Louis Mendola, Historian.
Louis Mendola's books
Louis Mendola

Lou Mendola is one of Sicily's leading medievalists, and one of only a handful whose monographs are published in English. His books have broken new ground not only as resources for scholars but as benchmarks in outlining a Sicilian identity rooted in the Middle Ages. Some are meant to accomplish both objectives. Over the last three decades, Mendola has been consulted by the Almanach de Gotha, the History Channel, The New York Times, the BBC, the Vatican's Prefecture of the Pontifical Household, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and the heads of several European royal dynasties. His first academic article, on the Battle of Benevento of 1266, was published in 1985. Since then, his work has been published by The Heraldry Society (London) and in various other journals. He is a resource (lecturer) for YPO, an international organization of business leaders, and has lectured at New York University.


Every Book a First

In an age of redundant research in certain popular subfields of European medieval history, Mendola's books are firsts, reflecting his effort to make a deeper knowledge of Sicilian history available to an international readership that may not be proficient in Italian, Latin or Sicilian. Some of these works are cited in dissertations, while others are used in undergraduate courses.

At the Tower.These books were written to fill a gaping void in the field. Since 1995, Graham Loud, Thomas Wiedemann, Gwenyth Hood, Prescott Dunbar and other scholars had translated most of the principal chronicles of Norman-Swabian Italy, but by 2015 several still remained to be translated, and none of the major academic presses seemed willing to publish these. Although the late Denis Mack Smith had written general histories of Sicily, while Donald Matthew, John Julius Norwich, Hubert Houben and David Abulafia had written eloquently about its Norman-Swabian era, there was no history – not even a simple survey – dedicated to the entirety of the kingdom's existence that offered much in the way of information about its dynasties or institutions. Existing books about Italian genealogical research failed to sufficiently explain the use of Sicilian records – the best genealogical records in the world – and they ignored the related fields of genetics (DNA), armorial heraldry and nobiliary history. There was no guide for educators seeking English-language texts for courses on Sicilian history, literature or culture. There wasn't even a guide book in English describing more than a handful of the Norman-Arab monuments in and around Palermo, once a royal capital.

In other words, some important works needed to be published to supplement what was missing from the Sicilian historical canon in the English language, not only for scholars but for the general public. This is how Lou Mendola explains the predicament:

"It's not just that a lot of material wasn't being published in English. Some of it wasn't even available in Italian! Jackie Alio's recent book on Queen Margaret of Sicily is the first biography of her in any language. We can always debate whether this or that book should have been written by this or that person – it's about which publisher decides to publish the work and which author gets the contract – but do we really want to wait another twenty or thirty years for important monographs to be published? By then, some of us may be dead. "Tuscanists" – professors who did doctoral work here in Italy on Dante and Boccaccio – have told me how refreshing it is to finally have a book like the Rebellion that considers Sicilian at length, not only for its poetry and grammar but as something that relates to history, and that their students love it. These are courses being taught in Canada and the United States, where professors are reluctant to assign more than three required texts for an undergrad course. But the most gratifying case is Peoples of Sicily, which has an appeal far beyond Sicilian history." (Read the full interview.)

The books' immediate success prompted repeat printings. Fellow historians welcomed the monographs. Librarians rejoiced, while several junior scholars working on theses and dissertations requested pre-publication copies of the chronicle translations – which the author provided to them at his own expense. Complete with maps, genealogical charts and photographs, and printed on thick, off-white, acid-free paper, these were highly useful, informative books designed like those published before 1960 – long before most academic presses decided to save money by eliminating such features – and offered at a fraction of the prices charged by university publishers.

Increasingly, Lou Mendola was asked to give lectures, and there were even requests for tours based on The Peoples of Sicily, the best-selling title.

Sicily's Rebellion against King Charles is the first English translation of Lu Rebellamentu di Sichilia contra Re Carlu, a thirteenth-century chronicle written in Sicilian that recounts the War of the Vespers of 1282 from the point of view of John of Procida, chancellor of Frederick II and his son Manfred. For this Mendola consulted the Spinelli Codex. Housed in a library in Palermo, it is the oldest surviving manuscript of this chronicle. The chronicle itself dates from around 1290; this manuscript was copied during the next century.

Frederick, Conrad and Manfred of Hohenstaufen 1210-1258 is the first English translation of the Jamsilla Chronicle completed in 1262 or 1263. For this account of the reigns of Frederick's sons, Conrad and Manfred, as they spent eight years criss-crossing southern Italy to preserve the Kingdom of Sicily, Mendola consulted the oldest extant manuscript in a library in Naples, along with contemporaneous charters and other records attesting to its details.

Sicilian Genealogy and Heraldry is the first guide to this subject. Intended for researchers already conversant with basic methodology, it is more scholarly than the typical instructional book on Italian genealogical research but no less useful. This is the book consulted by professional genealogists, or by anybody seeking professional results, when they have to research in Sicilian records.

The Kingdom of Sicily 1130-1860 is the first survey of the history of this realm over the course of seven centuries, with chapters dedicated to the Byzantine and Arab eras before the arrival of the Normans, and southern Italy in the unitary monarchy that existed until 1946. Though intended for a general readership, this volume presents certain information never published, such as an eyewitness account of Palmiro Togliatti, Italy's communist pro tempore justice minister, rigging the vote that ousted the nation's monarchy – an incident unknown to Italians until this book's publication in 2015.

The Peoples of Sicily: A Multicultural Legacy is the first book to consider Sicily's polyglot heritage from antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages. This introductory ethnography has proven highly popular, selling many thousands of copies. It is used in several university courses.

Sicilian Studies: A Guide and Syllabus for Educators is the first outline for professors and teachers wishing to formulate courses (in English) about Sicily. This volume was written in response to requests for such a guide by educators in the United States and China.

Norman-Arab-Byzantine Palermo, Monreale and Cefalù is the first guide of its kind written in English that describes all of the medieval sites of these royal cities in their appropriate historical context.

Points of View

What informs an author's point of view? In this case, part of it is having roots in the place he writes about. Like the authors of the Rebellion and Jamsilla, two of Mendola's ancestors were Ghibelline supporters – the earliest Mendola forebear is mentioned in a royal decree of 1283 and a von Micheken was a Teutonic Knight who left Germany for sunny Sicily.

But passion is just the beginning. Historicity is about facts and accuracy. History should be neutral, unbiased, rigorously researched. The field of history, like science, brings us competent experts but no immutable authorities. It is not the place for cronyism or personality worship.

It's not the purpose of history to make us feel comfortable, and Mendola is unafraid to write about things that strike emotional chords. The final chapter of the Rebellamentu tells us that the memoirist, John of Procida, despised the Angevins because they had raped his daughter. The last chapter of The Kingdom of Sicily mentions Fascist genocide and the Italian revisionism that – to this day – seeks to whitewash the nation's past.

Historiography is a collaborative effort; no one scholar writes it, nor should any one historian claim to be the supreme expert. But if there's one Sicilian historian who is striving, through his work, to bring Sicily's uniquely multicultural, multiconfessional story to an increasingly complex world, it is Lou Mendola.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Being a historian means being part of a tradition. The acknowledgments and in memoriam dedications in these books bring us the dead as well as the living. Scholars often cite academic influences – Mendola sometimes mentions the late Brenda Meehan, one of his professors at the University of Rochester – but there are those who transcend everyday learning to inspire. Lou Mendola's greatest personal influences (listed here alphabetically) live in memory. His work is his silent testament to them.

Douglas Fairbanks was a thespian, a confidant of kings who played his greatest role in military intelligence; he trained a specialized unit that saw action in Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily.

Achille di Lorenzo was an anti-Fascist close to the surviving Bourbons of Naples; he was part of the rescue mission to save Umberto Nobile's last, ill-fated Arctic expedition.

Cardinal Jacques Martin was Prefect of the Pontifical Household and assisted Pope John Paul II in exorcisms.

Charles Mowbray was premier baron of England, a war hero and sometime cabinet minister.

James Charles Risk was an American naval officer present at the invasion of Sicily in 1943, serving in the Allied Military Government, and later a numismatist and occasional diplomat; he knew Queen Elizabeth II and the last King of Italy.

Sir Steven Runciman wrote defining works on the Crusades, the Byzantine Empire and the Sicilian Vespers, unbiased histories presented from two or three perspectives rather than just one as was customary since Gibbon's time. He was a gentleman scholar in the best Oxbridge tradition.

Prince Cyril Toumanoff was a native of Saint Petersburg, where he witnessed the Russian Revolution; he was a longtime history professor at Georgetown University, where one of his students was a young Bill Clinton.

Three multilingual women were living links to the nineteenth century. Princess Urraca de Bourbon of the Two Sicilies recounted something of her aunt, Maria Sophia Wittelsbach of Bavaria, last Queen of the Two Sicilies, who was present at the Siege of Gaeta in 1860 and died in 1925. Maria Grazia Vizzini, the author's grandmother, set him straight about some Italian unificationist propaganda he mentioned to her regarding Giuseppe Garibaldi, her grandfather having been a military officer present in Sicily during the invasion of 1860. As a child, Professor Helen Hadsinsky met Tsar Nicholas II of Russia in her native Ukraine; her husband was one of the physicists who developed the first Soviet atomic bomb.

As Lou Mendola says, "We should remember the people, but also their ideas."

Isn't that why we study history?

© 2015-2018 Louis Mendola