of medieval Sicily and the Mediterranean is a riveting story in addition to being a deeply researched and informative biography. Written with both the specialist and the general reader in mind, this is a book that captures both the complexities and the contradictions of Frederick’s life, mirroring those of Sicily itself.

By David Abulafia,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Frederick II as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a biography of Frederick II (1194-1250), King of Sicily, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Jerusalem, concentrating on the complete history of his kingdoms and placing his reign in a wide context. David Abulafia presents Frederick as less tolerant, less far-sighted in his cultural interests and less ambitious to break the power of the Roman Church than has previously been thought. Until now too, the success of Frederick's enemies in denigrating him has grossly distorted the understanding of his reign and its effects, but David Abulafia aims to redress the balance, presenting the man as a traditionalist and a…

Book cover of The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century

Sarah Davis-Secord Why did I love this book?

I love being a historian of the early and central Middle Ages. This was a period in which the religious and political conflicts of the later Middle Ages were not yet foregone conclusions, although the faultlines of future conflicts were being laid.

The late thirteenth century, by contrast, was a time of multiple contests on many fronts: the European crusading project continued, the fallout of the conflict between Frederick II and the papacy was still roiling, and the newly powerful kings of European states were competing for influence.

Steven Runciman’s book captures the ferment of this time by focusing on an uprising against Sicily’s French rulers. Although the book was published many years ago, it has never really been matched for its propulsive storytelling and ability to highlight the continuing importance of Sicily as a focal point of broader developments in the Mediterranean.

By Steven Runciman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Sicilian Vespers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On 30 March 1282, as the bells of Palermo were ringing for Vespers, the Sicilian townsfolk, crying 'Death to the French', slaughtered the garrison and administration of their Angevin King. Seen in historical perspective it was not an especially big massacre: the revolt of the long-subjugated Sicilians might seem just another resistance movement. But the events of 1282 came at a crucial moment. Steven Runciman takes the Vespers as the climax of a great narrative sweep covering the whole of the Mediterranean in the thirteenth century. His sustained narrative power is displayed here with concentrated brilliance in the rise and…

Book cover of Arabs and Normans in Sicily and the South of Italy

Sarah Davis-Secord Why did I love this book?

Being in Sicily is an incredible feast for the eyes but, if you cannot make it there in person, seeing full-color photographs of its medieval remains is the next best thing.

This book excites me every time I open it, with its gorgeous images of buildings, mosaics, and material objects made of silk, ivory, rock crystal, and more. If you want to visualize the multi-religious and multi-cultural society of Sicily in the Norman era, a book like this is the way to do it. 

By Adele Cilento, Alessandro Vanoli,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Arabs and Normans in Sicily and the South of Italy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sicily has been at the crossroads of the Mediterranean for thousands of years. As close to Africa as it is to many parts of Europe, and directly astride major sea routes, it has been a convenient landfall for both merchants and warriors. Its invasion in the year 827 A.D. by Muslim armies from North Africa set the stage for a fascinating interplay of cultures. As these Arab and Berber soldiers slowly conquered Sicily and extended their reach to parts of the Italian mainland, they came in contact with, and for some two hundred years ruled over, Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians loyal…

Book cover of The Muslims of Medieval Italy

Sarah Davis-Secord Why did I love this book?

The thing that first drew me to medieval Sicily was its history of Muslim habitation.

I am deeply interested in questions of how Muslims, Christians, and Jews interacted with each other during a period of history in which religious identity was one of the most prominent public facts about a person and their community.

Alex Metcalfe is one of the leading scholars studying the Arabic texts that give us insight into the cultures of Muslims in Sicily and southern Italy and their legacies after the Norman conquest of an island that had been in Muslim hands for nearly two centuries. He has written several other works, but this is the one most accessible to a general audience, and the one that covers both Sicily and the southern parts of the mainland that were also strongly impacted by Muslim presence and culture.

By Alex Metcalfe,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Muslims of Medieval Italy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This significant new work focuses on the formation and fragmentation of an Arab-Muslim state and its society in Sicily and south Italy between 800 and 1300, which led to the formation of an enduring Muslim--Christian frontier during the age of the Crusades. It examines the long- and short-term impact of Muslim authority in regions that were to fall into the hands of European rulers, and explains how and why Muslim and Norman conquests imported radically different dynamics to the central Mediterranean. On the island of Sicily, a majority Muslim population came to be ruled by Christian kings who adopted and…

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The Forest Knights

By J. K. Swift,

Book cover of The Forest Knights

J. K. Swift Author Of Acre

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I love a good fight scene! It doesn’t need to be long and gruesome, but it must be visceral and make me nervous for those involved. Don’t get me wrong, I also love a good first-kiss scene but unfortunately, my past has made me more adept at recognizing and writing one over the other. I started training in martial arts at the age of nine and continued for thirty years. I don’t train much these days but I took up bowmaking a few years back and now spend a lot of time carving English longbows and First Nations’ bows. I recently also took up Chinese archery.

J. K.'s book list on with realistic fight scenes

What is my book about?

The greatest underdog story of the medieval age.

A wild land too mountainous to be tamed by plows. A duke of the empire, his cunning overshadowed only by his ambitions. A young priestess of the Old Religion, together with a charismatic outlaw, sparking a rebellion from deep within the forests. And an ex-Hospitaller caught between them all.

The Forest Knights

By J. K. Swift,

What is this book about?

A druid priestess enlists the help of an ex-Hospitaller warrior and a charismatic outlaw to fight Austrian tyranny in medieval Switzerland. A subtle blend of fantasy and history, ALTDORF (Book 1) tells the events leading up to one of the greatest underdog stories of the medieval age, the Battle of MORGARTEN (Book 2).

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Interested in Sicily, the Middle Ages, and Italy?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Sicily, the Middle Ages, and Italy.

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