Jacqueline Alio, the biographer of Sicily's medieval queens.

Conversation with a Renaissance Woman

Upon the publication of Queens of Sicily in late April 2019, Olivia Howard, a writer who divides her time between London and Toronto, interviewed historian Jacqueline Alio, an equally inter­national woman. This candid interview was conducted over brunch on a sun-filled morning in the breath­taking gardens of the grand Villa Igiea hotel overlooking the Gulf of Palermo.

Jacqueline Alio.Interviewer: I've always enjoyed medieval history – when I'm not watching Game of Thrones! – and I have to say this is one of the better books of queenly biography I have seen. It reminds me of the work of Alison Weir, if with more foot­notes and references.

Ms Alio: Alison Weir's recent biographies of Anglo-Norman queens come pretty close to what I write. The dif­ference is that at least some­thing has already been written in English about those English queens, or I should say consorts of English kings, but virtual­ly nothing had ever been written – in any language – about most of the women profiled in my recent book, certainly not more than a few sketchy notes.

Interviewer: Your publisher says this is the longest book ever written by a woman in English dealing with Sicilian history. I believe it. How much does this book weigh?

Ms Alio: About a kilogram. For the Americans, that's over two pounds. And over a quarter-million words.

Interviewer: The covers show photos of the regalia.

Ms Alio: All that remains is the crown of Queen Constance, wife of Frederick II, and the gold pendant of Margaret of Navare that once held the relics of Thomas Becket, whose nephews lived in Palermo for a short time. The crown is here, the pendant is in New York.

Interviewer: To some readers, you've become the "face" of Sicilian women's history.

Ms Alio: By default. I've never sought fame. What's happened is that most of the women here in Sicily writing our history write in Italian and don't speak much English. Except for me, those writing in English – who may not be Sicilian themselves – live abroad. Women of Sicily, a short, simple introduction intended for the general market, didn't cover any new ground in terms of scholarship. But nothing like it had been written in English and it has sold extremely well. So more people know about me than they do about "Professor XYZ," who has written maybe one or two good, but highly-specialised, monographs and teaches in Omaha, or wherever she could get a tenure-track position. Not that there's anything wrong with that, or with Omaha. It's important for foreigners to learn about Sicily, and that means studying about it in other countries, but it's important to see the place if you want to learn about its people. My books concentrate on the people.

Interviewer: Living here must be a benefit to your work.

Ms Alio: A golden opportunity. Not only for this book but for the others. Most of the manuscripts and charters are here, in Italy. A two-month research visit would never be sufficient to write a book like Queens of Sicily. Everything is here. In a few weeks, an exhibit about Norman Sicily begins here in Palermo, at the Norman Palace. It'll be exceptional, and it's a fifteen-minute drive from my house. About twelve years ago, when they restored the painted muqarnas ceiling of the Palatine Chapel – the world's largest Fatimid work of art – visitors were allowed to climb the scaffolding to get a close view. I did and it was amazing.

Interviewer: What's your incentive for writing history?

Ms Alio: I love Sicily, which isn't just my home but my ancestral culture. I loved it long before it became a trendy academic topic and tourist destination. My purpose, my "mission" if you wish, is to disseminate information that hasn't yet been published in English. I respect foreign scholars writing about Sicilian history in English. But we [Sicilians] can't wait forever for outsiders to write our history. A book about our first queens should have been written a hundred years ago!

Interviewer: Your introduc­tion is rather lengthy –

Ms Alio: Twenty thousand words, I think, more or less.

Interviewer: And it mentions a number of topics that spring from these biographies. You note feminism, women's studies generally, multi­culturalism and diversity, the study of Sicilian medieval history itself, queen­ship as a subject. Did I miss any?

Ms Alio: Sicilian ethnic and cultural identity. Near the end of the intro, I make the point that the lives of these early queens are an important part of the identity of Sicily and Sicilians, and some­thing we can't ignore any more than we can exclude Eleanor of Aquitaine from the narrative of English history.

Interviewer: Oh yes. That's one of the reasons for includ­ing the biography of a modern queen, Maria Sophia of the Two Sicilies.

Ms Alio: Exactly. It's about the continuity over time. Queenship as an essential part of our historical identity as Sicilians. As long as Sicily was a king­dom it had its own queens, even when some of them were also queens of Aragon or the united Spain.

Interviewer: Until 1860, with the annexa­tion to the Kingdom of Italy.

Ms Alio: Yes. Maria Sophia died in 1925.

Interviewer: You also talk about why these biographies weren't written or published until now. The historical revisionism, the censorship, the misdirected Italian na­tionalism with its emphasis on Tuscany and then Piedmont, the blatant sexism, the Fascism. And how so many Italians, even today, get nervous talk­ing about those subjects, let alone writing about them.

Ms Alio: The central point, I think, is that we can't be "afraid" of history if we hope to learn anything from it. But yes, many in Italy are actually reluctant to write about those things. That's obviously not my problem, Italian – and Sicilian – as I am.

Interviewer: Why do you suppose other women in this country are unwilling to write about more of these facts?

Ms Alio: I can't speak for anybody else but my impression is that it's about careers more than conformity. Here in Italy, a professor, being a public employee, may not wish to be seen criticising the Italian government and its flawed institutions because – imperfect or not – that's who pays her salary each month. It's also possible that an Italian woman may feel uncomfortable speaking to foreigners about the historical or social shortcomings of her own country. A journalist or independent scholar has more freedom. Foreign scholars outside Italy may fear certain "reprisals" for voicing critical opinions about this country. They may be worried about not getting invited to speak at academic conferences here in Italy.

Interviewer: You write that rape was outlawed in twelfth-century Sicily but then that law was forgotten until Italy made it criminal assault in 1996. I'm still digesting that bit.

Ms Alio: I was here [in Italy] when it was made a felony rather than a "crime against public decency" in the same category as pornography. Better late than never, I suppose.

Interviewer: There's a great deal to mull over. A few of the notes to the introduction looked as if they could be developed into articles or even books unto themselves. The notes on corrup­tion and warped history caught my eye, and they're confirmed by my talented Italian friends who've had to leave their homeland to find work in Britain and Canada. As you state, the late Denis Mack Smith and other historians have written about it.

Ms Alio: Those topics are peripheral but still relevant because I tried to explain why there haven't been many books like this one until now. It's not to slam Italy as a nation, it's just that you can't really avoid the fact that women's studies isn't even taught as a subject in most of the Italian universities that teach humanities and social science.

Interviewer: Let's talk about the sisterhood. What's it like for women in the Italian academy?

Ms Alio: Not great. Nepotism and sexual harassment are pretty normal in this country. There hasn't been a Me Too movement here, and there's not much solidarity among Italian women generally. I don't like to speculate about how this or that professoressa got her job, or how well she does her job, but it's a bizarre social environment, that's for sure. A challenge for women.

Interviewer: And during the twelfth century?

Ms Alio: This comes up among historians who want to see more actual sisterhood – mentoring or fellowship between queens – than there really was. The last time I checked, Margaret of Sicily and Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose children were married to each other, didn't use email or social media. Certain scholars would like to see me make more "connections" between these women, but there weren't very many. For example, Eleanor stopped in Sicily in the summer of 1149 on her way back from the Second Crusade, when she may have met Margaret, but we know of no subsequent correspondence between them. A junior scholar thought that I should have written more about the "connection" between Adelaide del Vasto, who died in 1118, and Margaret, who arrived in Sicily thirty years later, as if Adelaide were a positive influence on Margaret. Margaret, who married Adelaide's grandson [William I], could not have known much about Adelaide except what she heard from older people at court. Adelaide never even lived here [in Palermo] very long, and very little was written about her that Margaret could have read. What I'm saying is that we have to consider context, and the times when these women lived.

Interviewer: There's a good deal of feminist theory in the book, even if you don't beat the reader over the head with it.

Ms Alio: Mostly in the introduc­tion and mostly, as we say in history, pro forma.

Interviewer: True. This isn't a feminist tome. It's a collection of biographies. But you do seem to touch on feminist theory.

Ms Alio: Well, it isn't very "controversial" feminism, just the essentials. The second wave of feminism, in the sixties, led to things like the study of queens by women scholars, so it is significant in that way. Were it not for those trailblazers, we might not be where we are today.

Interviewer: You mention Betty Friedan and even Oriana Fallaci but not Gloria Steinem or Camille Paglia.

Ms Alio: Nothing against either of them, but I usually focus on public figures who are no longer among us.

Interviewer: Why is that?

Ms Alio: Mostly because dead women can't change their minds about their ideology after my book is published. And besides, my goal was to acknowledge the movement's influence, not to descend into polemics that grow out of its subtleties, which are many. I respect what Gloria and Camille do, even if their opinions diverge from each other sometimes. Women's studies would be much less without them.

Interviewer: Camille Paglia's new book, Provocations, considers multiculturalism and the importance of studying religions. You talk about multi­culturalism, though not in that modern political sense.

Ms Alio: It's a loaded topic. Basically, the Norman, Arab and Byzantine coexistence in Sicily under these eighteen queens is self evident, along with the Christian, Muslim and Judaic heritage of the people themselves. What I write about is quite different from the realities confronting us today. However – and this is important – it can help us to understand and confront the complexities of a multicultural, multifaith society.

Interviewer: What about gender identity? You mention it in passing, at least once.

Ms Alio: Yes, but it's only circumstantial, and that's how I present it. One of the queens did not seem too interested in getting married and having children but that's all we know about the situation. There isn't nearly enough evidence to reach a firm conclusion about it. It's just speculation.

Interviewer: That was the first Constance?

Ms Alio: Yes. The daughter of Roger II.

Interviewer: These were all strong women?

Ms Alio: Every single one of them. That's one of the things that makes all their stories interesting. And it's why they deserved this book.

Interviewer: Margaret's chapter, taken mostly from your earlier book [published in 2016] about her, seems to emphasise that more than the others.

Ms Alio: Yes, and for two legitimate reasons. First, she was regent for five years. Second, we happen to have two surviving chronicles that talk about her and her regency at length. We know more about her than about any of the others.

Interviewer: Understood, but you do go out on a limb to say that she was the greatest of these queens.

Ms Alio: Mostly for those two reasons. For those five years, she was the most important woman in Europe and the Mediterranean.

Interviewer: In researching and writing Queens of Sicily, were there many misperceptions – other historians' errors – to correct?

Ms Alio: Not many, since so little had ever been written about these women, even here in Italy. I chose not to dignify every theory with a rebuttal. That kind of thing gets tiresome, even unproductive, and sometimes it can look to outsiders like a "feud" between jealous scholars. As it was, my publisher was beginning to complain about the book's length [740 pages], so I was not in the position of being able to use too much space for fruitless discussions. My books rely heavily on primary sources rather than "secondary literature" written centuries after the fact by historians like Isidoro La Lumia or – more recently – John Julius Norwich, who I met here in Palermo about eight years before his death. That's a principle strongly advocated by Barbara Tuchman, who wrote a book about how to write history.

Interviewer: How does that play out in the work? Can you give me an example?

Ms Alio. La Lumia said Queen Margaret was thin and beautiful as a widow of a certain age but he cited no original source to support his impression. Norwich said she was an incompetent administrator but his case for that wasn't very convincing. Their sources for her were the same as mine – two detailed chronicles and a few charters. These were comments on her regency, not actual biographies of her.

Interviewer: Is biography challenging?

Ms Alio. I would say so, but I pride myself that there are no factual errors in my work. One can always take issue with an author's writing style or point of view, or a certain translation of the original Latin sources. That happens all the time, and it can be pedantic because everybody has her own opinion. It's very eclectic. Amazon and Goodreads are full of reviews that directly contradict each other. I've never been criticised on the facts.

Interviewer: How is this book different from the "typical" monograph?

Ms Alio: Like most of my other work, this is mostly a reference book. If you go online to see which libraries have acquired Margaret, you'll see that some of them won't even let it circulate. That's because they don't want to risk losing something useful that researchers may wish to consult twenty years from now. The details of the betrothal of Joanna of England to William II recorded by English chroniclers were published in England during the nineteenth century but I translated a few passages into English that, until 2015, were available only in Latin. One or two academics have complained because my books are not written with the same jargon and emphasis on "secondary literature" as research papers. They're not supposed to be. My books are what you consult when you're writing the research papers. The bibliographies are extremely detailed – the one in this book is almost forty pages long. Look at the scholarly apparatus in this book. The back matter – the notes, appendices and sources – is a third of the book. Some of the end notes are a page long. Source documents, like Thomas Becket's letter to Queen Margaret, are included. By the way, my biography of Queen Margaret had ten appendices. A student seeking information from a reliable source doesn't need five hundred pages of theories and analysis. She needs facts. My books aren't written for three people on a dissertation committee but for three thousand readers who want to learn about the subject!

Interviewer: What about the "casual" reader?

Ms Alio: Outside academic circles there's a hardcore following for books about European queens – mostly women. And this kind of book also has a special appeal to people interested in Sicilian cultural and social identity, and women's history. My goal is to present the facts, but to make them sound interesting.

Interviewer: This is a remarkable book on so many levels. What sparked your interest in Sicily's queens?

Ms Alio: Aside from being Sicilian and living here [in Palermo], I've always liked Sicilian medieval history, even things some of our own [Sicilian] historians ignore or disdain, like the Sicilian language.

Interviewer: You've studied French and...

Ms Alio: Some German, Spanish and a little Japanese.

Interviewer: And obviously Italian and English, being raised in both Italy and the United States. And Latin and Sicilian.

Ms Alio: Yes. And in California I grew up among a lot of Spanish speakers, which was a practical way to learn the language.

Interviewer: You're something of a Renaissance woman, then?

Ms Alio: You're too kind.

Interviewer: Well, besides being a historian and writer, you're a musician.

Ms Alio: I play the guitar.

Interviewer: Which you studied in the world's pop music capital.

Ms Alio: Los Angeles. My dad had a business there.

Interviewer: Were you into the club scene?

Ms Alio: Well, I've been to places like the Roxy and the Troubadour.

Interviewer: Did you ever see people like Susanna Hoffs or Jane Wiedlin?

Ms Alio: No. They were kind of punk, and older than me. The places I went were more metal.

Interviewer: So you've never seen the Go-Go's or the Bangles perform live?

Ms Alio: No.

Interviewer: Where do you perform?

Ms Alio: Mostly in church.

Interviewer: You were raised Catholic?

Ms Alio: Sure. I even went to a Catholic school.

Interviewer: Here or there?

Ms Alio: In California.

Interviewer: Before university?

Ms Alio: Yes. Marymount.

Interviewer: Did you ever meet the Hiltons or the Kardashians?

Ms Alio: That was long after I left! How'd you even know they went there?

Interviewer: It came out during the recent scandal involving Lori Loughlin.

Ms Alio: Not every Catholic mother does what she's accused of doing.

Interviewer: Your queens were all Catholic mothers.

Ms Alio: Yes but two started out Greek Orthodox.

Interviewer: Has your background – being raised Catholic in a multicultural city like Los Angeles – been an asset in your work as an historian?

Ms Alio: Yes. More than most people may imagine.

Interviewer: How?

Ms Alio: Well, growing up exclusively in Italy would have deprived me of much contact with, for example, Jews, Latinos and Asians in my formative years. What's missing in the experience of most historians who have grown up here [in Italy] is that sense of objectivity in viewing people from other cultures and faiths as equals. There's a huge difference between true diversity and mere tolerance. On the flipside of that, the work of some of my colleagues outside Italy shows a lack of sufficient knowledge about Catholicism. That's a serious deficiency when you're writing about Catholic dynasties and things like Catholic coronations.

Interviewer: So your work brings us the best of both worlds?

Ms Alio: I hope so. That's part of it.

Interviewer: You're known by your middle name. You have an unusual forename that I saw on the copyright page of your book.

Ms Alio: Calogera. It's very Sicilian but nobody outside Italy ever pronounces it the right way.

Interviewer: I think it's important that this book was written by an historian having deep personal roots here in Sicily – a scholar who knows the place as well as you do and takes pride in her heritage. That's a point emphasised by your publisher.

Ms Alio: The book contains my translation of the Contrasto, work I'd done twenty years ago. This is the most important poem of the Sicilian School. It's court poetry written in Sicilian. Some of the queens probably heard this poem. To do this kind of translation presumes a knowledge of Sicilian, one of the languages I grew up speaking, and a native's fluency in English. Sicilian isn't one of the languages taught at universities, even here in Sicily. I've read some academic monographs written by British and American women that deal with some aspect of medieval Sicilian history. I've never seen one that deals with the Sicilian language at any great length. It's important for Sicilian women to write our own history, not only in Italian but in an international language like English. There aren't enough of us doing it.

Interviewer: Are you suggesting that that's a problem in your field?

Ms Alio: A condition more than a problem. It's not something you can put your finger on until you jump into the work and look around you to see what else is being published, and by whom.

Interviewer: Could you give me an example?

Ms Alio: I'd prefer not to mention any authors or publishers by name. Look, I'm not blaming anyone, and I'm not saying there's an intentional bias. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with "Mary White," as an Italophile, writing a book about Italian medieval history. But it would be nice to see more books published – in English – about medieval Italian women that are written by Italian scholars like "Maria Bianco." This isn't about me. It's not a personal complaint. I was lucky to find a great publisher, but I'd like to see more opportunities for talented women, especially here in Italy. Right now, what happens is that a young Sicilian scholar writes a dissertation on, let's say, the royal palaces of Palermo but it never gets published as a monograph in English, while a foreign woman writes the same thing and it gets published. That's a good example because it's such a common topic. Some great work is being done here in Sicily, just not in English.

Interviewer: Point taken. I see that your publisher is based in New York. It's not one of the major academic publishing houses.

Ms Alio: It's the only one I know of that has its own imprint [Sicilian Medieval Studies] having a focus on southern Italy during the Middle Ages. I'm talking about monographs published in English in the original. It's the perfect fit for someone like me. I considered another publisher – one of the better-known academic publishing houses – but they wanted a smaller book, maybe four hundred pages, with no more than a few maps and charts. Their editing was outsourced and they wanted to charge me, the author, for somebody to index the text, as if it were an "extra" service! They refused to include certain original sources as appendices, things like my translations of several royal decrees of Queen Margaret that appeared in my biography of her.

Interviewer: The book's design is beautiful. I love the line drawing of the crown at the beginning of each chapter.

Ms Alio: It's from the chronicle of Peter of Eboli, one of the original sources for the reign of Henry VI and Constance Hauteville. That's the kind of detail that most academic publishers don't want to invest in. Original drawings cost money. So does good paper.

Interviewer: I know you give lectures. Do you work with students on research projects?

Ms Alio: I get queries. About two months before Ferraris was released for sale, the publisher received a request from a man in Liverpool whose daughter needed it before publication for a dissertation she was writing. He offered to pay for an advance copy but I just sent it to him.

Interviewer: You receive requests even before work is actually published?

Ms Alio: Every book I've written so far is a response to demand. I rarely write anything that's already been done in English.

Interviewer: Where can people meet you? Do you ever present papers at academic conferences?

Ms Alio: It's been a long time since I've responded to a call for papers. Most of my research is reported in my books. That's also true of my original translations, like the passages from the chronicle of Romuald of Salerno in Margaret. Instead of writing a paper for an edited collection [anthology] of work by a dozen scholars, I prefer going straight to monograph, with my name on the cover. Queens of Sicily has new research in it. I'll upload papers to a public space like Academia or Research Gate only after they've been published in a book or journal – or after the copyright has been registered in the United States. Most journals won't accept a paper if it has already been published somewhere else. So far, none of my books has had a cover price of more than forty euros, or forty-two dollars. That's affordable access. Also, I've put a few things online for the benefit of researchers, things like the appendices from the books, with no pay-wall.

The author at Margaret's birthplace.Interviewer: With its appendices and lengthy notes, in some ways this book does look like a series of academic papers in one volume. There's the text of the queens' coronation ceremony. I've the impression that your research required a fair amount of travelling.

Ms Alio: Sure, but it was over a period of years.

Interviewer: You took most of the pictures that appear in the book?

Ms Alio: Yes. All but a few are original.

Interviewer: Queens of Sicily is well over seven hundred pages long, with as many endnotes, and two inches thick. How long did it take to write?

Ms Alio: That's a loaded question because going into the project I already had written some of the material, on Margaret of Navarre, for instance. As I said, the work translating the poem was something I'd already done back in the late nineties. And I was very familiar with Sicilian history, so the background didn't have to be researched. This is my eighth book.

Interviewer: Understood. But the actual writing?

Ms Alio: With the research that was necessary, over a year. The editors and designers helped along the way. The book has almost thirty genealogical charts and plenty of maps, far more than most academic publishers allow you to include.

Interviewer: A serious time commitment. Where did you find all the sources?

Ms Alio: That's a good question, because not everything needed to write this kind of book is going to be found on the internet or in a public library. I know of sources that aren't listed on websites, and some are available only from one or two libraries or archives in Italy or Spain – so not just Cava, Cassino or the Vatican but Pamplona and Toledo. I've been collecting scholarly journals for a long time. I would say that my library of medieval Sicilian history is more complete than what you'll find at most university libraries, even here in Italy. I have boxes full of academic journals, like the Archivio Storico Siciliano, and books from the sixteenth century, some as reprints.

Interviewer: What interesting facts about these women have you discovered?

Ms Alio. It's not that they were a secret, but certain things hadn't been published or discussed very much, incidents like Margaret having a few of her husband's enemies killed and Matilda, a sister of King Roger II, being mistreated by her husband. There is some question about the veracity of these details reported in chronicles, but they had to be included in the biographies.

Interviewer: What kind of reaction does your work elicit?

Ms Alio: Generally positive. The scholarly work, like the translation and notes of the Ferraris Chronicle, has been cited in papers and dissertations. Peoples of Sicily has been used as a text in undergrad courses. I like to think that each of my books approaches history from a different angle.

Interviewer: Your agent told me that you're the first author to write scholarly biographies in English about most of these queens – "scholarly" meaning the work is based on original sources and has "scholarly apparatus" like footnotes, diagrams and a detailed bibliography. But didn't Nancy Goldstone write about some medieval queens of Sicily?

Ms Alio: Nancy Goldstone is a fine historian. We need more like her. My queens lived in Sicily. Hers are connected to the Angevin dynasty that ruled from Naples after 1266, and after 1282 some of those queens, like Joanna of Naples, were queens "of Sicily" by pretension. By then, Sicily was actually ruled by the House of Aragon, even though the two dynasties intermarried sometimes. So for some time there were two kingdoms "of Sicily." The island was ruled from this city [Palermo] while the peninsula, whose king claimed Sicily, was ruled from Naples. [With this, Ms Alio waves toward the Tyrrhenian Sea facing her.] Eventually, the peninsular kingdom came to be called the "Kingdom of Naples."

Interviewer: You have said that some women writing about queens tend to identify closely, perhaps too closely, with the women they're writing about. Have you ever met a woman who actually, personally, identified with a particular queen?

Ms Alio: Yes.

Interviewer: But shouldn't you, as a biographer, empathise with your subject?

Ms Alio: Sure, but not to the point of assuming another woman's personality.

Interviewer: You seem to have enough personality of your own. How is it that you have a literary agent? Isn't that unusual for a scholar?

Ms Alio: Without wishing to boast about myself or my work, the difference is that, compared to most academics, some of my books have sales in the thousands, and somebody wants to make a movie based on Margaret. The typical academic monograph – the kind of work converted from a dissertation into a book – might have a first press run of three or four hundred copies. Some of those specialised publications are good but not many people read them.

Interviewer: Is that due to lack of interest?

Ms Alio: Maybe, but in some cases those books are grossly overpriced, and, well, some are far too specialised to attract much attention.

Interviewer: But isn't your translation of the Ferraris Chronicle specialised?

Ms Alio: Yes. And it has sold fewer copies than my other books. It's a perfect example of what I'm talking about.

Interviewer: I was struck by the diverse origins of Sicily's queens. The book's very first map shows where the eighteen women came from. [Olivia opens her copy of the book and leafs to page 52.] Did you research in each of those countries?

Ms Alio: Not all of them. But it was necessary in a few cases, to really understand the women, particularly those who were more important in Sicilian history. Some records are available only on-site. You have to travel to consult them.

Interviewer: Be honest with me. Which of these women would you want to be?

Ms Alio: Come on! [laughing]

Interviewer: But do you feel that, in some small way, your research has revealed something special about each one of them?

Ms Alio: Sure. And something about each of us. That's why we study history, to learn more about ourselves.

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