A queen’s orders
and Europe’s oldest
piece of writing

When we think of the traces left by the Norman dominion in Sicily, we instinctively indicate masterpieces of architecture as Cathedral of Cefalù or that of Monreale. However, few know that our island owes another of its various primates to the Normans. In Palermo, in fact, precisely in the Historical Archive obtained from the former convent of Teatini, near Corso Vittorio Emanuele, lies the oldest paper document in European history dating back to 1109 a.D.. An even more surprising event, if we consider that it had occurred another century to start a stable and continuous paper production throughout our country. It wasn’t the Great Earl Ruggero (dead in 1101) who signed this prestigious testimony but his wife Adelasia degli Almerici, Ruggero II’s mother and regent of Sicily until 1112. She was an extraordinary figure, passed down in history also for her nonconformist choices.

THE MANUSCRIPT. The document, also known as “Adelasia’s letter”, was written in both Hebrew and Arabic. It shows how much the customs of the former rulers of the island had become deeply rooted, who evidently knew the use of paper for a long time. Thanks to this discovery, we learn that Adelasia had given order to the vicecomiti of Castrogiovanni to defend the monastery of San Filippo di Demenna (located in Valle di San Marco), one of the regent’s possessions. This circumstance paradoxically sanctioned its uniqueness. The measure, in fact, was designed to have limited duration. It is likely that if it was a ʻmore officialʼ indication, she would have opted for the use of parchment, still widely preferred at the time.

ADELASIA AND SICILY. The drafting of the document would not have been the last episode to tie the fate of the Countess to the island’s. In 1113 Adelasia married secondly Baldwin, King of Jerusalem, with whom, however, she had a stormy relationship. The sovereign, in fact, not only wasted his wife’s riches, but at the same time entertained a parallel marriage. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back: in 1117 the woman got the annulment. The following year she chose to return to Sicily to retire to private life in Patti (Messina), where she died just a year later. Her historical importance is still celebrated in the cathedral of Patti: the tomb of the Countess is surmounted by a statue cover that portrays her features to remind us the deeds of that powerful and unusual woman.

Translated by Daniela Marsala

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