Beati Paoli is the name of a secretive sect thought to have existed in medieval Sicily. The sect, as described by the author Luigi Natoli in his historic novel I Beati Paoli (written as a series under the pseudonym William Galt in 1909, then re-published as books in 1921 and 1949), resembles an order of knights fighting for the poor and the commoners. Whereas the novel is fictitious, Sicily's history bears some evidence that the Beati Paoli actually existed.
In 1071 feudalism was introduced in Sicily by its conqueror, the Norman lord Roger II de Hauteville. As the nobles started to exploit their feudal rights in the centuries to come, the Inquisition also got a foothold in Sicily. Any action by the commoners that could be interpreted by the state or the church as acts of treason or heresy was punishable by death. Such actions could be unauthorized assemblies or formation of societies with goals other than supporting the current state/church regime. In this environment, several orders and sects rose to existence - albeit a secret one. The Beati Paoli was allegedly formed to oppose both the church and the state, defending the commoners from infringements posed by the regime. They wore black hooded coats and operated at night from their refuge in the remains of the catacombs and underground channels of Palermo. It is not known when the Beati Paoli was established, but the novel by Luigi Natoli sets the scene in the 17th century in the town of Paoli. The origin of the name is also unknown, although some tie it to Saint Francis of Paola, or Beato Paola.
The Beati Paoli have the same connotation to many Sicilians as Robin Hood has to Northern Europeans. Today, traces of the Beati Paoli can be found in the Capo district of Palermo, where a square, a street and a restaurant bear their name.
In Sicily the Beati Paoli came to be seen – both in the popular imagination and in the ideology of mafia groups – as a proto-manifestation of the Mafia. Sicilian mafiosi love to portray themselves as the successors of the Beati Paoli, and Cosa Nostra likes to trace its origin to the sect. The novel is still alive in today’s Mafia culture and its main characters are models of the ideal-typical sets of attitudes and behaviour of a mafioso. In one of their first confrontations in court, the Mafia boss of bosses Totò Riina and the turncoat (pentito) Gaspare Mutolo confronted each other referring to the characters of the novel. Another pentito, Antonio Calderone, said he was told when he was initiated in Cosa Nostra that a mafioso should "follow the example of the Beati Paoli."