The Death of the Wonder of the World in 1250 - Emperor Frederick II

13 December 1250, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II died at the age of 56, probably after a bad case of dysentery in Castel Fiorentino in Apulia.

“War to the knife with Rome! Peace and friendship with Islam!”: this was the feeling, this was the act, of that great free spirit, that genius among German emperors, Frederick II. What! must a German first be a genius, a free spirit, before he can feel decently?“ (Friedrich Nietzsche)

Arthur von Ramberg: "The Court of Emperor Frederick II in Palermo" (1865)

Legend has it that the scion of the Norman kings of Sicily from the famous House of Hauteville and the grandson of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was born in a tent on the marketplace of the Sicilian town of Jesi and that the child of Constance of Sicily and Emperor Henry VI was swapped with the child of a butcher. Papal propaganda probably, as well as the story that he grew up as a street Arab in the alleys of Palermo. Nevertheless, “stupor mundi”, the wonder of the world, like the well-meaning among his contemporaries called him, grew up in Sicily’s cosmopolitan atmosphere, read and spoke six languages, was highly educated, even by modern standards and developed at a quite early age a self-consciousness and a claim to power of a Roman emperor. His not-so-well-meaning contemporaries, usually the majority of the Christian West, simply called him the antichrist.

The bloodless end of the Sixth Crusade after the Treaty of Tell Ajul (1229)

Ruling for thirty years over the Holy Roman Empire, Italy and Sicily his time was marked by the continuous conflict between imperium and sacerdotium, the conflict over the supremacy of imperial rule and the papacy, and internal strife, since the unruly German barons never really accepted the puer Apuliae, the child of Apulia, and usually used every occasion to revolt, especially after Frederick’s inevitably ensuing excommunication. The conflict had quite eschatological features. While banned, the emperor achieved what no other Christian ruler of the High Middle Ages would achieve, the reconquest of Jerusalem. What infuriated his contemporaries even more was that he did it by negotiating with the Egyptian sultan Al-Kamil, allegedly during a game of chess, and not with sword in his hand. The story reflects much of the alienness of Frederick’s person, during his life and times and in the history of reception, he who quested for the best of all possible worlds in a multi-ethnic state against the various dogmata of the Age of Crusades.

Illustration from Frederick's book "On The Art of Hunting with Birds"

Probably not a philosopher on the emperor’s throne, Frederick was at least a scholar, writing a book about Falconry, occupying the scholars of his own and foreign courts with various scientific questions and binging about a paradigm change in the self-conception of understanding power and rulership in the Middle Ages. Recurring on and newly codifying Roman law, he might have felt like a divine antique emperor, but he did it based on legal grounds that would be pathbreaking for the dawn of the modern age, in Italy and elsewhere. The man Frederick himself, half Sicilian, half Swabian with his Faustian quest for knowledge and absolute power is hard to be up to after centuries of Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment and the national myths of 19th and early 20th centuries. The most fitting description remains the over 750 years old dictum “wonder of the world” and it stands to reason that Frederick was wondering about himself and his various roles.

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