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Chapter 17

Stupor Mundi and the Norman Sunset


There was one central figure of the Norman kingdom that was conspicuously absent during its demise. Constance, William II’s aunt who was promised the kingdom by her nephew, and on whose behalf Henry VI had invaded and conquered Sicily, missed his coronation.  

Although she was of Hauteville blood, and technically the ruler of Sicily, Constance did not cross over the straits for the festivities. She was on the mainland, where she gave birth to Henry’s only son. Because he was baptized in Assisi, he was known locally as the ‘son of Apulia’, and embraced by the people of southern Italy. He was given the Christian names of Frederick and Roger in honor of his two grandfathers, and this in many ways symbolized the hopes for him; to unite the prowess and energy of Barbarossa with the administrative statesmanship of Roger II.  

The expectations were dizzying. His birth was celebrated like that of a new Messiah. His reign was forecast to be like a sun without a cloud, never to suffer eclipse. 

Frederick’s youth was spent in gorgeous palaces, surrounded by his Muslim tutors and every luxury, but he never knew a sunny childhood. At the age of two his father died, and he was sent to Germany to claim its crown. On the way it was discovered that his uncle Philip of Swabia was disputing his elevation and had started a civil war. Frederick was returned to Palermo where he was crowned as king on May 17, 1198. His mother, Constance, ruled as regent and, given the unpopularity of the Germans, she tried to placate her subjects by dissolving all ties to the empire. The overbearing imperial counselors were sent home, and Frederick’s claims to the imperial throne were renounced. Unfortunately, she herself died the same year, and the now orphaned three-and-a-half-year-old Frederick was shuttled off to be put in the care of the pope.  

As a dependent of the papal court, his fancy titles seemed like a hollow mockery, but worse humiliations were in store. The elderly pope wasn’t interested in restoring Frederick’s German interests,55 and it soon became clear that he was powerless to protect Frederick’s Italian territory as well. A German force sent by his uncle Philip managed to invade Naples, and with the help of Genoa, cross to Sicily and seize control of the government. The Germans didn’t even bother to formally depose Frederick; they merely ignored him while pretending to reign in his name.   

The captive king was completely neglected, left to roam the streets of Palermo, his daily food provided by wealthy citizens who alternated by week or month. For the young Frederick, the lessons of this childhood were clear. Success in life flowed not from titles or position, but from a willingness to seize what one wanted. Everyone around him tried to exploit him, so he trusted no one in return, keeping his cards close to the vest. Success, when it came, clearly belonged to those who were most selfish and brutal in pursuing their aims.  

At the tender age of fourteen, Frederick’s minority was declared over, and he officially took control of the Sicilian government. It was largely a title without power, and he addressed his court with a speech where both his frustration and his Messianic tendencies were on full display:


“Assemble yourselves ye nations; muster hither and see if any sorrow be like mine. My parents died before I could know their caresses. I, the offspring of so august a union, was handed over to servants of all sorts, who presumed to draw lots for my garments and for my royal person... No king am I: I am ruled instead of ruling; I beg favors instead of granting them. Again and again I beseech you, O ye princes of the earth... set free the son of Caesar!”


While Frederick struggled to assert himself in Italy, a serious danger was brewing in Germany. His uncle Philip lost a long civil war to a noble named Otto of Brunswick, and the pope, who was supposed to be looking after Frederick’s interests, crowned the rebel emperor. The thirty-four-year-old usurper in turn considered Frederick to be the paramount threat to his throne. The moment he was able, he invaded Italy to neutralize the danger. His armies swept through Calabria without opposition, while the sixteen-year-old Frederick scrambled for allies.  

Surprisingly, the pope was first in line. Ever since the Normans had created a kingdom in southern Italy, the popes had used it as a bulwark against the German Empire. Since Frederick was heir to both crowns he represented the papal nightmare; Rome surrounded on the north and south by a single power. The pope had specifically crowned Otto to prevent that from happening, but now Otto had appeared in Italy, threatening to seize Sicily and make the nightmare a reality. In exchange for two promises to go on crusade and to permanently separate the German and Sicilian thrones the pope swung his support behind Frederick.  

In the short run at least, the volte-face turned out brilliantly for the pope. Otto’s invasion, which had seemed unstoppable, collapsed as quickly as it began, as the would-be conqueror found himself excommunicated and deposed in absentia. The triumphal campaign devolved into an undignified race with Frederick to see who could reach Germany first and claim the throne. The latter, meanwhile dutifully turned the Sicilian government over to his wife, and then managed to beat Otto to the southwestern German city of Mainz.  

Despite Frederick’s greater claim, neither candidate really held the upper hand at first. The nobility of the south, who had never fully supported Otto, backed Frederick, but those of the north preferred the devil they knew to the Sicilian one they didn’t. The two sides settled into a stalemate, not willing to risk going on the offensive until they were sure of some advantage. This caution was warranted. The first and only time their armies clashed, it was largely a draw until Otto’s horse was wounded and his anxious attendants carried him off the field. A rumor spread that he had abandoned the army, and what started as a retreat turned into a rout. Otto withdrew to his family estates in the north, where he stubbornly held out for the next three years.  

Frederick had himself re-crowned in the imperial capital of Aachen in the high summer of 1215. The celebration was marred somewhat by the fact that the pope was dragging his feet over offering the title of ‘Emperor’, but whether he was king or emperor, Frederick now faced the important question of where he would base himself. He controlled kingdoms at opposite ends of Europe separated by the Alps and a hostile band of Lombard states. Either Palermo or Aachen would become the epicenter of secular power in Western Europe.  

If it were only a question of prestige, the choice would have been simple. The office of ‘Emperor’, successor of Charlemagne and at least according to propaganda the glory of the ancient Roman Empire, obviously outshone the kingdom of Sicily. There were, however, other more practical considerations. In Germany Frederick was a limited emperor, bound by feudal responsibilities to nobles who had sided with him not for loyalty’s sake but to be rid of the former ruler. In Sicily, on the other hand, he was an absolute monarch, under no laws but those he chose to make. He was also far more at home in the south than he would ever be in the north. His name may have been Teutonic, but Frederick II was a product of the southern Normans. Palermo had raised him, had formed his outlook and imagination. Now when it came time to choose a place to live, he returned home. During the rest of his reign, some thirty-five more years, he would return to Germany only once, and then only briefly.   

The pope, predictably, was furious. One of the conditions of papal support had been that Frederick would abandon southern Italy to his son and confine himself to Germany, so Frederick renewed his vow to go crusading in an attempt to placate him. The gesture would have been more effective if he had begun preparations at once, but the truth was that Frederick had little interest in Jerusalem, and even less in Christianity. He privately referred to Christians as ‘swine’ who had polluted the Holy City, and reportedly said that the world had been duped by three great impostors Moses, Christ, and Mohammed. At times he even stooped to mocking the Christian components of his own army. On one campaign he pointed to a field of wheat and said ‘There grows your God’ a derogatory reference to the communion wafer.  

If he wasn’t interested in religion, however, he was curious about nearly everything else. He had an insatiable curiosity, and was willing, unlike most in his day, to criticize authorities like Pliny, Hippocrates, and Aristotle if they disagreed with his observations. He collected animals of every kind, the more exotic the better, and assembled a menagerie complete with elephants, giraffes, camels, leopards, panthers, monkeys, bears, and a prized white cockatoo from the Sultan of Cairo. But he was no mere hobbiest. He approached everything scientifically, noting, for example, that the eye of a chicken-hawk enlarges when fixed on a target, and that the customary distinction between two kinds of falcon was incorrect. He compiled several treatises on hawking; classifying birds, studying their nesting, migration patterns, and daily habits.  

Scholars from every nation were invited to his court. Experts in arithmetic, geometry, and algebra all wrote treatises dedicated to him. The medical sciences, nearly non-existent elsewhere in Europe, were subsidized from his personal treasury. A university was founded in Naples, one of only two places in Italy56 where lectures on medicine were permitted. Prospective doctors had to be licensed by its board of experts before they could see any patients, allowing a uniform level of quality control. The university was endowed with a collection of Greek and Arabic texts so that (as Frederick himself put it) students might ‘draw new water out of old wells’. Students were subsidized and protected on travels by imperial guards, all paid for at the king’s expense, and they were attracted to Naples by cheap, subsidized loans.  

Frederick was a prolific writer, composing several treatises on medicine and even became a practicing physician himself. In between running affairs of state he found time to instruct veterinarians on the proper care of horses, attend the lectures of the most celebrated mathematician of the age, and conduct his own experiments by cutting open the abdominal cavities of cadavers to discover the function of the stomach and intestines.  

He was also an accomplished poet fascinated by linguistics,57 and attempted to standardize Italian. Dante, who largely accomplished the task, gave Frederick much of the credit, and dubbed him the father of Italian poetry. He was fluent in all the languages of his kingdom, Italian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, German, and French. 

Like his grandfather, Roger II, he was a great patron of the arts, filling the palaces (that he designed) with mosaics, marbles, paintings, and sculptures. His court in Palermo became the celebrated intellectual center of Europe, a Renaissance court two centuries before the Renaissance. No wonder his contemporaries referred to him as Stupor Mundi the ‘Wonder of the World’.  

Although he ruled kingdoms at both ends of Europe, Frederick’s attention was clearly focused on Sicily. The island had been devastated by civil wars and invasions, and large parts of it were depopulated. When he returned from Germany, he resettled it with veterans, and started building up industry on unused agricultural land. He then declared war on any traces of feudalism. Elders from every province of the kingdom were brought to the court and questioned about the traditional royal and common law of their homes. These were collated, edited to weed out contradictions, and used to make a constitution for the bureaucracy, defining the powers of the various officers of the state. Everything was minutely controlled, from the administration of brothels to the clothes certain of his subjects were allowed to wear. Justices were appointed that were dependent on the crown to lower the risk of corruption, and widows, orphans, and the poor were given free legal support. Although Frederick was an absolute ruler58 his constitution set the precedent of written law, and remained the basis of Sicilian law until the nineteenth century.  

While Frederick reformed Sicily, events far outside his borders were beginning to force his attention to the Holy Land. Jerusalem had fallen in 1187, but both the Third and the disastrous Fourth Crusade had failed to recover it, so in 1217 a Fifth Crusade had been launched. Frederick had made vague promises to accompany it, but as usual had failed to do so. Despite the absence of a strong leader, however, the Crusaders managed to make some headway, causing the sultan to offer to surrender Jerusalem in exchange for a cessation of hostilities. The Crusaders, who expected Frederick to arrive imminently at the head of an army, refused the sultan’s offer, but were then counterattacked and fled in disarray. Fair or not, everyone both in the Holy Land and in Europe blamed Frederick for the disaster.  

The emperor didn’t seem too put out, and continued to ignore his crusading vow in the face of mounting international pressure. In desperation the pope agreed to sweeten the pot. Yolanda, the thirteen-year-old heiress to the kingdom of Jerusalem was unmarried, and Frederick was a widower. The two were wed in 1225, making him the official king of Jerusalem. Newly motivated, Frederick promised to launch his crusade before 1227 ended. He set the date for August, but caught a fever and postponed his departure until he recovered. The exasperated pope, who suspected that this was yet another delaying tactic, excommunicated him.  

After a few months of negotiations failed to lift the interdict, Frederick decided to ignore the pope and at last set out on his long-delayed expedition. He made a strange crusader. An excommunicated skeptic who didn’t even believe in the faith he was fighting for, with an army too small to accomplish much, he was ignored by the military orders of the Holy Land, and had no hope of international support. But none of this bothered Frederick. Considering the small force available to him, diplomacy was the only option, and he was well aware of his own skills in that department.  

When he landed in Acre, he impressed the messengers of the sultan with the breath of his knowledge and his ability to speak with them in flawless Arabic. When the sultan sent learned men to him, they reported that he could easily converse with them on nearly every subject. A few weeks later when the two monarchs met in person, the results were the same. The charmed sultan agreed to hand over Jerusalem (with the notable exception of the Dome of the Rock) along with a small coastal strip of territory. The next month Frederick entered into his newly-won city to take possession of it. He strode into the Holy Sepulchre alone, took the golden crown from the high altar and crowned himself  king of Jerusalem.  

Despite the surprising victory no other crusade except the first had been successful most of Europe viewed the entire matter with disgust. The city may have been temporarily in Christian hands (or Frederick’s at least) but some of the holiest sites were still in Muslim hands. In addition, the city was virtually defenceless. It was surrounded by Muslim territory and, as part of the agreement, the Christians were prevented from building any walls. Anyone could see it was only a matter of time until it fell again.  

All this was in addition to the fact that a heretic had recovered it. The day after Frederick’s coronation the Bishop of Caesarea arrived and placed the city under interdict. The population was split between imperial supporters and those loyal to the pope, with most of the barons siding against Frederick. In the present situation the city was ungovernable and Frederick left, never to return. Without him the city limped along another fifteen years before falling, as expected, to a Muslim attack.  

Frederick had another good reason to hurry home. Reports had reached him in the Holy Land that his regent had started a war with the pope, and that a massive papal army had crossed into his territory. When he arrived in Italy, the monarch known for his justice, generosity, and diplomacy showed that he could also be quite ruthless. The papal armies were driven out and any who had cooperated with them were hunted down. Rebel barons were invited to talks and then seized. Dissidents were encased in lead and thrown into a furnace, while their wives were bricked up inside an Apulian fortress to die a lingering death.  

The war between emperor and pope was deeply disturbing to the medieval mind, although opinion was divided on whom to blame. The Bishop of Lincoln called the pope the Antichrist while others cursed Frederick and schemed to assassinate him. Both sides had a sense that something was terribly wrong. The two heads of Christendom, spiritual and secular, should be allies not enemies. When the two finally patched up a peace in 1230, most of Europe breathed a sigh of relief.  

Peace, however, was only temporary. Frederick’s son, Henry, rebelled against him, and tried to block the Alpine passes to Germany, but Frederick somehow managed to slip through and force the capitulation and imprisonment of his heir. Germany submitted to Frederick, but the Lombard cities of northern Italy, long a thorn in the imperial side, took the opportunity to rebel. The pope couldn’t resist supporting them, and the old quarrel with the emperor sputtered back to life.  

It took Frederick five long years of ruthless campaigning to break the Italian cities, and he celebrated by prematurely throwing himself an ancient Roman Triumph, complete with an elephant and public parade. The pope, deserted but not defeated, excommunicated him for the third time in 1239, and the encouraged Italian cities immediately rose up again. Frederick marched towards Rome, but wasn’t willing to besiege the city and contented himself with sacking a few of the Papal States. Before he could threaten Rome, he discovered that the pope had died. Since his struggle was against an individual pontiff and not the Church he withdrew, hoping that the new pope would be better disposed and lift the excommunication.  

Unfortunately for Frederick, the new pope, Innocent IV, was even more inflexible than his predecessor. Frederick managed to drive him out of Rome, but Innocent fled to Genoa and from his relative safety declared Frederick deposed. The emperor sent an army north, but at Parma it was routed. In the old days such a setback would hardly have mattered, but the fifty-four-year-old emperor was beginning to feel the strain of constant campaigning. A short time later his second son was captured and another son killed, and the double disaster broke something in the emperor. He became strangely indecisive; one moment talking of storming the pope’s stronghold and the next of meekly submitting. Finally, in 1250 he renounced the world and took the simple cloak of a Cistercian monk. That winter on a trip through Apulia he became sick with dysentery. His decline was mercifully quick. He died on December 13, 1250. The body was taken to Palermo where it was laid to rest in a red porphyry sarcophagus beside his grandfather, Roger II.  

Frederick was a polarizing figure in life, and in death he was no different. When Innocent IV heard that he was dead he said, “Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; for the thunder and the tempest with which a powerful God has so long threatened your heads are changed by the death of that man into refreshing breezes and fertilizing dews”. Dante agreed on account of the emperor’s endless wars, and put him in the infernal city of Dis the lowest circle of hell confined with other heretics in a burning sepulcher. Everywhere he went he seemed to shock the sensibilities of those around him. His harem was the scandal of Christianity, and he was thoroughly eastern in his outlook and love of luxury.  

But to others he was truly the wonder of the world, the most erudite, able and fascinating figure of his age. Even during his life, legends swirled around him. He would be the great emperor to announce the Day of Judgement, he would restore the Holy Sepulchre, burst the chains of Rome and establish a free nation. When he died in the midst of that struggle the common people refused to believe he was gone. In Germany they claimed that he was only sleeping beneath the Kyffhäuser Mountain and would return when ravens gather, to restore his empire to its former glory. 

In truth, however, Frederick II makes for a poor German national hero. He was always more at home in Palermo than in Mainz or Aachen, and he abandoned Germany purely for more personal power. In a way he was the last flowering of the Norman kingdom of Sicily, warts and all, cosmopolitan, independent, and ultimately overlooked. During his lifetime, in 1215, King John of England signed the Magna Carta, a rightfully immortalized giant step towards modern democracy. Frederick’s own contribution, the concept of a written constitution that would become the bedrock of all democratic reforms five hundred years after his death, has been largely forgotten.  

If Frederick’s reign was the Indian summer of Sicilian greatness, winter came quickly. Sixteen years after his death, Charles of Anjou invaded the island killing both Frederick’s son and grandson, bringing the Hohenstaufen59 line and that of Roger II to an end. The kingdom remained territorially intact until the nineteenth century, tossed between the crowned heads of Europe. But it never again had a native monarch, or was anything more than a secondary concern of those who controlled it.  

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