By Dorothea Weltecke
Cultural Transfers in Dispute: Representations in Asia, Europe and the Arab World since the Middle Ages, ed. Jorg Feuchter (University of Chicago Press, 2011)
Introduction: Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), who ruled the Holy Roman Empire from 1220 to 1250, is one of the central figures of Europe’s historical narrations, or rather myths, about its premodern past. Already in his own time, he aroused responses ranging from profound adoration to vehement rejection. Frederick used different methods of rule in the different regions of his great realm: the German countries, Northern Italy, Sicily, Burgundy and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. While governing firmly and centrally in Sicily and fighting to subordinate the great communes of Lombardy, he conceded privileges and independence to the ecclesiastical and secular princes in the German lands. These diverse styles of power and Frederick’s ability to adapt to various diplomatic and political situations make it difficult to present his politics, let alone his personality, in a coherent way.
Frederick’s dramatic life and reign were affected by many conflicts, notably overshadowed by his long struggle with Popes Gregory IX (1227-1241) and Innocentius IV (1243- 1254), primarily concerning rule in Italy. His demand for universal rulership as Christian Roman Emperor collided with the same claim by the popes. This is the time when the papal claim to real power in European politics approached its climax in theory and practice. In 1245 a council in the city of Lyon officially pronounced the emperor deposed. This struggle between Frederick and the popes produced a wealth of letters, pamphlets and other materials, describing the conflict in drastic terms, even attaining eschatological dimensions. The extravagant images of Frederick produced in this war of words, presenting him as Messiah or Antichrist, influence all later writing, from medieval chronicles to modern historiography.
It is often said that Frederick’s court in Sicily was a centre of exceptional scientific significance and that Frederick had unusually close contacts to the Arab(ic) world of learning. Despite the effortS of David Abulafia, who set out some twenty years ago to destroy what he saw as a German mystification and to present Frederick instead as a ‘medieval emperor’, a ‘traditional ruler’ and a much overestimated intellectual to this day scholars and popular writers disagree. They often represent Frederick as a man who transcended his time, who even shared our values of religious tolerance, rationalism and secularism and thus belongs more to our world than to the past. Few authors refrain from making at least one reference to Frederick as stupor mundi, the astonishment of the world. Marcus Thomsen terms this narrative tradition the modernist construction. It is at the same time strongly influenced by Orientalism, and it is its Orientalist elements that determine all assessments of Frederick’s role as a promoter of scientific transfer from the Arab world.