In the early spring of 1282 a great fleet lay at anchor in the harbor of Palermo, Sicily. The commander of the fleet, Charles of Anjou, brother of King (and later Saint) Louis of France, and by the blessing of the Pope and his own political machinations, King of the Two Sicilies, planned to attack the Byzantine capital of Constantinople and re-establish the Latin Empire, with himself as Emperor. For Charles, a man of formidable military and administrative talent, and considerable political ruthlessness, the possibility of being an emperor, of dominating the Mediterranean world, must have seemed so close that he could not fail to grasp the opportunity. And then everything changed.
The Sicilian Vespers, by the late Sir Steven Runciman, is the story of the late 13th century European world that created Charles of Anjou. Runciman describes in considerable, and very interesting detail, the interplay of politics and religion at that time, especially the bare knuckle politicking of the Popes, whose attempts at creating a universal Christendom ruled by the papacy eventually lessened respect not only for the individual popes involved, but for the papacy as an institution as well. The interweaving lines of narrative come together on the evening of March 29th, Easter Monday, of 1282, when a group of drunken Frenchmen arrived outside the Church of the Holy Spirit in Palermo just as the crowd of worshippers was going in for the Vespers service. One of the Frenchmen made advances, or actually tried to rape, a young Sicilian woman. Her husband killed the Frenchman, and when the Frenchmen's friends drew their swords, the crowd jumped them and killed them as well. The oppressed Sicilians then went on a rampage through the streets of Palermo, screaming Moranu il Franchkisi [Death to the French!] and slaughtering every Frenchman they could find, including French priests, nuns, and monks, as well as Sicilian women who had married Frenchmen. The rebellion rapidly spread to other cities across Sicily.
Runciman expertly weaves together the story of what happened and why it happened and what the consequences of the great rebellion were for Charles and the Sicilians and for a papacy more interested in politics than religion. There might be a better book on this subject somewhere, but I tend to doubt it; Runciman writes in clear and understandable English, a talent not usually cultivated by academic historians in the United States, and he knows his subject backwards and forwards. I would recommend this book highly to anyone interested in the Middle Ages, and to anyone interested in how history ought to be written.