Emperor Frederick II: A Model Ruler?

Hohenstaufen Frederick II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Sicily and Jerusalem, was and still is regarded as a medieval thinker and philosopher breaking a lance for enlightenment and tolerance. As a proof thereof, his friendship with Muslim leaders is cited most often. The question is, is there any proof of this claimed friendship? 

Frederick II and Islam: If you believe admirers of the medieval ruler then this was a story of mutual respect and affection. After the crusade of 1228/29, contemporaries reported that Frederick II was offering the Muslims devoted friendship; indeed, they claim he was behaving almost like a Muslim. How else, they asked, could he be able to conquer coveted Jerusalem without a fight; a feat Richard I the Lionheart and Philip II Augustus, the mighty kings of England and France, had not managed by the sword in unison? Frederick was quite obviously in cahoots with the Muslims.

Much of what was written seemed to state: As King of Sicily he had many Muslim subjects and due to his upbringing he spoke many languages including Arabic. He had a private guard of Saracens. Cardinals of the Curia alleged that he ran a harem at his court in Palermo. He was a collector and avid reader of Arab hunting tracts and philosophical writings. And he was rumored to be in contact with the infamous Muslim sect of the Hashashim, an internationally notorious terrorist group which executed political assassinations under the influence of hashish. The English words assassin and hashish are both derived from the name of that sect.

Much of what was rumored was at least partly true. But to see him as a special friend of the Muslim world for all of that is misreading the facts. Historians tend to judge rulers and their behavior too often by the standards of their times or worse by their own wishful thinking. A ruler has to be judged against the backdrop of contemporary practice and not by hindsight. And it is important to separate historical facts from later additions that hail Frederick as the first European, as a rational thinker and as a friend of Muslims and the Islam. The English Benedictine Matthew Paris (c. 1200 to 1259) called Frederick in his Chronica Maiora "stupor mundi et quoque immutator mirabilis" - as a wonder of the world and its wonderful transformer. This amazement, which at that time included a considerable amount of fear, continued to shine down the centuries. Thus was born the image of the multicultural emperor of wonders and miracles. 

Germany in the 19th century was desperately in need of great Germans with no connection to the (since 1806 Austrian) Habsburg (Hapsburg) Emperors. They built on the judgment of the eminent historian Jacob Burckhardt at the University of Basel who described the emperor as the "first modern man on the throne." They graciously overlooked that Burckhardt - contrary to popular opinion and the press – did not see Frederick as a positive figure, quite unlike Friedrich Nietzsche. The latter commented in The Antichrist, his polemical work on Christianity: "’War with Rome to the death! Peace and friendship with Islam': so felt, so did that great free spirit, this genius among German emperors, Frederick II." This assessment has been quoted again and again. As a consequence, the circle of artists around Stefan George, and especially Frederick biographer Ernst Kantorowicz, modeled and promoted an inflated and ultimately altered image of the ruler. 

We know that 19th century historians stylized Frederic II into an epitome of tolerance and diplomacy. This was just the final culmination of centuries of history writing based on the assumption that he had been on friendly terms with Muslim rulers, an avid scholar of all things Arab, and accepting Islam as a religion equal to Christianity. 

But to gain a perspective on Frederick II and his relationship with Islam, three questions need answers: How did he deal with Muslims living in Sicily? What was his relationship to Arab science? And finally, what policies did he pursue in the Holy Land? 

In the 9th century, the Arabs had conquered Sicily and settled there. In the 11th century, the Normans took the island. The growing influence of the Roman Catholic Church under the new Norman kings pushed Islamic culture back little by little. A small portion of Muslims converted to Christianity while many others left Sicily for southern Spain, North Africa or the Middle East. 

The remaining Muslims adhering to their traditional ways of life retreated into the mountains around Palermo at the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th century. The area had long been settled mainly by Arabs. They settled there to live and fight in permanent opposition to the Christian conquerors. Somewhere after 1220, Frederick started to fight the insurgents to secure his rule and the commercial routes running out of Palermo. It heralded the beginning of a guerrilla war that lasted for almost his entire reign. 

It was a war Frederic finally won. The Muslims were forced to leave the mountain regions of Sicily. Some may have fled to the Muslim dominions in Spain or North Africa. A significant part was resettled on the orders of the Emperor to further pacification. Depending on view point, one could also speak of deportation or of an ethnic-religious cleansing. The Muslims were given new lands on the Italian mainland in Puglia. It is estimated that between 15000 and 60000 people suffered this fate, the last of them after 1240. With the deportations ended the coexistence of Christians and Muslims on the island of Sicily. 

We spell tolerance differently today. Yet for its time, Frederick’s relation to the displaced Muslims in Puglia was quite unusual. It was not that of a caring ruler over his followers, but he granted the Muslims a generous autonomy law regarding the practice of religion, self-government and jurisdiction. The very fact that they had survived the resettlement and had not been killed was an act of grace. It transformed enmity into devotion and loyalty. From the ethnic group of Muslims settled in and around Lucera, the emperor was able to recruit a loyal band of mercenaries. His advantage was that they were impervious to the whispers, insinuations and religious bulls of Pope and Curia with which Frederick was in an ongoing dispute. His Saracen archers were famous, and the prestige that they brought with them carried on over his death to benefit his son Manfred and his grandson Conradin. 

From among the Arab side of the philosophy of science, Frederick was mainly interested in hawking. For centuries, the Arab world had gained vast experience in falconry and produced a voluminous literature on this topic. In order to deepen his knowledge of bird hunting, the Emperor therefore collected numerous Arabic texts and had them translated into Latin. Into this context falls a treatise known as Moamin which includes besides falconry a treatise on the medical treatment for dogs. The text is not original but a compilation of two other Arab sources. At Frederick's court, and under participation of the emperor, a number of versions of this treatise were compiled at the time and their tradition extends and proliferates for more than eight centuries. Today, the corpus includes at least 70 manuscripts in over a dozen languages. 

The Moamin versions emanating from the court at Palermo are prime examples of the oriental-occidental knowledge transfer in Christian Europe. And they are evidence of an Arabic literature lost in the original to the Arab world of today as they have been preserved only in Christian, European translations. Based on these documents and combined with the Emperor’s own observation of birds, the famous treatise De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus (The Art of Hunting with Birds) emerged. It is infallibly linked to the name of Frederick II. 

The fact that a ruler was interested in a different culture underlined his thirst for knowledge. Perhaps it reflects the understanding that other cultures have done great things, too. This is remarkable not only for the Middle Ages. As a proof of friendship or affection of the Emperor towards Islam it is worthless. Frederick’s study of Arabic literature was not a case of inclination, but the benefits of obtaining scientific information caught the ruler’s attention. 

Frederick was also pursuing a pragmatic policy in the Holy Land. In June 1228, the Emperor cast off the lines at the port of Brindisi to launch his crusader fleet. Embarked on a galley, he went to a nearly year-long military expedition to the east. As early as 1215, he had taken his crusading vow. 13 years later, the Emperor finally set foot on oriental soil. It was the delay in this crusade that had angered the Curia and Pope and what followed made things just worse.

Soon after his arrival at his camp south of Acre, Frederick started negotiations with the ruling Egyptian Sultan Al-Malik al-Kamil (1218 to 1238), a nephew of the famous Saladin. The sultan had fought for years with this family over the inheritance of his uncle in the Middle East. One area in which the interests of the various family members embroiled in the discussion overlapped was Palestine. Having a crusader army encamped exactly there did not fit into the plans of the sultan. 

The negotiations began with the deployment of two messengers to the sultan’s camp in Nablus and proceeded at snail’s space despite the mutual presentation of precious gifts. Until November 1228, Frederick's army remained at Acre. They then moved south to Jaffa, now part of Tel Aviv, to spend the winter there. In 2011, an inscription in Latin and Arabic was discovered there - so far the only known inscription in Arabic made by Crusaders – that bears witness to the presence of the emperor in the city. 

The crusade of Frederick II ended differently than any before or after: By treaty and without a single sword blow, the Emperor gained control over the highly symbolic cities of Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem in March 1229. This possibly annoyed Curia and Pope in Rome even more than the initial delay in starting the crusade as they were busy dismantling his empire behind his back.

Frederick had achieved his goal through skillful and pragmatic action. Among other things, he exploited his knowledge of Arabic sciences to hold stimulating discussions about mathematics and other scientific topics with the sultan during the long and arduous negotiations about Jerusalem. How important this was for the success of the mission, anyone who even once has haggled over prices in a bazaar can tell you. Ideas that seem so far apart that a compromise may appear at first completely unthinkable may be resolved at an astonishing speed provided you refrain from duping the opposite party and keep on talking terms. 

These two rules were taken to heart by Frederick and the sultan. They sent senior envoys and made valuable gifts to affirm each other of the importance of the issue and how much they appreciate each other. And before they sat down to haggling over cities, they turned the conversation to more harmless subjects in order to build trust and thus to prepare the ground for an agreement on the Holy City. Frederick knew these forms of oriental negotiation and applied them successfully. But does this make him a friend to Muslims? 

Stefan Leder, orientalist at the University of Halle, was able to demonstrate a few years ago that a body of Arab historical texts exists to which the history of the emperor's special kindness towards the Muslim world can be traced. That they will be cited over and over again in today's multicultural world doesn't make it true in any way. 

Three men’s writings fed the myth. First and foremost among them is Sibt Ibn al-Gauzi (died 1257). He was one of the most important chroniclers of his and Frederick's time - and not especially well-disposed towards the emperor. He remarked that the value of the emperor at the slave market would probably be less than ten Darahim (which happens to be the plural of Dirham). That would not have been much for even an average slave. Al-Gauzi held a sermon in Damascus in which he spoke against the return of Jerusalem to the Christians. The policy of the Emperor, however, didn't seem to be transparent to him and he suggested that Christianity could possibly be nothing more than a smoke screen for Frederick. 

The second chronicler who contributed to the myth of Frederick's Muslim connection was Ibn Wasil Gamal al-Din (1207 to 1298). As a boy he had witnessed Al-Gauzi’s preaching in Damascus. Later, he spent time as ambassador at the court of King Manfred, Frederick's son and successor in the kingdom of Sicily. He wrote that the emperor once asked Sultan Al-Kamil for permission to visit Jerusalem, and that the sultan had permitted it. In addition, he delivered this famous story: "The Qadi Shams ad-Din, Kadi of Nablus, said: I ordered the muezzin not to call to prayer that night out of respect for him (the emperor). When we woke up and I came to him, he said to me, O kadi, why have the muezzin not called to prayer, as is their habit? I said to him: This slave has forbidden this in deference to the king, and out of respect for him. To this replied Frederick, You erred in what you have done. By God, it was my greatest desire to listen to the night prayer of the muezzin and their worship of God when spending the night in Jerusalem." 

Most legends were contributed by a chronicler who lived half a centuries after Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. A native of Cairo, Ibn al-Furat (1334 to 1405) said that the Emperor was actually secretly a Muslim. And as if this would not be surprising enough, he claimed that Frederick was a maternal uncle of Sultan Al-Kamil. This is a most blatant attempt to incorporate Frederick into religious affiliation and kinship with Islamic ecumenism. He is made a naturalized citizen of the Muslim world of sorts. 

The legend that Frederick was a friend of the Muslims was therefore conceived to help the Arab world to understand and cope with the loss of Jerusalem. The handover of the holy city no longer seemed a defeat. After all, the new ruler was no enemy, but a comrade and relative of the Sultan of Egypt. The agreement on Jerusalem was seen and presented as nothing more than a change of ownership within a family. 

The question remains as to whether Frederick had actually planned to make Jerusalem his by negotiation. The answer is no. Even before it came to the treaty of 1229, he could have used this possibility. In 1221, Sultan Al-Kamil had offered the return of almost all the conquests of Saladin during a moment of great distress caused by a crusader army. In return, he demanded that the Crusaders would return the recently conquered and strategically important city of Damietta in the Nile Delta. The Templars and Hospitallers wanted to accept, but the emperor's representatives refused the deal in anticipation of Frederick II expected arrival and a military victory. 

Frederick hoped for a military triumph when he started his crusade in 1228. The contractual agreement with the Sultan came into existence only when Frederick learned of the attack of the Pope on his kingdom of Sicily forcing him to return quickly. 

There remains one final question: Would the diplomatic way have been possible without the emperor’s considerable military might? Probably not. Someone who marched his army to Jaffa with the full intention of moving inland to go to Jerusalem meant business. This message reached the sultan and made him listen very carefully. And he knew that defeat by the Crusaders, whether in Palestine or in the Nile Delta, would have shaken his supremacy in his own territory in the Middle East considerably. That was why a compromise was reached. 

The Treaty of Jaffa of 1229 was drawn up for pragmatic reasons and represented the minimum consensus for both sides. And both hoped to be able to change the matter later in an altered situation when power would have shifted one way or the other. To assume that Sultan Al-Kamil made a gift of Jerusalem to Frederick because the emperor did so well in mathematics has no basis in reality. Ultimately, it was the power of the emperor on land and sea that appeared to the sultan as an incalculable risk and a major threat. Traditions telling of the emperor arriving with only a small force in the Holy Land have for a long time contributed to the image of Frederick as an exemplary diplomat and disguised what he really was: a ruler negotiating where it made sense but who would have drawn the sword without hesitation if the situation would have been more advantageous for military victory. 

Of the highly acclaimed peaceful intentions of the emperor nothing remains but the pragmatism of the moment. This is still amazing for a ruler of the Middle Ages, because the rational balancing of political realities was not necessarily the forte of the often honor bound princes of the time. Unlike other famous Crusaders like Richard the Lionheart or Saint Louis, (the latter died on his second crusade) Frederick was not traveling the Orient for the pleasure of bashing brains and studying the interior of an enemy’s body. He also harbored no ambition to sacrifice himself on the altar of Christian martyrdom. He went there to reclaim the crown of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Anyone citing Frederick II as an example for modern multiculturalism is therefore betting on the wrong horse. The Emperor’s actions were as little guided by modern ideas of tolerance and diplomacy as were the Arab chroniclers portraying him as a friend of the Muslims. Both sides pursued in a skillful way their respective interests – looking forward to some more constructive brain bashing.

Further reading:
Was Nicolas Copernicus German or Polish?
Elected Monarchs on Europe’s Thrones
Bohemia, A Desert Country by The Sea

Reference: Book ‘Kreuzzug und Herrschaft unter Friedrich II. Handlungsspielr√§ume von Kreuzzugspolitik (1215–1230), Mittelalterforschung Bd. 13’; Author ‘Bodo Hechelhammer’; Publisher ‘Thorbecke’; Published ‘Ostfildern, 2003’. Book ‘Kaiser Friedrich II. (1194–1250). Herrscher, Mensch, Mythos.’; Author ‘Hubert Houben’; Publisher ‘Kohlhammer’; Published ‘Stuttgart e.a. 2008’. Article ‘Der Staufer Friedrich II. und die Geschichtsschreibung des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts.’; Author ‘Hannes Obermair’; Publisher ‘Concilium Medii Aevi’; Published ‘Stuttgart, 2008’. Book ‘Stupor mundi. Zur Geschichte Friedrichs II. von Hohenstaufen. Wege der Forschung Bd. 101’; Editor ‘Gunther Wolf’; Publisher: ‘Wege der Forschung Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft’; Published ‘Darmstadt, 1982’.