Emperor Frederick II, Mr. Controversy

By Steven Muhlberger

The years around 1200 CE were a dynamic period of change and conflict and innovation. To name just a few of the most important: the energetic pursuit of the Crusade; the competition for the throne of the Holy Roman Empire; systematic efforts to define law, both Church law and secular law (Magna Carta!); heresy and efforts to suppress it; not to mention new styles in literature.  

Those who study this period have lots of material to work with, but one of their favourite subjects is Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily (among other realms). Frederick II was involved in nearly all the conflicts of the early and mid-13th century. He attracted hate and wonder – the phrase “stupor mundi” applied to him meant “the astonishment of the world.” Modern debates have focused mainly on his significance for German history; a man of controversy, in the Middle Ages and now.


Let’s look at the factors that made Frederick important.

The Holy Roman Empire at the end of the  12th century was a tremendous stage for political conflict. It was notionally divided up into kingdoms, some little more than titles. Kings and their noble followers liked to think that a given territory descended from generation to generation by the usual principle of hereditary succession. But the complicated history of Germany and Italy (the core realms of the Empire) ensured that there were almost always multiple claimants for empty thrones from different dynasties, or branches of the same dynasty competed for the same titles or territories, their disputes to be settled by war, diplomacy or election – meaning in the cases of emperors and kings agreement among lay “princes” and major bishops as to who had the better right.

Popes too were elected monarchs and they potentially were very powerful; they had claims that crossed all other boundaries and a unique legitimacy. As the population in Western Europe grew, the number of ecclesiastical institutions – parishes, monasteries and nunneries – grew, too. Long-established ecclesiastical communities were sometimes older than the kingdoms in which they stood. Their lands and legal privileges were very extensive. Church leaders and church legislators created a systematic canon law to defend the autonomy and the property of the church. Innocent III, the pope during Frederick’s early reign as emperor, saw his role as rallying Christendom to discipline the whole disobedient world.


Imperial heir?

The world that Frederick was born into was a turbulent one. On one hand, he was the heir of two great emperors, Frederick Barbarossa and Henry VI, from the Hohenstaufen (Staufer) dynasty. The Staufers also benefited from the imperial tradition. In modern times historians call the 13th-century empire the Holy Roman Empire to distinguish it from the empire of Augustus; but in the Middle Ages people thought of the contemporary Western Empire, even though it had been based on German power,  as the continuation of the empire of Constantine and Charlemagne, for them the real (Christian) Roman Empire. Frederick was in fact known as Constantine in his infancy. Furthermore, Frederick also was through his mother, Constance, the heir to the Kingdom of Sicily, where Frederick’s family had effective royal power. Then there was the widespread notion that an emperor – perhaps Frederick? – would go to Jerusalem and spark the Apocalypse.

That sounds great, but Frederick’s position was precarious. When his father Henry died in 1197, Frederick was only three years old. His claim to the empire was disputed by Otto of Brunswick, who for a while was recognized as Emperor. The Staufer interests had to be maintained by others – at first a coalition of his mother, his uncle, and the powerful pope Innocent III. By 1220 the adult Frederick was able to present himself as the rightful emperor, but then he found himself opposed to the papacy.

Constance handing her son Frederick over to the care of the duchess of Spoleto, from the Liber ad honorem Augusti by Peter of Eboli

Fighting popes

Frederick and the popes he was contemporary with (the five between Innocent III and Innocent IV (1198-1245)) were at odds more often than not. One thing that divided them was Frederick’s desire to extend his power into northern Italy where some of the rich northern cities had rejected imperial rule. The popes had no interest in falling under Frederick’s rule and allied themselves with these rebel cities. Even more important, the issue of the Crusades divided them. For the popes, especially Innocent III, the recovery of Jerusalem was a top priority. The lack of support by Christian monarchs frustrated them, especially because there was an undoubted popular enthusiasm for an expedition to Jerusalem.

When the Papacy began pushing for another major Crusade under their control– the Fifth – Frederick was one of the monarchs who dragged their feet, or fought wars closer to home, usually against each other. The Crusaders who took part in the Fifth Crusade (1218-21) directed their efforts to attack Egypt, but this effort ultimately failed. Frederick was not directly responsible for this setback, but only because he didn’t show up. It infuriated the Pope that Frederick had taken the cross back in 1215 and done nothing since to fulfill his vow. Since he was now claiming the imperial throne and the Kingdom of Germany Frederick was effectively defying the Pope, Gregory IX excommunicated him.


Frederick’s answer to this was to do things his way and ignore the excommunication and sail to Syria. He arranged marriage to the heiress of the Kingdom of Jerusalem – a child. When he arrived in Syria (1229) he went to Jerusalem, unopposed, and had himself crowned King of Jerusalem and Emperor (again). He had already made a sweeping treaty with Sultan Al-Kamil of Egypt. Al-Kamil turned over the Kingdom of Jerusalem (and the city) to the Christians and agreed to a ten-year truce.  In return, Muslims got control of their holy places in Jerusalem and Muslim residents were allowed to keep their property. He did all this while under excommunication by the pope. The Crusading community was divided about Frederick’s actions, but the Franks of Jerusalem and Syria thought it was a terrible deal. They did not trust Al-Kamil (and they were right to distrust him). They wanted Frederick to lead a military expedition against Al-Kamil while there was a sufficient Crusading force available in Syria. Frederick had other priorities and prepared to return to Italy. When he marched through Acre to his ships his critics expressed their rage by pelting him and his entourage with manure.

This sounds terribly embarrassing but Frederick does not seem to have cared what anyone else thought, in this case or any other.  The regime Frederick left behind was unstable, with Frederick’s officials fighting Frankish barons. In 1244, a Muslim force took Jerusalem which various Muslim rulers held until 1918.

Emperor Frederick II excommunicated by pope Innocent IV

Stupor mundi

For the last part of his life (1229-1250) Frederick enjoyed a great deal of success. He was able to play the role of the great emperor convincingly. Frederick’s court at Palermo patronized poetry – in a dialect that would develop into the Sicilian Romance version of Italian. Frederick himself composed in that language. He wrote a work on falconry, The Art of Hunting with Birds, which still is considered one of the best books in the field. The emperor’s court was also a center for legal scholarship. For practical reasons he wished to build a royalist legal code. He and his collaborators followed classical Roman precedents in legislating for his most important realm, Sicily. His learning and patronage in a variety of fields, taken together with his long  military and political career is justification for the name his contemporaries gave him, “stupor mundi.”


“Stupor” is an ambiguous term. It is not necessarily a compliment. Indeed, Frederick time and again created intense opposition; especially from the popes. They and their supporters called him a “pagan” or a “heretic,” both very loaded terms.

Pagan? Frederick was notorious for what has been called his skepticism, which was his refusal to give priority to Christian teaching or papal authority. He called the famous leaders of all religions frauds, yet did not hesitate to consult or employ Jewish or Muslim scholars when he needed their expertise. Notoriously he conducted what we would consider cruel experiments, to establish what was the first human language and whether the departing soul of a dying prisoner could be detected.

Heretic? This was a more serious accusation, like “terrorist” today. The Roman church was seeing enemies everywhere. A modern scholar has identified this period as the beginning of western Christendom as a “persecuting society,” with among other things the institutionalization of the Roman Inquisition. Frederick was never subjected to this court, he was too powerful – but he was excommunicated a second time by Innocent IV in 1245.

Other dissidents got harsher treatment. Innocent III gave approval to a Crusade in the south of France against so-called Manicheans who were said to believe in two gods, a good spiritual one and an evil one who dominated the familiar material world. Not everyone believed that there was such a heretical sect, but many northern French lords took the opportunity to seize territories in the prosperous south. Likewise, German warriors, who for centuries had been fighting pagan peoples in the Baltic region of Livonia were now given papal authorization as Crusaders. Such papal initiatives did not gain universal approval; popular preachers, including some of the earliest Franciscans, denounced the “establishment” church and charged their listeners with taking the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Such preachers made Frederick their hero, but Fredrick did not attempt to mobilize them. He was as interested in repressing heretics as any pope.


By 1250 Frederick was perhaps at the height of his power. In that year he died, at age 55.  All his sons died in the next few years. At that, the mighty Staufer Dynasty more or less evaporated. Their claim to the empire could not be maintained. The result was a 23-year interregnum. The Imperial office never recovered from this, and the papacy too lost the predominance and prestige it had had in Innocent III’s time.

Mr. Controversy

As you probably can guess, the controversy between Frederick and the popes can be seen as either simple or complicated, depending on how much one cites original sources. To be simple, emperors and popes each claimed to wield universal power, which left little room for compromise. Refusal to compromise or submit could only be a result of bad faith, or worse. For example, Innocent IV told a church council that Frederick was a “precursor of Anti-Christ.” In other words, the dispute came down to the question “Frederick (or Innocent IV), right or wrong?”

Frederick, good or bad?

The  “evil Frederick” interpretation of Stupor mundi has had a long life. Dante (a great poet but also an Italian townsman who fought against pro-imperial forces) in his Divine Comedy placed Frederick in hell with the other famous heretics of history. As time went on more sympathetic views were possible: Frederick the Renaissance man before the Renaissance; Frederick a pioneer of scientific thinking; Frederick a brave secularist; Frederick who tolerated all religions.

Historians were often drawn to Frederick’s role in the development of Germany.  Frederick could be blamed for the fact that Germany was right up to the 19th century fragmented and not the great power that France was. Germany had been neglected by Frederick and multiple tragedies had resulted. But the success of Prussia in founding a new German Empire (1871) suggested what might be accomplished by a nation united under a charismatic ruler.

In the Weimar period of Germany (1918-33) the democratic regime had hardly a friend, even among those intellectuals who might have been expected to support some kind of liberalization. Rather the “leadership principle” supported by the Nazis – but not just the Nazis – inspired the most popular biography of Frederick ever written. Ernst Kantorowicz’s 1928 book Frederick II was hardly lightweight; it weighed in at 700 pages and was shaped by tremendous learning. But it was aimed at a non-academic audience (no footnotes!). It succeeded in reaching it and was immediately a best seller.  Kantortowicz had a message that he hoped would energize the German people. He emphasized the apocalyptic elements in 13th-century Christendom, which influenced and were exploited by Frederick.

Given the way that the leadership principle evolved under the Nazis, Kantorowicz’s work inspires ambivalence. More recent work emphasizes the parallels between Frederick and other more normal monarchs of the time. I am no expert in this field but I am tempted to say: Tell it to Pope Innocent IV!

Steven Muhlberger, before he retired from Nipissing University, studied and taught Late Antiquity, the history of democracy, Islamic history, and chivalry. His most recent scholarly works include The Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis II Bourbon published by Freelance Academy Press.

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Top Image: Portrait of Frederick II from the “Manfred manuscript” (Biblioteca Vaticana, Pal. lat 1071) of De arte venandi cum avibus