GERMANY: Frederick II of Sicily

John Gehl sends this bio of the medieval monarch Frederick II (1194-1250), known to his contemporaries as Stupor Mundi (Wonder of the World) for his breath of knowledge and brilliant mind.  Frederick was an excellent administrator and an able soldier, and his broad cultural outlook and intellectual gifts made him something of Renaissance man ahead of his time. He understood several languages and encouraged the development of poetry and sculpture. His book on falcons and relevant facts of bird life, based entirely on his own research, earned him a place in the history of science and is still considered first-rate natural history by experts.

Frederick belonged to the royal Hohenstaufen family. He was the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI and Constance of Sicily. Because of circumstances created by his father's premature death at age 32, Frederick was reared by his mother in her native Sicily. When he came of age, Frederick inherited the crowns of both Germany and Italy, but he preferred to live in Sicily, where he remained even after he was named Holy Roman Emperor in 1220. Frederick governed his Sicilian kingdom well. He established the University of Naples in 1224 and made the University of Salerno the best school of medicine in Europe.  His decision to rule from Sicily, however, gave him constant problems with both the German princes and the Northern Italian provincial rulers, who sought greater independence from Imperial control. Frederick also had conflicts with the popes, who saw the Emperor as a rival power. In 1227 Pope Honorius III excommunicated Frederick for violating his vow to go on crusade. This motivated Frederick to set out for Jerusalem the next year. Using diplomacy and not arms, Frederick succeeded in recovering Jerusalem from the Muslims who had conquered it. He then crowned himself king of Jerusalem in 1229.

In consolidating his power over his Italian kingdom, Frederick erected a chain of castles and border fortifications, enlarged major harbors and established a navy and a fleet of merchant vessels. He instituted measures designed to bring trade under state control, and make the manufacture of certain products the monopoly of the state. Finally, he created a civil service for which candidates were trained at the state university he had founded in Naples in 1224, the first in Europe. Frederick also created a new constitution the Kingdom of Sicily that was the first codification of a European state's administrative law since the reign of Justinian in the 6th century. Frederick's codes contained ideas that anticipated political principles that would be favored by the Enlightenment. Frederick's struggles with rebellious German and Italian princes and papal authorities continued unabated until his sudden death in 1250. He was buried in the cathedral of Palermo near his first wife, his parents, and his grandfather.

RH: Was it deliberate irony on John's part that he headed this piece "Frederick the Great", a title normally reserved for a much later Frederick II (1712-86)? The two have the same names and numbers, but one was of the Holy Roman Empire, the other of Prussia,  The former was an intellectual, the latter a soldier. Sicily was really "the two Sicilies",since it included Naples and the south of the mainland.  Getting back to our preoccupation with history textbooks, how do German history textbooks treat the two monarchs?  Jim Tent, who sends his New Year's wishes to all WAISers, may have some information on this. What about Italy, divided like the US into a North and a South? Whereas Lincoln fought to preserve the union, the Northern League is fighting to get rid of the South. Are there regional differences in Italian history textbooks? Does the South revere its Frederick II, the way Catalans revere Jaume the Conqueror (1207-76)? Incidentally, the Catalan James was born in Montpellier, which ties in with the Catalan nationalists' claim to that area of France,

What about the Sicilian Mafia in Frederick's time? What about the Arabs? Here is the Sicilian version: In 832 AD the Arabs conquer Palermo - it became their capital and transforms itself into one of the most flourishing cosmopolitan places in the world. It is at this time that oranges and lemons are grown commercially for the first time, and advanced irrigation were put in place. Taxes were reduced, and a period of relative religious tolerance followed.- Roughly 50 years later Syracuse also fell to the Arabs. The Arabs were eventually displaced by the Norman conquest (1060–91). A Norman knight, Roger de Hauteville, took Sicily . The Norman presence was so slight that they were obliged to accept and adapt to the pre-existing administrative and judicial systems. Their embracing and use of Arabic and Byzantine methodology, architecture and craftsmen resulted in a unique fusion of styles, and a remarkable and enduring legacy of art and architecture. Roger's last direct descendant, Constance, married the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI; their son and heir, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II von Hohenstaufen ascended  the throne in 1198. Frederick  was an enlightened ruler, and oversaw Sicily at the height of its Golden Age. However, he had no children, and after his death, Sicily was sold by the Pope to the King of England, who in turn gifted it to his son, Edmund of Lancaster.

Can Sicily be compared to Andalusia?  Were the Arabs of Sicily given the choice of conversion or exile? The Arabs are credited with founding the school of medicine at Salerno.  How much of the mainland did the Arabs occupy?  All this suggests a comparison between medieval Andalusia and medieval Sicily. How on earth could the Pope sell Sicily to the King of England?

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Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: December 30, 2004