On the left hand side as you enter the Palatine Chapel in Palermo is a stone mounted on the wall, with an inscription. Or rather three inscriptions – one in Latin, one in Greek and one in Arabic. It is a graceful reminder of the multi-lingual nature of medieval Sicily.
Greek had been spoken in Sicily since the arrival of the Corinthians to Siracusa in the eighth century BC and was still the vernacular of many villages in the north, east and centre of the island. It was also the language of the Basilian church, orders of which still existed in Sicily at this time.
Arabic had been brought into Sicily with the arrival of the Arabs in 827AD and was diffused throughout the whole of the west of the island. Latin, of course, had been the endowment of the Romans as well as being the language of the church. Into this linguistic soup, the arrival of the Normans in the 11th century added Norman French.
But this linguistic diversity did not just exist on the streets of medieval Palermo. The King of Sicily at this time, Roger II, had grown up in a Norman household in the Greek-speaking village of San Marco d’Alunzio on the northern fringe of the Nebrodi. Across the valley was the village of Alcara Li Fusi, where Arabic was spoken tongue. And Latin, of course, was the language of the church.
It would have been purely a matter of course for an important monument to be inscribed in each of the contemporary vernaculars.
The Latin inscription on the stone reads:
This clock was made by the order of the magnificent King Roger, during the 5th indiction and the month of March 1142AD, the 13th year of his reign.
And is thought to refer to a water clock, now long since lost. Curiously, the Greek and Arabic inscriptions, rather than just being direct translations of the Latin, are written in the idiom of their language. The Arabic inscription, for example, reads something like:
By order of the Great, high royal self with the hands of God and the hands of his scientists, this machine was made to keep the time for the protected municipality of Sicily in the year 536.
We observe that in the Arabic inscription the date is recorded as 536, whereas in the Greek the year is reported as being 6650. This is not an error. The years are reported in their respective calendars.
The Byzantine calendar takes as its year zero the date when it was believed the world was created. This corresponds to 5509 BC in the Gregorian calendar and thus the year 1142AD equates to 6650 in the Byzantine.
In the Islamic world, the Hijri calendar takes the flight of Mohammed from Mecca in 622 AD as its start date. Taking account of the fact that it is a lunar calendar and thus has a different year-length, the Gregorian 1142AD equates to 536.
Given the polyglot nature of medieval Palermo, we can hardly be surprised that three different calendars were in use simultaneously.
How were the numbers written?
The year 1142, in the Roman numerals, was written MCXLII, which can be parsed thus:
- M -> 1000
- C -> 100
- XL -> 50 minus 10 -> 40
- II -> 2
- 1000 + 100 + 40 + 2 = 1142
It was an unwieldy way of writing numbers, let alone using those numbers to perform difficult calculations.
The Greek system of writing numbers (known as Milesian or Alexandrian numerals) was scarcely less clumsy. The “units” 0-9 were assigned the first nine letters of the alphabet, the “tens” from 10 – 90 the next nine letters, and the “hundreds” (100 – 900) were assigned the next.
Neither of these systems were at all efficient for performing mathematical operations, and hence the inevitable eventual widespread adoption of Arabic numerals.
When were Arabic numerals first adopted in Europe?
It is Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa, the mathematician who we usually credit as being the first ambassador for the use of Arabic numerals in the West.
The son of an Italian merchant, Fibonacci was born in Pisa around 1170. Travelling with his father, he undoubtedly spent his youth traversing the Mediterranean – Sicily, north Africa, Syria, Egypt, meeting other merchants and learning their arithmetical systems.
In 1202, at the age of thirty two, he published“Liber Abaci” (the book of the Abacus) in which he advocated a system of numeration using the digits 0-9 and what is known as a “place-value system” or “positional notation”. Very loosely, this system is one in which the digits are arranged in columns ie: thousands, hundreds, tens and units and the column (or “position”) in which a digit is placed determines its value.
In particular, Fibonacci demonstrated the way the new numbers could simplify commercial bookkeeping and be used for converting weights and measures. At a time when commercial banking was gaining in importance, he also demonstrated practical uses for calculating profit and interest.
So what relevance does this have to Sicily?
We know that Fibonacci, as part of his travels around the Mediterranean would have visited Sicily.
Almost certainly, he would have come to the court to tutor the young prince Frederick – who would be crowned King of Sicily in 1198 and was later to be known as “Stupor Mundi” – or “Wonder of the World” on account of his genius for languages, mathematics and the sciences. Frederick carried a prodigious ancestry: on his father’s side he was the grandson Frederick Barbarossa and on his mother’s side, Roger II of Sicily. And like his grandfather Roger, Frederick grew up speaking Latin, Greek, Sicilian and Arabic. The court of Frederick II was well known for inviting scholars from all over the Mediterranean.
It was also widely acknowledged that at the end of the twelfth century Arabic learning was more advanced than the northern European – which was only just emerging from the Dark Ages. The city of Palermo (along with Cordoba in Spain) offered the opportunity for northern European scholars to meet Arab masters, or at least scholars who were able to translate from Arabic for them. Thus Palermo therefore became one of the great seats of learning of the Middle Ages.
Furthermore, we know that Frederick Stupor Mundi and Fibonacci remained friends and corresponded throughout their life. Frederick was Fibonacci’s guest when he visited Pisa in 1226. Fibonacci’s book “Liber quadratorum” (The book of Squares) was dedicated to the Emperor Frederick.
It is therefore quite reasonable to assume that the court of Frederick II, during the early years of the thirteenth century was responsible for the widespread adoption of Arabic numerals.
The first recorded use of positional notation in Europe
However, if Fibonacci can be identified as their first ambassador and the court of Frederick II can be credited with the widespread adoption of the new numerals, they were not the “inventors” of this system.
The very first recorded use of the new positional notation in Europe goes back to the time of Frederick’s grandfather Roger II and thus predates Frederick’s court by at least 60 years.
Roger II had set up mints in both Messina and Palermo. (Indeed the Italian for mint is “zecca” which came into Italian through Norman Sicily and from the Arabic word for “die” – meaning the stamp for producing the coins). Notably, at the time, Roger was the only western ruler to mint gold coins and the Sicilian Norman tari (derived from the Arabic word dinar) contained 161⁄3 carat gold – one of the most valuable in the medieval world. Other denominations were the bronze follaro and trifollaro.
Arab coins had started to carry the date of their minting as far back as the 7th century AD. However, it was always spelt out in words, for example “three hundred and fifty and seven”. The follaro minted by Roger II however, was extraordinary.
On its obverse it carries a portrait of Christ with the letters IC XC (the first and last letters of the name of Christ: ΙΗϹΟΥϹ ΧΡΙϹΤΟϹ). On its reverse side, it spells out in Arabic “Magnificent King Roger the powerful though God” and the date, stamped in Arabic numerals and using the Hijri calendar: ٥٣٣ (or 533).1
This corresponds to the year 1138AD in the Gregorian calendar.
It is thus the earliest example of a date in Arabic numerals on a coin – probably anywhere in the world. It is also the first recorded use of the positional notation numerals in Europe.
The use of Arabic numerals to record the year was perhaps a way of preserving space on the small coin. (In Roman numerals, the same date would have been written MCXXXVIII). Or perhaps it was just incidental. For King Roger II, writing the year in Arabic numerals probably seemed like standard procedure.
Of course we will never fully know the motive, but for whichever reason Roger chose to print the date in Arabic numerals, it is a moving testimony to the advancement of learning in Sicily in the twelfth century. And it is emblematic of the attitude of the Norman Kings to their rule in Sicily.