Original title: De Arte Venandi cum Avibus, Faenza, 1241.
Original title: Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite, Verlag Helmut Kupper, Dusseldorf & Munchen.
A "modern" Medieval Emperor
Lorenzo Matteoli for the Karrakatta Club
March 27th, 2001
Perth, Western Australia
to see Toti Calo's pictures of Frederick's
Castles and monuments ne "la bella Capitana" go to: www.web.tiscalinet.it/ephoto
This is not an historical essay. I am not an Historian, and I do not respect the "canons" of academic History-writing, if there are any. I have consulted very few "original sources". Some of the things written are "facts" and "events" as reported by historians and by the most authoritative modern biographers of Frederick II Hohenstaufen, and by their sources (mainly Ernst Kantorowicz and David Abulafia). But some of the things I have written are merely "my opinion", my "inferred opinion", my consequential thinking and elaboration on those facts and events. I think it is a perfectly legitimate modus operandi, to consider events and documented behavioural patterns of a subject and inductively "profile" the character, culture, feelings and human dimensions of the subject. We do this all the time in politics, business, and social relationships so I see no reason why we should be prevented from doing so with important prime movers of the past.
From the fall of the
Roman Empire to 1194
A quick journey through a set of maps of the Mediterranean basin from the third century to the thirteenth century may give a better idea of the process, than would an analytical or chronological narration.
It was a slow process of substitution of a centrally organised and administered, systematic bureaucracy with local potentates, army chiefs, warlords, bishops, and tribal chieftains. Invaders were slowly integrated and the embryo of the true cultural structure of modern Europe started to appear. The relics of a collapsing centralised Empire were gradually, sometimes dramatically, taken over by the multicultural, multiethnic blend of the Celts and of their numerous tribes and "nations" (Goths, Burgundians, Franks, Saxons, Friesians, Marcomanni, Alemanni, Thuringians, Longobards, Vandals, Quadi, Gepids, Ostrogoths, Jutes, Angles, Teutons).
The process can be described only through the thousands of specific and different situations: each province, region, area, town and village was a case on its own where the main events played different roles in different ways. The arrival of the "barbarians", the yielding of the Roman/Latin bureaucracy, the steady growth of the Roman Church, feuds between emerging lords and chiefs, fights between incoming new ethnic groups and pre-existing dwellers - plus the factors of frequent famine, and later devastating plagues. Europe at the time was an almost deserted land: its total population at the turn of the fourteenth century was 60 million people (300 million today); in Italy there were 12 million people (58 million today). Agriculture was not supporting the population due to the very low yield; beans and potatoes were yet to come. It is easy to assume that the strongest and better organised prevailed and the aggregation of new political entities gave birth to "realms", "kingdoms", "duchies" and sultanates (umayyad). The strong interference of the Church with secular power was closely associated to the process: The Bishops legitimised the titles, the Popes "crowned" the Kings and the Emperors. In many instances the Bishops were also "Counts" and had secular authority on their subjects (administration and justice). The right to rule was "By the Will of God". The structure of "power" was "protection": Merchants needed protection to survive in an economy based on barter and direct exchanges. Merchants paid "duties"; protection was also required for the production of agricultural produce and of artefacts: the peasants paid duties and the craftsmen paid taxes. The remnants of the Latin Codes, combined with Barbaric rules, with the whim of local Lords, with the laws of the powerful Church were administered by the "Lord" who also granted the subjects relative security from rogue assaults. With the exception of his own. When caught, the 'bad guys' were treated in horrible ways to make terrifying examples of them. The description of punishment in those years is very gruesome and disturbing, (regrettably not very different from of what still goes on in some parts of the world today!) Around the year 800, the political entities in Europe were the Frankish Empire (Emperor Charlemagne), the Byzantine Empire (Emperor Nicephorus I), and the Bulgar Khanate (Kahn Krum). England was divided into the Kingdom of Wessex (South), Kingdom of Mercia (Midland), Kingdom of Northumbria (North), Spain in the Kingdom of Galicia (North) and the rest was an Arab Umayyad. In Northern Italy, Charlemagne annexed the Lombard Kingdom to the Empire. In Southern Italy, the Longobards of the Duchy of Spoleto and of the Principality of Benevento confronted the declining power of Bysantium and nibbled territory from the Pope's Estate. The Vikings (Varangians) started their move southward through the Russian Rivers system. A small band of them was able to reach Costantinople via the Black Sea in the year 839, and word of the wonders of the South soon reached the Tundra, making many more of them dream. Fifty years later, the "map" changed considerably: the Frankish Empire split into three Kingdoms - Germany, France and Italy (Charlemagne divided the Empire between his three grandsons). The Danes moved to England and settled in the Kingdom of Mercia and the Norsemen moved to Scotland and Iceland, while the Swedes continued their move towards the central European Plains. By the year 1100, the German Empire had gobbled up the Kingdom of Italy and then the rest of Europe was organised by the Kingdom of France, the Kingdom of England and the Kingdoms of Navarre, Castile, Aragon, Leon, and Portugal, all of them battling to push back the Arabs from the Spanish peninsula. In the southern part of the Italian Peninsula the Norman Kingdom of Sicily was flourishing with Roger II.
1000 AD - 1194 AD
We focus now on a specific region and see what happens in the Southern part of Italy and in Sicily.
This region, at the "centre" of the Mediterranean, was well known to the Phoenicians in ancient times, who had many of their trading posts on the coasts but never bothered to explore the hinterland. It became a Greek Colony (with the significant name of Magna Graecia), and later a Carthaginian stronghold, to be incorporated as a Roman Province. In about 500AD, it was conquered and ruled by the Arabs, later becoming a Province of the Eastern Roman Empire, invaded by the Goths and Vandals, and finally a Norman Duchy at the turn of the first Millennium.
The story of how the Normans came to Southern Italy and Sicily is an interesting one. At the end of the ninth century, they had arrived at the northern part of France where the River Seine flows into the Channel. They were pirates and looters - violent, reckless and cunning. After a few decades, in 911, their Chief Rollo was strong enough to negotiate a land grant from the Frankish King Charles III (the Weak!), who was trying to contain them from expanding into the rest of France. The Scandinavians (Danes) became Norsemen and Normans and then French and, in fact, never trespassed across the boundaries of the Region granted to them. But they were a special kind of people: restless, very prolific, strong and had a natural gene for wandering. Physically well built, fighters, sailors, riders, they became Christians and started to speak French. To follow their natural gene and the Christian mores they started exploring the routes to Jerusalem, combining the duties of the Faith with their character, and on the route to Jerusalem they discovered the Apulia, Capua, Naples, Benevento and Sicily. They loved the climate and found ways to own the land by fighting as mercenaries for the Lombards against the Byzantine "Catapans" and Lords and then for the Byzantine Lords against the Lombards, eventually pushing out both parties and gaining control. After their first appearance at the turn of the Millennium by the year 1100, they were solidly established as Counts and Dukes of Apulia and Sicily, the most famous and powerful of them being the sons of the Hauteville family coming from the small village of Hauteville La Guichard. The two brothers Robert Guiscard and Roger I were the most important members of the Hauteville Dynasty. One became the Duke of Apulia and the other the Count of Sicily.
Roger I married Adelaide of Savona and their son Roger II was crowned King of Sicily in 1130. Roger II at the death of Robert Guiscard unified under his crown the Duchy of Apulia and founded the Kingdom of Italy. Roger II d'Hauteville married Beatrice of Rethel as a second wife, their daughter Constance d'Hauteville, born in 1154 after Roger's death, married in 1186 Henry VI Hohenstaufen the son of Frederick Barbarossa and future Emperor of Germany. The marriage is said to have been the diplomatic achievement of Frederick Barbarossa. Henry VI and Constance were crowned Emperor and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire in Rome on April 15th, 1191 by Pope Celestin III. In 1189, on the death of her nephew William II d'Hauteville, the Good Constance claimed the Sicilian Throne, but the Sicilians supported her illegitimate nephew Tancred, Count of Lecce. Tancred of Lecce, the last (illegitimate) King of Sicily, died on Christmas Day in 1194, while Henry VI (the son of Barbarossa) was moving to Sicily with his army to claim the throne that rightfully belonged to his wife Constance. At Christmas 1194, Henry was crowned King of Italy as the husband of Constance d'Hauteville, legitimate heiress to the throne of Roger II d'Hauteville.
In the winter of 1194, Constance was following her husband for his second expedition in Italy where he came to claim the Kingdom of Italy from the last illegitimate king of the Hauteville Dynasty (Tancred Count of Lecce). Henry was granted the loyalty of Naples, a city that he had sieged with no success on his previous expedition, and proceeded to Salerno to take revenge on the Salernitans to whom he had entrusted Constance at the end of his 1191 expedition and who delivered her to Tancred, his enemy. Celestin III had convinced Tancred to return the Empress to Henry via Rome, but on the way from Naples to Rome the heavily escorted party was met (certainly not by chance) by a group of Imperial Knights: Constance was quick to put herself under their protection. The escorting Cardinals protested, to no avail, and she then went back to Germany. But that did not save the Salernitans from Henry's revenge, which was carried out in full observance of the customs of the time, against "traitors": the city was heavily pillaged, the walls demolished all the properties and treasures of the Salernitans were confiscated. The Salernitans were left devastated, as an example for any other city fostering treacherous ideas.
So Henry was already in Palermo and Constance was following him at a more relaxed pace, due to her advanced pregnancy. When the party arrived in Jesi (a few kilometres South of Ancona) the Empress had to stop to deliver the baby: in order to avoid any insinuation (a real danger for members of Royal Dynasties at the time due to the paramount importance of the legitimacy of hereditary titles) the delivery was held in public under a large marquise tent, erected in the main square of Jesi so that everybody could see that it was actually the Empress delivering the legitimate royal heir. This happened on December 26th 1194 while Henry was crowned in Palermo on December 25th 1194.
The first name given to the Heir was Constant because Constance did not like the German names. Only later was he was baptised Frederick Roger with the names of his two grandfathers (Frederick Barbarossa Hohenstaufen and Roger II d'Hauteville). Henry VI died in 1196 when Frederick was only two years old and Constance died in 1198 when he was four. The young Frederick was crowned King of Sicily, before her death, in 1198 and left by the wise mother under the tutorship of the Pope (Innocent III). Notwithstanding her wisdom, Constance could not cope with the rapaciousness of the German barons headed by Markward von Anweiler (whom she hated) and with the conspiracies of the Roman clerics. Nevertheless, she managed to arrange things in such a way that the young Frederick survived and escaped the many plots to kill him, organised by the barons and by other claimants to the title of German Emperor (Otto von Braunschweig, Philip von Schwaben). The Kingdom of Sicily was practically abandoned to the greediness of the German/Sicilian barons and the Roman clergy. Frederick grew up in a very free way receiving some basic education from unknown masters (Gregorio da Galgano, Guglielmo Francesco), but he was mainly educated by the streets of Palermo and by himself. His preferred reading was the history of Imperial Rome. He was fluent in Arabic, Latin, Greek, vulgar Italian, French, Jewish and German.
Physically fit, not too tall and of handsome proportions, with auburn hair and blue eyes, he was agile and swift, good with the bow and with the sword: a dangerous training partner because he was often carried away by the passion of the fight. Frederick grew up spoiled by the citizens of Palermo who were impressed by the natural authority that the young boy showed. When he came of age at 14, the Pope deposed his tutorship (1208) and organised his marriage with Sancha of Aragon. In fact, he ended up by marrying Constance of Aragon, Sancha's sister, widow of the King of Hungary and ten years older than he was: the main reason was the promise of an endowment of 500 Spanish knights whom he badly needed to bring his Kingdom under his control after the chaotic years of the regency.
He immediately clashed with Innocent III on the issue of the election of the Sicilian Bishops trying to reclaim the privilege that the illegitimate Norman king Tancred had yielded just two years before. He lost this first confrontation, but gave a clear sign of what was to be his policy toward the Papacy for the rest of his life. In the spring of 1209 he undertook a journey through the Island to punish the rebels and to show, beyond any doubt, who was in control. In his own words: "The sons of the rebellion, those who hated peace, have been dealt with and they now are on their knees under my yoke." In August 1209 the bride arrived in Palermo with the 500 knights: they did not resist the heat and the water and most of them died, probably of dysentery, in the course of only a few days. Also, the brother of Constance (Alphonse Count of Provence) was taken ill and succumbed. The expedition on the continent to secure the rest of the Kingdom (Apulia, Naples and Calabria) had to be postponed. A plot of the Sicilian Barons to kill him was unveiled and the head of the plot captured and dealt with: traitors were blinded with a hot blade stuck into their eyes. It was also a good opportunity to confiscate all the properties of the unfaithful to the advantage of the crown.
In the first year of his reign at the age of 15 he had to go through a confrontation with Pope Innocent III, an expedition to bring under his control the rebellious cities and Barons of Sicily, a plot of the Sicilian Barons to kill him, a wedding and the destruction by dissentery (or, more likely, food poisoning.) of his 500 Spanish knights. Following the plot of the Sicilian Barons, the Barons in Apulia and Calabria also organised a similar rebellion and while all this was happening the German Emperor Otto von Braunschweig, claiming the title of Roman Emperor, descended with his army in Italy. The army of the German King was a very convincing argument and again the Barons from Apulia sent official embassies asking Otto to depose Frederick and take control of the Italian Kingdom.
Frederick in Palermo was practically helpless: without an organised army, without money, without any credible control over his Vassals he did not stand a chance. Something happened in Germany though, and an unbelievable reversal of fortune took place. The German Princes denied their support to Otto and elected as "Emperor" the young Sicilian Hohenstaufen. The legendary charm of the Dynasty, the idea that a young far away and weak Emperor might have been better than a strong and close one, the support of the King of England and of France contributed to change the hearts of the German Princes. Otto had to rush back to Germany to save what he could save: he was still in control of a powerful army and of the title of German King. The attempt to conquer the Italian Kingdom was not something the Pope liked and he reconsidered the trust he had given to Otto at the beginning of the campaign, to the point where he decided to excommunicate him. Frederick, in a matter of a few weeks, swung from total destitution back to the top of his fortunes. To accept the nomination of the German Princes he had to go to Germany: in the very kingdom of his enemy across a territory in control of hostile cities, with no army and with only an escort of his Saracen Guard and of the Bishop of Palermo Berardo di Castacca, who was to remain his lifelong friend. Frederick was 16 years old when he went to Germany to accept the Imperial nomination and to reclaim the Kingdom of his father Henry VI. A sequence of lucky circumstances and accidents, his personal charm, and his "Norman" self- confidence allowed him to defeat Otto practically without even a battle, and to be welcomed as King of Germany and Emperor of the Roman Empire by the German Princes, Cities, Clerics and people. Ten years after his election by the German Princes, Frederick was crowned Emperor of the Romans by the Pope Honorius III in 1220, when he was 26 years old, and from that year on he fought against the Papacy until his death in 1250. Let us consider very briefly the action of Frederick as dictator and statesman and then concentrate on the reasons that still, today, make him a unique personality in European history. Trying to organise his actions in a comprehensible way, one can define the following "threads":
Kingdom of Sicily and Italy
Frederick inherited a Kingdom that (after the great Norman King Roger II, his grandfather) was practically dismantled by the weakness of the two Williams and Tancred, of his successors and by the arrogance of the "barons". The last of the Norman kings, Tancred Count of Lecce, had no legitimate claim to the throne, but nevertheless tried to re-organise the unity of the Kingdom. He died before this was accomplished and after him, Frederick's father, the German King and Emperor Henry VI, took over until his death in 1196. Constance d'Hauteville managed to have Frederick crowned King of Italy and left him to the tutorship of Pope Innocent III before dying in 1198.
From 1198 to 1210 the Sicilian Kingdom was practically left in total chaos: local lords and the accomplices of Markward von Anweiler the "lord" of Palermo, bishops and clerics ruled the land on a strictly personal whim. When Frederick came of age and resumed command (1210 age 14) he re-organised the Kingdom cancelling all the rights and privileges granted by anybody (Pope, Bishops, and Kings) over the last thirty years. All the titles had to be returned to the Crown to be re-assessed. Very few were confirmed and any resistance was treated as treason and consistently dealt with. The consolidation of Frederick's control over Sicily took place in three years from 1221 to 1223.
Under the Norman rule, Sicily was possibly the richest European Region with strong agricultural produce (wheat) that was exported throughout Europe. The other local commodity was salt. Frederick was able to bring the trade of wheat and salt under the control of the Crown, exacting taxes and duties that made him one of the richest Kings in Europe. The Italian Kingdom was the financial lifeline for his European policy and specifically for the economic support of the "political" title of Emperor.
In his actions Frederick was assisted and supported by Berardo di Castacca Bishop of Palermo and later excommunicated by Pope Innocent IV for his loyalty to Frederick and by Pier della Vigna the jurist who headed his Chancery. Pier della Vigna was arrested and punished for treason in 1249: an event that has remained obscure and scarcely documented. Frederick did not want any publicity on this tragedy: Pier della Vigna had been his closest friend and assistant for a lifetime. Some contemporary chronicles blame the treason on Innocent IV, who is said to have paid Pier della Vigna an incredible amount of money to organise the assassination of the Emperor.
The great achievement of Frederick as King of Italy was the administrative organisation of the Kingdom: justice was swift and efficient, taxes and a flawless bureaucracy collected fees. The King ruled through "Vicari" and "Giustizieri" that were located in all the main cities. The administration of Justice was considered a sacred duty of the King by Frederick and managed accordingly.
Frederick was constantly informed and updated on whatever happened in Europe by a rigorously organised intelligence.
His Chancery was an example of efficiency: wherever the King might be, the Chancery was capable of sending hundreds of messengers everyday with orders, instructions, decrees, personal messages to the whole Empire from Northern Germany to Sicily and to the other Kingdoms of Europe and the Near East (France, England, Spain, Costantinople, Tunis, Jerusalem). The messages were in Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, French and German: Frederick had perfect control of Latin, Greek, Arabic and Hebrew but he also managed to speak and understand many other languages spoken in the Mediterranean Basin at the time (French was probably his juvenile language, spoken by Constance, and German was the language spoken by his Father's entourage). The Latin prose of Pier della Vigna and the elegance of his diplomatic messages were a mirror of Frederick's sophisticated culture. He was demanding and precise and demanded the highest standards from all his assistants and clerks: Sloppiness was punished with great severity. (The story goes that a calligrapher who misspelled his name had his thumb cut-off to prevent him from future similar blunders!)
The Court was always close to the Emperor/King and followed him on every journey. There has never never been a "capital" city even though Palermo was Frederick's hometown: he was always on the move, and wherever he went the "Camera Imperialis" would be set up and organised for operation within a few hours. The organisation of the Chancery must have been spectacular, even by present days standards: all the important documents had to be issued in different languages and several copies had to be made to inform different parties simultaneously.
One of his most important acts as King of Italy was the Foundation of the University in Naples (which still has the name of the Emperor: Universita' di Napoli Federico II). Frederick did not want to depend on "foreign" Institutions for expertise and was particularly suspicious of the Studium Bononiae (University of Bologna).
the title of "Emperor of the Romans"
The title of "Emperor" of the Roman Empire had been "invented" by Charlemagne three centuries before Frederick. The "Emperor of the Romans", in Charlemagne vision, was the "ideal" heir of the past Roman Empire: the lands he had unified under the Frankish Empire, and over which he ruled, were Italy, Germany, and France (from Hungary to the Pirenees). Charlemagne was Lord of a vast territory that he ruled directly or through his Vassals. After his death, the Carolingian Empire was split among his three sons (Italy, France and Germany) and by Frederick's time the situation was even more complicated with other smaller realms (Burgundy, Bohemia, Normandy, Sicily) and with many more interfering feudal authorities, all seeking some autonomy and independence (Dukes, Counts, Bishops). The title of "Emperors of the Romans" became a formal title with no substantial secular power attached: the Popes continued to crown "Emperors" because they thought that this gave them some authority and because they obtained protection and favours from the "crowned" Emperors. The ruling Kings sought the title because it was a high honour to have it, even if it actually was an "empty box". The interpretation of that title was different according to the various moments in history and according to the interpreter.
Frederick's interpretation, thanks to his lay scepticism and Norman pragmatism, had an extraordinary foresight and a commanding political vision: he tried to make of the "Empire" the Universal Planetary Global Institution. His way of understanding the "role" was pragmatic, cynical and "magnificent".
He played the role as if he were utterly conscious of being the legitimate heir to the title of Roman Emperor, and that his right was God given. He behaved and judged any different opinion accordingly: as blasphemy and rebellion against the will of God. He coolly used the Medieval "Fear of God" for his own agenda which was to found a "Universal Planetary Global Institution" above kingdoms and nations which were to keep their secular power and cultural identity, but would belong to the superior set of scopes of the Empire.
In order to build up the "ideological" value of the title he was very generous with any material advantages. The generosity of Frederick was without limits; equally unlimited was the severity with which he judged and punished any attempt to diminish it or, God forbid, any rebellion.
The heretics were "rebels" because they did not acknowledge the God that had given him the title and the Imperial responsibility. Political rebels were treated with the same drastic justice since they were "blasphemous": An attack against the Emperor was an attack against God who had granted the title. Laesa majestate was a crime against God not against the person of the Emperor. Thus death was the only possible punishment and there was no lenience.
But let us not make any mistake about Frederick's "religion" or "piety": On account of his pragmatic attitude he promoted his specific "planetary vision" with the concept of "God given right" much more consistent and understandable to the Medieval culture that was the reality of the time.
Of course, this is my "inferred" opinion and I have no historical document to support it. But Frederick's whole life was consistent with this assumption: his staunch opposition to the Papacy (and the staunch opposition of the Popes to him), the many anecdotes that report his sarcastic attitude against religious bigotry and gullibility. It was his firm conviction that you must believe in what you witness for yourself (see with your own eyes) and not in what you hear from others.
Since the title of Roman Emperor held no territorial power, but was purely "political", Frederick was a master P.R. man. He enjoyed a personal charm, better described as psychological magnetism: his presence had a stunning effect on everybody. But he cultivated the "image" with skill and professionality. The Imperial Court (Camera Imperialis) was a legendary assortment of Philosophers, Scientists, Mathematicians, Poets, and Jurists. But there were also Saracen belly dancers, a Saracen harem, his elite Saracen guards, animals from all the parts of the known world (Elephants, Lions, Tigers, Eagles, and Bears). When he entered cities and towns he would head a colourful procession of all the Camera Imperialis. When he entered as a conqueror, the kings and lords he had won followed in chains. The people were stunned by these awesome displays.
In his private political encounters and talks he had a specific attitude that disconcerted his parties: he would stare in silence at the person in front of him with steady, unblinking eyes as if he were delving into their soul.
The term "modern" applies to something belonging to our time and is generally opposed to "antique", which is a term applied to something that belongs to the past. For a long time, history debated whether Frederick was a man of the Middle Ages or a man of the Renaissance. My perception is that he was a man of the Middle Ages, with modern ideas and visions that challenged his times, which is not as much of a contradiction as it may seem. One can be a man living in the year 2001 with "old" ideas, or be a man who lived during the Middle Ages and had "modern" ideas. One can behave like a caveman and have ethical doubts. Regrettably, one can be a criminal with poetical intuitions. Ideas seem to float in a different medium from our bodies or our behavioural paradigms. Consistency between ideas and actions is a fight we have been striving to win for millennia; a confrontation that our rationality has subtly introduced into our "animal" DNA. Sometimes we win; more often, we lose. Frederick was the first European Monarch to have a modern European vision: a Europe of "nations" with different and peculiar cultural identities organised with a common political scope - a very similar vision to that defined by Charles De Gaulle in 1950, seven hundred years later! It is for this reason that the European Community considers Frederick II as the ideal "founder" of Europe. In that way he tried to "use" the title of Emperor of the Romans (Romanorum Imperator), clearly separating the ethical levels of command on administrative and secular matters, which were left to the Kings and to the Princes, from the "ideal" scope which was the domain of the Emperor.
Frederick's vision was bound to clash with that of the Papacy. The Popes considered the "Roman Empire" as the "Holy Roman Empire" (a qualification not used by Frederick): the secular arm of the Pope. The Pope was the only representative of God on Earth with total suzerainty. The Emperor was the "servant" of the Pope in administering this power. Frederick could not avoid being "anointed" by the Pope because, through this, he gained his "medieval" authority and credibility, but thereafter he was not prepared to play a subservient role. In this respect, he was very cynical and applied Norman pragmatism, cleverly combined with Sicilian cunning and German forcefulness. Later in his life, totally fustrated by the criminal behaviour of the Popes (Innocent IV in particular), he completely abandoned the cover of respect and courtesy, a cover that Piero della Vigna mastered so well in the early Latin documents of the Chancery.
The debate on Frederick's "modernity" is also a literary "fancy" that subtly conceals other more radical, and old, confrontations, such as those between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, Right and Left, Tories and Liberals, Communism and Capitalism, East and West. The present debate also stems from the different attitudes of two important biographers of Frederick II: Ernest Kantorowicz and David Abulafia. Whereas Kantorowicz's Frederick exudes energy, joy of living, pragmatism, vision, passion and humanity, David Abulafia explicitly dismisses this positive image as lacking evidence and clearly suggests Frederick as a man of his time: the Medieval Emperor of the title of his book. Both the biographers make concessions to the other's image of Frederick, but more to consolidate their opinion than anything else, (a "nevertheless", or "yes, but" paradigm).
I became aware of Frederick's modernity after my first "contact" with the character (many years ago, after reading Dante's Comedy in high school) without any bias suggested by either biographer. (I became acquainted with Abulafia's work two years ago, and with Kantorowicz's only last year). There are several specific evidences to support the idea of Frederick's modernity:
Here is a quotation from the Prologue to the De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus:
"äInter alia we discovered by hard won experience that the deductions of Aristotle, whom we followed when they appealed to our reason, were not entirely to be relied upon, more particularly in his descriptions of the characters of certain birds. There is another reason why we do not follow implicitly the Prince of Philosophers: he was ignorant of the practice of falconry - an art which to us has ever been a pleasing occupation, and with the details of which we are well acquainted. In his work "Liber Animalium" we find many quotations from other authors whose statements he did not verify and who, in their turn, were not speaking from experience. Entire conviction of the truth never follows mere hearsay."
This statement of independence from the Prince of Philosophers, who was the undisputed dominus of Medieval Science, is a cornerstone of Frederick's "modern" profile. It is worth noting that the statement refers to the "description of birds" but this is only an apparent limit: the "key" sentence here is the last one: "Entire conviction of the truth never follows mere hearsay." - a real blow to the "scientific thought" of Medieval culture. Another point worthy of note in Frederick's prose is the apparently courteous concession:" the deductions of Aristotle, whom we followed when they appealed to our reasonä" which stands out as a strong statement of ideological freedom from the limits of the Aristotelian paradigm. The Latin text (which I will quote as soon as I find it) may be even clearer.
Hardly any "Medieval" man would dare to contradict Aristotle: Frederick had the freedom of mind to do so, (something Karl Popper would have appreciated).
The 1240 Imperial edict with which dissection of human corpses was authorised, for study and scientific purposes, was another powerful trait of Frederick's modern profile. Knowledge is achievable only through direct ""hands on" experience. Frederick ordered the study of anatomy as mandatory for medical students.
The "friends of Frederick" in "stupormundi.it" do not support the image of what they think is an impossible "modernity" of Frederick. Nevertheless, they make some very good points to support the apparent oxymoron of a "modern" Medieval Emperor:
A. He fought all his life to limit the competence and power of the Papacy to moral matters, the necessary condition for a State based on "rights" and to defeat any form of "fundamentalism";
B. He always tried to solve controversies with negotiation and diplomacy, avoiding wars and bloodshed;
C. He tried to integrate the Saracens, building for them the city of Lucera and promoting their participation in the army and into the administration of the Regno;
D. He defended women against violence and abuse with innovative article of the Constitutions of Melfi;
E. He invited to his Court philosophers and thinkers of all races and religions asking questions which were the embryo of subsequent scientific speculation;
F. He had a universal conception of culture as a service to mankind disregarding constraints of the various religions (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim). As an excommunicated Crusader he transformed the Crusade in a cultural challenge reaching an agreement [with his friend the Sultan Al Kamil] never to be repeated in history;
Whereas he was a man of
the Middle Ages because he was not "lay" in the present day
meaning of the word, in battle he used the cruelty and
pitiless methods of the time, he fiercely punished the
intolerance of the Saracens in Sicily and any other
behaviour he considered "rebellious" of his God-given
Authority. He kept his wife Jolanda of Brienne almost
captive in his Palermo harem, and he believed in magic
rituals of the East.
Any judgement should not ignore that most of Frederick's actions, particularly after the election of Innocent IV, were in fact reactions to the criminal behaviour of the Papacy.
This may also account
for the differing opinions of Frederick held by Italian and
German historians. The Guelphish/papist Italy maintained the
"antichrist, satanic" memory of the Emperor, promoted by the
libels of the Popes whereas the Ghibelline Germany cherished
him with affectionate esteem and honoured
(Honorius III, Gregory IX and Innocent IV)
The first clash between Frederick and Innocent III occurred during the very first year after Innocent deposed his tutorship - on the right to nominate bishops in Sicily. Tancred had yielded this right while seeking legitimisation of his title. Of course, Frederick lost. The subsequent matter of dispute was the Crusade: The Pope wanted Frederick to embark in a Crusade against the Sultan of Egypt Al-Kamil to conquer Jerusalem. Frederick had many reasons to delay: he wanted to have a secure political situation in Italy before leaving the country and badly needed time to organise his administration. He did not trust the Pope, whom he suspected (with good reasons as it turned out) would have taken advantage of his absence to organise a rebellion against him. So while he was publicly committing himself to the Crusade, his real intentions were clearly shown by his delaying tactics. Frederick had another reason, probably more deeply compelling, to delay the Crusade: the Sultan Al-Kamil was his good friend; they shared a very affectionate mutual esteem and would have done anything to avoid a confrontation, least of all a war.
The first Crusade organised by Frederick (1227) did not even leave the port of Brindisi: most of the Crusaders perished, smitten by a plague.
Innocent accused Frederick of having spread the infection to delay the departure and excommunicated him.
When the excommunicated Frederick finally went to Jerusalem (1228-29) he peacefully signed a treaty with the Sultan that granted access to the Holy City for the Christian Pilgrims: Innocent thought that a treaty with the "infidel" was most dishonourable and refused to revoke the excommunication.
The confrontation between Frederick and the Papacy continued until Frederick's death. The Popes (Gregory IX and Innocent IV) were well aware that the clash was not on menial matters (crusades, territorial claims, bishoprics etc.) but was a life or death situation. Frederick wanted a Secular Empire, free and independent from religious interference by the Pope: a claim that the Papacy could not even entertain.
The battle was first fought on diplomatic grounds and the exchanges between the Emperor and the Popes (Gregory IX and later Innocent IV) were one of the main tasks of Frederick's Chancery. Frederick showed remarkable self-restraint because he needed to have the excommunication lifted to carry out his political "Imperial" or European agenda. Gregory IX died without lifting the excommunication and Frederick had high hopes of Innocent IV whose election he had supported in the long conclave. Frederick was wrong: Innocent IV was his worst foe and tried everything to destroy the Emperor: assassination plots, poisoning, defamation, and finally the "deposition" in Lyon 1245. The life of Frederick after 1237 (his last military victory at Cortenuova against the Heretic/rebellious City of Milan and the League of northern Italian cities allied with the Pope) is a long sequel of tragedies, plots, betrayals and losses. The defeat at Victoria (near Parma) in1248 was complete and irreparable but Frederick did not give up. He remained indomitable and fought to the end, always organising his realm, his Court, his "menageries", his farms, his falcons.
He died in 1250 from an intestinal infection at Castelfiorentino. His sons, Enzio, Manfred and Conrad, died in battle or were taken prisoners or executed by Papal allied cities. Within 22 years from Frederick's death, all his heirs were eliminated by the ruthless Popes and the Dynasty of the Hohenstaufen brought to its end. With them the dream of a state, free from religious interference also ended a loss that meant innumerable tragedies for Europe and for the Western World, the consequences of which we are still suffering.
Frederick was a curious and sceptical man: he believed only in things he saw with his own eyes, and first hand experience was the only thing he trusted. What others told him could not necessarily be trusted to be true. His curiosity and restlessness were a typical Norman trait.
There many documents of his scientific curiosity: quite famous are his talks with Leonardo Pisano (the original name of Leonardo Fibonacci) the mathematician who brought to Europe the Arab numerical notations and taught the Italian merchants the fundamental mathematical operations that they allowed to solve. Frederick had in his Court astronomers, philosophers and astrologers of whom he asked very sophisticated questions, ranging from anatomy to ethics, the relationship between body and soul, the essence of elements and agricultural practices. His correspondence on scientific matters with the Arab world was intense and viewed with great suspicion by the Italian Catholic culture.
Frederick himself was a well-informed zoologist, with personal documentation on animal husbandry and basic veterinarian practice.
By his decrees, the professional corporations were founded in the Italian Kingdom and in 1240 he issued an Imperial Decree authorising dissection for scientific purposes: he decreed the study of anatomy a compulsory discipline for the students of medicine in Naples.
He also wrote an important book on the art of Falconry (De Arte Venandi cum Avibus): a complete treatise, which is still today a reference for the trade. The Parmesans in the raid on Victoria looted the original manuscript: it would be interesting to know where it has ended.
The foundation of the "Studium" in Naples (Naples University's original Latin name) in 1224 is his most important legacy in the field of science and research. The University of Naples is still called Universita' di Napoli Federico II.
The basic assumption of Frederick's scientific "credo" was that you could only believe in what you could see with your own eyes. An "experimental" manifesto that anticipated the so-called "scientific" method postulated by Galileo three hundred years later - an assumption that sounded (and actually was) an ominous challenge to the Church that commanded belief as an act of faith. It is my consolidated opinion that the fierce antagonism of the Popes was motivated more by this defiance of the Emperor than by any other matter (Crusades, territorial claims, bishoprics).
Even today, a huge wall divides the fear of knowledge and the acceptance of knowledge.
In order to reach and describe the inner personality and the character of Frederick, very thorough research should be carried out reading the accounts of contemporary chronicles and historians. Consultation of the "original" sources, correspondence, notes, anecdotes should help in "profiling" Frederick as a man. I have not done that research though the careful reading of his "De Arte Venandi cum Avibus" and some attention to the rich notes of Kantorowicz biography of Frederick can help with a tentative description. From his behaviour in the various dire circumstances of his life, a lot can be inferred through subjective intuition: from a historical methodology point of view, this is absolutely blasphemous. Another "source" is the monuments he built: the castles, fortresses, and walls. Frederick was a man in control of whatever went on in his domains: house, kingdom, cities, empire, chancery, harem, falconry, stables. The way he understood "control" was direct and first hand: with his own eyes he wanted to see and almost certainly that is what he did. Thus, it is a fair assumption that he "dictated" the design of his buildings in a very precise way. We all know that through our houses we communicate a lot of information about ourselves. So let us try to "analyse" the private profile of Frederick through his buildings, his writings, and his deeds.
When he was twelve years old he was defined "coarse" "rude" and "vulgar": that was probably the way the courtly culture perceived the boy who was educated on the streets of Palermo. Innocent III said of him that he stood solidly on his legs. At 14 he stormed Sicily with a few loyal knights and "brought to order" the rebellious Barons after 10 years of anarchy. In order to restore his authority at the age of fifteen he invalidated all the privileges, titles and lordships granted in the previous thirty years by the Norman Kings in Sicily.
He married when he was 15, a lady 10 years his senior, and when he was 20 he composed poems such as this one:
His poetry may not be original or new, but his handling of the beautiful language was delicate. This is another poem attributed to the hand of Frederick on returning from the Crusade, where he clearly did not only fight the infidels:
Alas, I did not think
Messengers rode all day, sailed the seas, and risked their lives to bring this message back to the heartbroken "flower of Syria".
All through his life, Frederick gave grandiose parties which were the opportunity for political contacts, cultural exchanges, diplomatic encounters, banquets, dances and poetic challenges: the joy of living was a trait of the Hohenstaufen character. The lovely Saracen dancers entertained him and his guests: he blatantly kept and showed them to provoke the bigotry of the "papists". Some of his decisions were untenable bets: he was always ready to put everything at stake. The decision to go to Germany in 1211 against Otto von Braunschweig was almost suicidal. He was 17 at the time and, had he made the wrong choice, his life would have been miserable.
His ruling principle was Aristotelian "necessity". The highest value was "justice". The most horrible sin "treason".
Nothing would stop him from a hunting program: falconry was a noble art. He wrote in the first chapter of the "De Arte Venandi": "Although it is true that birds of prey display an inborn antipathy to the presence and company of mankindä" Since he loved falcons he probably identified himself with their attitude towards mankind.
And this is another revealing passage:
Here it may again be claimed that, since many nobles and but few of the lower rank learn and carefully pursue this art, one may properly conclude that it is intrinsically an aristocratic sport.
Among the buildings and monuments he built , the jewel is Castel del Monte and it is worth analysing it for clues to Frederick's inner values.
A perfect geometric layout , based on the octagon with an octagonal tower at each corner and an octagonal central courtyard. The windows on the outer walls are small gothic "serlian windows". The main and only entrance door is under a huge classical "tympanum" and protected by a lower gothic overhang. The rooms at both levels are the octagonal sectors: no different layout for any interior space. The court at the centre of the Castle is open to the sky: the contrast between the heavy outer walls protected by towers and the open sky is remarkable and meaningful. The original décor of the rooms was extremely rich with marble and mosaics, which are now lost after centuries of neglect and looting. In the Castle Frederick collected all the precious statues he could find of the classic Imperial Roman Era. The solid, hostile and impenetrable walls contained a sophisticated array of precious items.
His playful mood with peers and friends would shift to cruel sarcasm with foes and enemies. His punishments were pitiless. Traitors were blinded with a hot iron stuck into their eyes; beheading or hanging were considered merciful executions. The mutilated live bodies were carried through the cities as an example for others who fostered betrayal in their hearts. He was allegedly betrayed by his best friend, Pier della Vigna, who accepted money from Innocent IV to have him assassinated and he was betrayed by his son Henry VII, King of Germany, who tried to fight against him in association with the League of Lombard Cities. Frederick wrote that the betrayal of his own son Henry broke his heart as a father, but he could not forget that he was the Emperor. Henry spent the rest of his life in prison and during a transfer from one prison to another he managed to jump with his horse into a ravine. Pier della Vigna was blinded and managed to kill himself smashing his head against a wall of the jail.
The cruelty and merciless behaviour of Frederick was partially consistent with the culture of the Middle Ages and mainly due to the perversion of the Papacy: not only did Innocent IV excommunicate and depose Frederick on inconsistent and false accusations, but he incessantly organised plots to have him assassinated. Innocent invested huge amounts of money in this policy in order to get on his side the people whom Frederick trusted. The frustration pushed Frederick's reactions to the limit and possibly beyond. Frederick eventually lost his battle against the Papacy and his image reached us tarnished by the description and libels of the "victor". The Pope was so successful in the defamation process that the common belief at the time associated Frederick with Satan and with the biblical Anti-Christ.
He died in 1250 from an intestinal infection at Castelfiorentino. His sons, Enzio died in 1272 prisoner of the city of Bologna, Manfred and Conrad, died in battle, Frederick IV of Antiochia Conradin was executed in Naples by the Angevins. Within 22 years from Frederick's death, all his heirs were eliminated by the ruthless Popes and the Dynasty of the Hohenstaufen brought to its end. With them the dream of a state, free from religious interference also ended: a loss that meant innumerable tragedies for Europe and for the Western World, the consequences of which we are still suffering.
He was called by his contemporaries "Stupor Mundi" (Wonder of the World). He was the first "lay" monarch of Europe. How he was able to accomplish so much is still a matter for "wonder".
We probably owe him a great deal more than we realise.