History of Menfi


See Menfi guide for highlights and historic monuments

Early history of Menfi

The hamlet of ‘Burgimilluso’ was built by Frederick II as a hunting lodge for himself and his Court, where previously the Arabs had built a powerful fortress called Burgimillius. Later the castle was involved in the history of the wars between Aragon and Anjou, and in all the struggles involved in the 14th and 15th century with the nearby town of Sciacca.

The castle was later given by Charles I of Anjou (1226-1285) to the Provençal Pietro Nigrello. According to documents collected by Antonino Marrone, in 1283 Peter I of Aragon (1239-1285):

"[...] given to notary Stefano di Nicola and Filippo Guarichi from Sciacca, on their own merits, two hamlets in the valley of Girgenti, that is 'Burgibilluso' near Sciacca, and 'Turboli' with the neighboring lands, which in the time of Charles of Anjou was owned by the Provençal Pietro Nigrello [...]" [9].

Menfi in the 14th century

After the war of the Sicilian Vespers the hamlet became the property of Emmanuele Family, with the privilege of inheritance by a decree of Frederick II of Aragon (1272-1337).

By the marriage between the daughter of Antonio Emmanuele II with Francesco Ventimiglia, Earl of Gerace, Burgimilluso passed to the Counts of Gerace, from whom it was subsequently removed by King Martin I (1374-1409) and granted to Guglielmo Peralta (died 1392), husband of Eleanor of Aragon (1358-1382). In 1399 it then returned to the Ventimiglia. The various property transfers are delineated schematically in the “Repertorio della feudalità siciliana”:

"[...] ‘Burgimilluso’ (‘Burgi-b-illuso’) (1254). Once a hamlet and now it is the town of Menfi. It was an estate belonging to Giovanni di Rocca Imperiale (1254), then passed to Filippo Guarichi and to notary Stefano di Nicola (1283). Then it belonged to Rodolfo Manuele (1286), passing to > Antonio Manuele > Corrado Manuele (1335) > Aloisio Manuele (c. 1362) > Antonio Manuele > Arnaldo Branciforti (1358) > Antonio Manuele (before 1374) > Eufemia Manuele and Francesco Ventimiglia > Guglielmo Peralta (1392) [...]" [10].

From the 16th century to the present

Finally the estate became a possession of the Tagliavia family. In fact, Stefania Cortes married Diego Tagliavia (1590-1654), and their daughter, Jane, married Ettore Pignatelli, Count of Caronia; so the estate passed to  Counts Caronia. In 1518 Vincenzo Giovanni Caronia obtained by Charles V (1500-1558) a "licentia populandi", with the opportunity to build in the locality called "Burgium" an "oppidum sive casale" (trans: a fortified village or hamlet).

Thanks to a subsequent "licentia populandi" Diego Tagliavia in 1638 had the opportunity to build a village around the castle, to which was given the name of Menfi [11].  Diego Tagliavia himself at first called the new town "Borgetto", then "Menfri", "Menfrici” and “Menfi”, from the name of a nearby estate. It was still known on maps as Menfrici until the 18th century.

Under the Tagliavia owners village life at Menfi had considerable momentum. In fact, the Baronial house and the first church dedicated to Our Lady of Grace were built, and the squares and streets were extended.

Then the county passed to Diego Pignatelli Fardella (1774-1827), who had the title of Baron of “Belice.” This was the last ruler of the town.

The earthquake of 1968 destroyed much of Menfi, traditionally devoted to agribusiness and now enriched by a wine production of prestige and by tourism, thanks to the many cultural initiatives that have enhanced the area and the local history of the town.

Origins of the name of Menfi

We should first note that the etymology of the small and famous town of Menfi poses particular difficultie; in fact, on this intricate problem area there are very few specialized studies and there is almost nothing generally accepted on a popular level.

The "New Town" of Menfi was born with this name until 1638, following a "licentia populandi" granted to Diego Tagliavia. In the Middle Ages the town developed around a castle built by Emperor Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250), near a hamlet of Arab origin known as "Burgimill", variously named over the centuries as "Burgimill", "Burgimelluso", "Burgibelluso", "Marpimelluso" "Burgio Melluso", "Burgello", "Burgetto" and "Borgetto”.

We can trace the first mention of the "Burgimill" hamlet to a register of Frederick II, who wanted to build a castle that served as his hunting lodge, an activity to which the emperor was particularly faithful. We read in this register that he ordered the construction of an “habitacio” ("Habitacio" is a term that could be translated as "hamlet" : F. Maurici):

"[...] in order that there was near Burgimill a lodge exclusively dedicated to our hunts, over a large fountain that was there, between Sciacca and Agrigento, on the river ‘Santo Stefano’, near the sea" [1]

Through this document, we do not have a undoubtable proof about the existence of a castle; however, some studies have shown that  it certainly was built by Frederick II. One of the greatest scholars of the castle, G. Agnello, wrote:

" […] Not being able to give ‘Burgimilluso’ Castle an ancient origin in the Norman period, nor assign to it an origin in subsequent ages to the reign of Frederick II, it is logical to admit that its construction took place under the rule of this monarch, who ordered the building of the hamlet with the diploma of the November 17, 1234[…].”

The letter of Frederick II referred to a potential "castrum" dedicated “ad nostra solacia et Curie Nostre commoda” ["to our hunts and for the convenience of our Curia."] In fact, these areas were particularly lush and full of animals. As written by H. Bresc, Emperor Frederick II began “[...] The construction of new pleasure castles such as 'Burgimill', now Menfi, near the forest called ‘Berrabaida’ and ‘Modione’, on the River ‘Santo Stefano’" [2].

But what does the "Burgimill" name mean? All studies and popular Websites repeat in unison that the word is of Arabic origin; which is true, but perhaps some readers would also like to know on what data this statement is based?

In fact, the first part of the word "Burg" is certainly Arabic, and this is evidenced by the large repertoire of Arabic terms as prepared by Professor Girolamo Caracausi, who writes: "[...] 'Burgium' is present in the Iberian place names, and in Sicily we have the Arabic term 'Burg', with the meaning of 'arcis',' Turris' [Fortress], ‘propugnaculum’ '[defensive work] (...), 'stone house situated in a garden [...]".

Then, about "Burgimilluso," Caracausi observes: "[...]The 'Burgimillusi Land' (year 1264), also called the 'Burgimillusium' hamlet (1283), 'Burchimilluso' (1408) 'Burgimillusi fortress or stronghold','Burgius Millusius' (Pirri, Fazello) corresponds to the current Menfi[…]” [3].

Having established that "Burgium" is the "fortress", Caracausi explains later the meaning of the term "Millusius" on which he enlarges with many details: "[...] Despite some differences of detail, there is a substantial agreement in attributing a Latin origin to the Sicilian term ‘Muddisa’, almonds, nuts and similar (...) soft fruits, the exact opposite of hard (…), from the Latin 'mollis', from which derives <'mellensis' <'Mel, Mellis' (...)".

However, if we can not completely rule out an influence from the Latin "mollis" (...) the ancient Sicilian form 'millisius' (...) and 'middisi' <'muddisi' <'mollensis', this leads us to seriously consider the possibility that the origin of the Sicilian and southern forms mentioned above is the Arabic term ‘Mallasi’ ('sweet and tender (fruit) , plenty of water and that melts in your mouth'; “‘mallasi im lisi’ indicates a variety of fruits, such as grenades, locust beans, chestnuts and walnuts, and the term seems to mean 'fruit that has a soft and smooth skin'.

Moreover 'Mallasi in lisi' has a more precise semantic corrspondence with the Maltese term 'Melliesi levè’, that is a sort of almond with a tender shell' (Barbera III 692, 732); hence the Arabic term "Mallasi im lisi" derives [...]".

In conclusion, "Burgi-millusius" means a "fortress located on a soft and marshy ground."

However, the "etymological torment" of Menfi does not end here. In fact, if "Burgimillusius" has acquired a sense, we can not just say it with regard to "Menfi", the name by which the new town was named since 1637. Truth to tell, as we'll see,  the town was first called "Borgetto” [small village] and then by various names such as “Me-n-frici”, “Me-m-frici”, “Menfis”, “Menf-r-is” and then "Menfi".

However, we do not believe that making comparisons with the famous “Memphis” (Italian “Menfi”) in Egypt is a rewarding work. We observe that, with regard to the etymology of Menfi  in Sicily we did not find many leads, although undoubtedly important.

Most websites restrict themselves to saying that the etymology of “Menfi” is "obscure".  It is an undeniable fact that it is "obscure"; however, "Menfi" should have a meaning. The only two “ancient” authors  who engaged in speculation with the etymology of the Sicilan "Menfi" both lived in the 18th century, and one depends on the other.

Francesco Testa [4], said that the Arabic term:

“[…] ‘Miregia’ (...) may perhaps correspond to ‘Menfi’; the Arabic word ‘Moraga’ corresponds to the Latin expression ‘Pascere sivit’, ‘pastum misit (...) iumentum’ [a place that allows the grazing of cattle], and with the change of some vowels we get the word ‘Pratum’ [meadow] (the green and tender grass of a meadows), which gave rise to a name (Menfi) wich was reminiscent of the variety of grass of which Menfi abounds."

After a few years, Emanuele Villabianca, belonging to the noble family who owned Menfi, wrote:

"[...] We think [that Menfris] takes its origin from the famous house formerly called ‘Miregia’, which at the time of the Saracens was still standing, and that was mentioned in a Arabic book, in which there was a description of all the places and countries that exist in those days in Sicily. Borgetto is a country that abounds in pastures of cattle and very rightly so, the word "Menfris" seems equivalent to the same "Miregia", which in Arabic language means "Pratum" (meadow), "Pascere sivit, pastum misit (…) iumentum" (with large pastures for the cattle) [...]" [5]. "Menfris" therefore means the "city rich in pastures", derived from the Arabic name "Miregia" or "Moragia."

The perceptiveness of our two figures of the 18th century was essentially correct, and is confirmed by the highly accurate studies of Professor Caracausi, who followed with extremely scrupulousness the alteration of the term "margium" which, as we shall see, took forms very close to those indicated by Testa and Emanuele Villabianca:

"[...] The Sicilian word 'margiu' (a low place, where stands, or stops the water, and in summer for good measure it drains: ‘swamp’), together with 'maggiu' ('mud, clay') and 'Margiari' (walking in dewy places') and finally with ‘margignu’ and ‘margium’ (marshy, watery) (...)  mean 'the marshland'. "Margium" dates back to the Arabic term 'Marg' (Pratum) (…) From "Margium" we derive various different names: Margo (Pantano), (Valley) Margiogrande, Margi, Margimillusi ( 1264, Pirri 705), Margidirami (1305), Margimorone (1305), Margiferaci, Margicanali [...]”.

Therefore, “Menfi” derives from the Arabic word 'marg', with the meaning of “Land rich in water”, adapted to the pasture because of the presence of “prata” [meadows].

To the erudite comments of Professor Caracausi, we just add a brief note on “millisius.” As pointed out by Professor Caracausi, it is a term of Latin origin that we find also in several Sicilian and Calabrian surnames (such as "Melluso"). At the root of the name could be the term "mel-mellis" (honey), from which the Latin word "mellitus" (sweet as honey) and also "mellosus" (full of honey), attested in Late Latin by Caelius Aurelianus (5th century) [6] with the meaning of "dulcedo", "full of honey."

In essence, the etymology relating to honey could perfectly fit to the historical data transmitted by the letter of Frederick II, in which the emperor was referring to very pleasant places and dedicated to its "solacia", a term which is related to the entertainment game, where there was one of many "châteaux de plaisance," or places "sweet and pleasant as honey”, which he built in Sicily.

In conclusion, if we have hit the mark, we can translate "Burgimilluso" as the "Pleasure Castle", a pleasure-ground.

As a stimulus for further deepenings into this matter, and remaining in the semantic domain realating to the "pleasure", referred to as the "pleasant spot" we have identified some Arabic words that always refer to the Arabic root “marg” , but not in the sense of “damp environment, suitable for grazing”, but in the sense of "green grass" and "pleasant spot."

For example, the Arabs have the "Mer-ghzar", "Mur-ghzar" and "Mer-ghuzar" words ("meadow", "place of vegetables", "garden", "thicket where birds sing"); an Arabic term that would refer conceptually to the "quality" of the places that Frederick II was trying  at "Burgimill", or the "pleasant spot", or “hunting lodge” [7].

Finally (but this is a detail, which almost certainly has nothing to do with the etymology), there are some Arabic words that faithfully reproduce the spelling of "Menfi". For example, "Men-a-fi" in the plural “Menfi-at”, in the sense of “useful things”, “earnings”,  “fruits”, “merchandise”, “goods”, “food product.” Then there's “Menfi-atlu”, meaning “useful”, “profitable” and also “salubrious place” [8].

See our travel guide for Menfi if you are planning a visit!

References

1. See“Historia diplomatica Friderici Secundi”,  Edidit J.L.A. Huillard Bréholles, Parisiis, 1857, Tomus V, Pars I: 505

2. See H. Bresc, "Politique et société en Sicile”, XIIe-XVe Siècles ", 1990: 142

3. See Girolamo Caracausi, “Arabismi Medievali in Sicilia”, Palermo, “Centro di studi filologici e linguistici siciliani”, 1983: 134-136

4. “Opuscoli di Autori Siciliani”, Palermo 1762, 325 note 97

5. see Emanuele Villabianca“Della Sicilia Nobile”, 1775: 523

6. “De morb. Acut.”, 2, 29, 151. See "Ausführliches Lateinische-Deuthsches Handworterbuch"

7. See A. Ciadyrgy, “Dizionario Turco, Arabo e Persiano”, Nervetti, Milano, 1832, p. 551

8. See Ciadyrgy (ref 7), pp. 546-547 and 557

9. See Antonino Marrone, “Repertorio degli atti della Cancelleria del Regno di Sicilia dal 1282 al 1377”, Mediterranea, Palermo, 2010: 17

10. Mediterranea, 2006:  470

11. See G. Agnello, , “L'architettura civile e religiosa in Sicilia nell'età sveva”, 1961:  161 ff.