The origin of the Sicilian Vespers and the privilege of deciding for oneself

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Among legends and historical data handed down by Michele Amari, the revolt of 1282 which delivered Sicily to the Aragoneses with the expulsion of the Angevins represented one of the first acts of self-determination of a people in the Old Continent. The event is proof of the fact that, with the right spirit of brotherhood, in Sicily one can do more than observe the failures of those in charge

When we talk about Sicilians, we generally refer to them as a people incapable of governing themselves and used to watch those who have divided the control of the island over the centuries without reacting. And this is partly true. Equally often, however, we forget an event without equal compared to the historical period in which it happened and during which the Sicilians were characterized by a spirit of collaboration and desire for change. Let’s go back to the Middle Ages then, more precisely to 30 March 1282 in the city of Palermo: there began the experience of the Sicilian Vespers, one of the first acts of self-determination in the Old Continent. The one who told the story of the expulsion of the Angevins and the request for an intervention by the Sicilian people to Pietro of Aragon was the historian Michele Amari, whose work remains one of the main sources about those events still today.

In 1882 the scholar from Palermo published the Popular tale of the Sicilian Vespro, where the French harassment of the inhabitants of the island is well reconstructed. As Amari explained, it continued from 1266 until the outbreak of the revolt: “For sixteen years the Sicilians, as inhabitants of the kingdom, had been relentlessly stripped and vilified […]. King Charles never summoned parliaments, always raised the ‘collection’ as he wished, and often not once, but twice a year; he maintained, increased and even aggravated the harassment and harshness of the so-called ‘collection’, i.e. the indirect contributions of the times of Frederick II ». Unfair and compulsory taxes, deprivation of baronial privileges for the benefit of the Angevin ruling class, widespread guerrilla atmosphere and hostility: this led to the exasperation of Sicilians of all classes. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was more curious and, if we want, despicable. Amari cleverly mixes the legendary component with his documentary chronicle, reporting that on the evening of March 30, a soldier of the Angevin regiment had lingered beyond his due in the company of a woman of high rank with an excuse, excessively bothering her. Offended by his arrogance, her husband would have taken the French officer’s sword, killed him and started the so-called Vespers, which took their name from the term vespers (sunset), because they began while the sun was setting. The conflict (during which the current Sicilian flag was created) ended with the Peace of Caltabellotta between Angevins and Aragoneses in 1302.

What was the key to the success of such venture? The spirit of brotherhood that all Sicilians shared. Having for the first time the same objectives, men and women rich and poor people, lay and religious ones found themselves in agreement for the exclusive good of Sicily. Even if the effects of the Vespers then got lost, the Sicilian people demonstrated an unparalleled foresight in thinking they could decide their own destiny from a political point of view. Theirs was not, in fact, only a way to defend their privileges and honour: it was a real challenge to the mentality of that time, to the foreclosure on the pursuit of freedom, to those who believed they could rule the roost unpunished. Although this experience is now distant from us and related to a fairy tale to entertain children and adults, it hides a message that still maintains its validity. Even before being inhabitants of Sicily, with their differences and peculiarities, in fact, people should remember to be human beings with similar desires, feelings and aspirations. Rather than despairing of what is wrong, of the choices of others that do not match their expectations, they should make a common front, be responsible of their destiny, support and bear each other. And never lose sight of the polar star of moral independence.

Translated by Eva Luna Mascolino

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