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40: Frederick II (1215-1250), Stupor Mundi

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Who was this Frederick chap and why does he deserve a chapter all to himself? Frederick was a remarkable man, in many ways well in advance of his times. His abilities, accomplishments and attitudes astonished his contemporaries and earned him the name of Stupor mundi, "The Wonder of the World." For some historians, however, he is more significant for the possible role he may have played - admittedly at a considerable distance in time - in shaping important aspects of twentieth-century Europe.

The Hammer and Anvil

When the Emperor Henry VII Hohenstaufen died in 1197, he was survived by his widow and young son, Frederick. Frederick presented Innocent III with something of a problem. The papacy had long pursued policies aimed at preventing the same power from controlling both Germany and the South of Italy, the latter being called the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. The danger, as the papacy saw it, was that the pope would be between the Hammer (Germany) and the Anvil (Two Sicilies) and could be crushed at any time. Even if the secular power did not enter the Papal States, the threat alone would be sufficient to make it impossible for the Church to continue to pursue the role of being the independent moral arbiter of European affairs. The problem with Frederick was that he was heir to Two Sicilies and was a leading candidate of the powerful Hohenstaufen family to inherit his father's imperial dignity. The pope considered it essential to contain this danger.

The first step was innocuous enough. Innocent III took the young Frederick as his ward and turned him over to be educated by some of the first-rate minds in the papal court. The situation in German was confused. Local nobles had seized upon the absence of any imperial authority as an opportunity to settled old scores and to advance their power and wealth as much as possible. In many ways, however, this was simply a matter of jockeying for a favorable position to assume the emperorship, which was still more or less an elective position. Two main candidates soon emerged, one of who was a Hohenstaufen. Innocent was not eager to promote the cause of a Hohenstaufen. Previous emperors of the family had attempted to establish a central power in Germany and to take control of the nominally imperial cities of the North of Italy. The wealth of these cities was substantial, and whoever had control of them could expected to be able to pay for massive armies whenever he chose. But the cities were close to the Papal States, and the popes were reluctant to allow the German emperors to establish a base of power so close to them.

So it was that Innocent set the power of the Church against the Hohenstaufens and threw his support to Otto of Brunswick. He managed to promote an alliance between Otto and his cousin, King John of England. The civil war that ensued kept the Germans busy for some time. In 1209, however, Otto of Brunswick won out and was declared emperor. He soon set out for the North of Italy and, after subduing the major cities there, entered the Papal States. Innocent quickly had Frederick crowned and concluded an alliance with King Philip of France to aid the Church and Frederick against the "usurper" Otto. In the battle of Bouvines (in modern Belgium) in 1215, an allied army of French and Hohenstaufen supporters defeated the English and adherents of Otto of Brunswick. Otto died, and Frederick was not only king of Two Sicilies but undisputed ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. Innocent III had managed to turn the potential threat of the Hammer and Anvil into a real danger.

Innocent III thought that he had made certain that this situation would be only temporary. Before supporting Frederick's elevation as emperor, Innocent had required that he promise to relinquish Two Sicilies and to undertake a crusade to liberate Jerusalem. But the best-laid plans even of popes may go astray. Innocent died in 1216, before Frederick could be required to fulfill either of those promises.

Frederick's Policies

Frederick got Innocent's successor to crown him emperor without having to promise to give up Two Sicilies. He then gave away imperial power to the German nobles, ensuring that the German empire would be racked by internal dissension and would remain leaderless as long as he was emperor. He intended to base his power in Italy and his actions made that clear. He had been raised in the cosmopolitan city of Palermo and, at least according to legend had spent much of his time as a child on the docks of that city. One may suppose that he gained a vision of a Mediterranean empire from listening to the talk of sailors and merchants.

Frederick and the Crusade

It was perhaps in pursuit of extending his Mediterranean claims that he married the heiress to the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, the rulers of which had recent been driven from the Holy Land by the able Muslim leader, Saladin. Frederick now had a reason to keep his promise of undertaking a Crusade but he had delayed too long in doing so. Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241) undertook to force Frederick into compliance with the policies of the Church. He excommunicated Frederick for not having kept his crusading vow and, Frederick launched the Sixth Crusade, condemned him for having ignored the rule that excommunicates could not become crusaders. This seemed not to have bothered Frederick very much. As soon as he arrived in the Levant, he undertook negotiations with local Muslim and concluded a ten-year treaty with some quite favorable terms. He was to control Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and other centers of Christian worship and was to be recognized as king of Jerusalem The city itself would enjoy religious toleration for Muslims, Christians and Jews. Although the treaty was not a permanent commitment on either side, but Frederick appeared to have thought that there would be no difficulty in renewing it and quite willingly crowned himself King of Jerusalem in 1229. The invasion of Two Sicilies by papal and allied troops left him little time to enjoy his new dignity. He hurried back from the Holy Land to repair his fortunes in Italy.

If the pope had been furious at Frederick's undertaking the Crusade against his command, he was doubly so considering the added prestige that Frederick's success had gained him. The pope may also have apprehensive as to what use Frederick might make of his control of Jerusalem, the most holy place of Christendom and the seat of the venerated patriarch of Jerusalem. He immediately rejected the treaty, excommunicated Frederick once again and took the remarkable step of placing Jerusalem under interdict.

Frederick and Italy

The military matter was settled rather quickly. By 1230, Frederick had defeated Gregory and his allies and the struggle between Frederick and the papacy settled down to a war of words, each advanced complex legal arguments in support of their rights in the dispute. Meanwhile, Frederick went to Germany and abdicated virtually all imperial authority in those lands. He then began organizing the kingdom of Two Sicilies into a modern centralized state. He eliminated all aspects of feudal organization and directed the writing and promulgation of the Constitutions of Melfi. This was a remarkable document, one of the earliest written constitutions and unusually liberal for the day. The Constitutions established uniform system of laws to be observed throughout the realm. They established a standard form local government, declared that taxes would be fair and fairly administered, and ensured that Two Sicilies would welcome trade and commerce. Perhaps most remarkable, The Constitutions provided for representative assemblies decades before the birth of the Parliament of England.

Meanwhile, the war of words between Frederick and the papacy continued. The popes had something of an advantage in that they were able to call upon the faculty of law at the University of Bologna for assistance in formulating their arguments. Recognizing the value of such a resource, Frederick established and endowed the University of Naples, the first clearly secular university in the West. Moreover, he took care that its faculty included Christians, Muslims and Jews, and that all of these languages would be taught, together with the laws and literature of these cultures. Equally remarkable considering the times was Frederick's edict ordering religious toleration for Christians, Muslims and Jews throughout his realm. At the same time, however, he announced his intention of establishing his control over the former imperial cities of the North of Italy and making them another province of what he intended to be the kingdom of Italy.

Frederick and the Papacy

Neither the papacy nor the towns of the North approved of Frederick's designs. The towns formed an alliance known as the Lombard League - the region of northern Italy in which many of these cities were situated was known as Lombardy. The papacy offered its support, excommunicated Frederick (yet again!) and called upon other monarchs to join in a war against him. Frederick, in turn, issued a series of papers that advocated reducing the Church to apostolic poverty.

The complex struggle ended with Frederick's death in 1250. The papacy continued to work against the Hohenstaufens, and the family was eventually destroyed, with its last member, a young lad, being publicly beheaded in the public square of Salerno. In 1266, the papacy introduced a French dynasty into the kingdom of Two Sicilies and supported its establishment. Two Sicilies had been a political football for so long, however, that it should come as no surprise to find that it remained so. The Sicilians did not like their French overlords and so, with the support and promised alliance of the king of Aragon (in Spain), began plotting their overthrow/

In 1282, the Sicilians rebelled against the French in a bloody uprising known as the Sicilian Vespers, and the Aragonese took over the kingdom. Aragonese monarchs continued to rule the region until the 18th century.

Frederick's Significance

A. Frederick was not only a freethinker but something of a cynic. He supposedly remarked that there were three great frauds in history - Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Although such statements may have startled people, his own subjects were more directly affected by his policy of religious toleration (except for heretics) within his realms. The Church was naturally incensed by this insult to the One True Faith, by Frederick was willing to oppose the Church in almost anything. He used his power to create a completely secular government, a feat without parallel in the history of the middle ages. Within his lands, he established a written constitution that guaranteed the rights of his subjects and was instrumental in promoting the development of Roman law and representative institutions in southern Italy.

B. He was remarkably learned and seemed inclined to experiment rather than rely on authorities or the use of logic. He spoke several languages, was a composer of music, and supported the arts in his court. He provided refuge for some of the troubadours fleeing the devastation attending the Albigensian Crusade and they, with his encouragement, lay the bases for the lyric quality of the Italian language, a quality later exemplified by Dante. Frederick himself preferred to observe nature and, it has been claimed, was the first of the stream of naturalists who contributed so much to the development of science. Frederick wrote and illustrated a superb little book entitled The Art of Hunting With Birds. His illustrations are clearly the product of a long and organized observation of birds in flight. It was for this accomplishment that Frederick has been accorded the title of first scientific ornithologist. Not all of his scientific bent was exercised such unacceptable ways; he often engaged in bizarre physical experiments. With Frederick one never knows whether what one reads in sources from the period is an honest attempt to tell the truth about him, a fantastic bit of gossip, or a downright lie. It seems agreed, though, that perhaps the thing that gained him the most fame among with populace was the fact that he refused to travel anywhere without his harem and his zoo - both of which were exceedingly well-stocked with beautiful and exotic creatures.

C. In the sphere of politics, he was the occasion for the restructuring of the traditional alliances of Western Europe. The papacy found itself forced to abandon its old alliance with the Holy Roman Empire and to entrust itself to the support of the kings of France. During their long struggle, Frederick weakened the papacy by fomented civil war among the nobles of the Papal States. This danger from their own subjects drove the papacy deeper into the arms of the French and so set the stage for the problems of the Avignon Papacy of 1305-1373 and of the Great Schism that followed. One might argue that Frederick started the Church down the path that was to lead, two and a half centuries later, to the Protestant Reformation.

D. But Frederick failed in his own plan of creating a strong and secular Kingdom of Italy. History might have been very different if he had succeeded. As it was, the threat that he had posed caused the papacy to adopt an unswerving policy of opposing any movement toward Italian unification. The result of this policy was that Italy was not unified until the 1860's. It played little role in Europe's age of expansion even as its sailors, navigators and map-makers helped Spain, France and England establish great overseas empires.

Frederick's German legacy was not much better. He had so weakened the office of emperor that Germany developed without central leadership and instead developed dynamic institutions to advance the fortunes of the various classes of the German states. The peasants had confederations such as Dietmarschen and the Swiss cantons, the middle class had the powerful Hanseatic League, and the nobles had the Teutonic Knights and the dream of expansion to the East.

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