Frederick II – The “Wonder of the World”

Frederick II
(1194 – 1250)

On December 26, 1194, Frederick II, one of the most powerful Holy Roman Emperors of the Middle Ages and head of the House of Hohenstaufen was born. Speaking six languages (Latin, Sicilian, German, French, Greek and Arabic), Frederick was an avid patron of science and the art, called by a contemporary chronicler stupor mundi (the wonder of the world).

In 1196, the only two year old Frederick was crowned King in 1198 after his father passed away. His mother Constance established herself as regent and dissolved the ties between Germany and the Empire in his name. His mother passed away very soon as well and he was brought to Palermo, where he is thought to have lived like a street youth. However, his guardian was Pope Innocent III until he was declared of age in 1208 and Frederick was able to marry the 25 year old widow Constance, the daughter of the king of Aragon. Otto of Brunswick was crowned Holy Roman Emperor one year after, but he invaded Italy and sided the Pope against him. However, Frederick was elected as German King and was crowned in 1212 and again a few years later after the passing of Pope Innocent III as Holy Roman Emperor in Rome by Honorius III.

Frederick II lived in Germany for some years, which was quite unusual for Holy Roman emperors. He helped Philip II of France and brought an end to the War of Succession in Champagne. In 1237, he returned to Italy and was represented in Germany by his sin Conrad. Frederick managed to built on the reform of the laws in the Kingdom of Sicily that were started by his grandfather. The Kingdom turned into an absolutist monarchy and set a precedent for the primacy of written law.

Birth of Frederick II

Frederick II, who was called “wonder of the world” often astonished his contemporaries with his unorthodoxy on the one hand and his stubbornness on the other. In concerns of religion, he was known to be a skeptic but remained substantially linked to traditional Christianism. However, his skepticism was very unusual and was seen as highly scandalous. Also his papal enemies used this against him as much as they could. During many occasions, Frederick shocked his contemporaries. For example, he chose not to exterminate the Arab-speaking population of Western Sicily, but enlisted them in his army and even as his personal bodyguards, since they had the advantage of immunity from papal excommunication.

Frederick was not only known for his tolerance, but also for his never ending thirst for knowledge and science. It is said that he never believed what could not be explained by reason and the laws he passed have until this day a quite modern character like the prohibition on physicians acting as their own pharmacists. Also the emperor authored several works like ‘The Art of Hunting with Birds’ in which he approached the subject from Aristotle. 

Historians believe that Frederick also used to perform several experiments on humans like shutting a prisoner up in a cask to see if the soul could be observed escaping though a hole in the cask when the prisoner died. Also he is supposed to have imprisoned children without any contact to see if they would develop a natural language. Frederick II sent many letters to scientists all over the world to seek for answers on the stars as well as mathematics and physics. He founded the University of Neaples in 1224, which is known as the world’s oldest state university.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a short documentary on the works of Frederick II.

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