When is the last time you used the word octocentenary in a sentence? You can go a long time without using a word like that, because there really wasn’t much happening 800 years ago that was all that interesting. September, 1211 is an exception though, because that month saw the election of a new King of the Germans, later to become Holy Roman Emperor, who nearly succeeded in launching the Enlightenment 500 years ahead of time.
Frederick II was only 17 when he was elected King of the Germans, but he had already shown an independent streak by dismissing Papal officers from his court, causing an angry Pope to write that “We are amazed at the conduct of your advisers. Do not usurp our office in things spiritual: be content with the temporal power you hold from us.” More serious, though, was his decade-long procrastination in launching a new Crusade to reconquer Palestine from the Muslims. Under threat of excommunication, he finally set sail in 1227, only to return three days later claiming illness. A furious Pope promptly excommunicated him.
Frederick finally sailed the following year, after audaciously imposing a tax on Church property to pay for his expedition. When he arrived in Jerusalem, instead of fighting, he tried talking. In a short time, he worked out a peace treaty naming himself King of Jerusalem but giving Muslims the full citizenship rights they had been denied during the century of European rule. What a concept!
The lack of bloodshed, coupled with the unspeakable crime of taxing Church property, made the Pope even angrier than before, so he dispatched an army to remove Frederick from his throne. But by now Frederick’s reputation had soared. Beating the Muslims and the Pope at the same time was seen as quite a feat; many commoners came to believe he was somehow super-human, especially since the Church had been spreading rumors that he was dead. In 1230 the Pope backed down and accepted Frederick’s rule, in exchange for a promise to repeal those awful taxes.
This allowed Frederick to get back to what he was doing before being rudely interrupted by the Crusade: launching a humanist revolution in Europe. His grandfather had established Frederick’s birthplace of Sicily as a tolerant, multicultural, wealthy island kingdom where Christians, Jews, and Muslims could enjoy security and protection in the practice of their religious customs. After Frederick returned from Palestine, his court enjoyed a golden age such as Europe had not witnessed in a thousand years. While the Church at this time was bent on restraining scientific investigation and the arts, Frederick was eagerly embracing new teaching wherever he could find it:
We have always loved knowledge from our youth; whatever time we can steal from state affairs we cheerfully dedicate to reading the many volumes stored in our library. We have stripped the works written by the Greek and Arabic philosophers of their garb; we have had them translated by chosen men, maintaining faithfully the virginity of the words. We do not wish to keep them all to ourselves … Do you make them public for the use of your students, to the glory of your Caesar. We do not wish to keep them all for ourselves.
One of Frederick’s favorite pastimes was mathematics. When the great mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci dedicated his treatise to Frederick, Frederick responded by giving Fibonacci some problems to solve, which Fibonacci ultimately did. While negotiating with the Sultan in Palestine, Frederick did him the honor of sending a gift of mathematical problems to ponder, while requesting in return the honor of hosting Arab astronomers at his court.
The intellectual freedom of Frederick’s circle attracted an ever increasing number of travelers and scholars. With the founding of the University of Naples, Frederick’s court became the established center of a great educational movement and his imperial seat became the principal destination of teachers and scholars from Europe and the Middle East – Christians, Muslims, and Jews. He turned the medical school at the University of Salerno into the foremost institution of its kind in the world; a condition of receiving a license to practice medicine was taking an oath to serve the poor, for free.
Frederick did more than encourage science; he pursued it himself, writing an extensive treatise on ornithology that stood as the leading work in the field for centuries. His interest was sparked by the sport of falconry, but his six-volume The Art of Falconry became arguably the most impressive work of empirical science of any kind in the entire Middle Ages. He resolutely rejected conventional lore, recording only observations that he himself or his trusted associates had made. If the facts were not available on a particular issue he drew no conclusions but left the question open. It was Frederick who first discovered the nesting habits of cuckoos; he noticed a strange chick in a nest and brought it home to be reared with great care, and found that it grew up into a cuckoo. One of the Pope’s many denunciations of Frederick was that he would only believe what was proved by force of reason and nature.
The free and open atmosphere that Frederick encouraged led him to another conclusion astonishing for its time: that his people deserved to have a written constitution, spelling out their rights. In 1231 Frederick proclaimed the Constitution of Melfi, one of the great legal codes of history. Among other things, the Constitution:
- abolished serfdom and gave peasants the right to inherit land – Frederick was fond of saying that “nothing is more odious than the oppression of the poor by the rich”;
- stripped the clergy of their jurisdiction in criminal cases, which were to be tried in the king’s courts;
- increased penalties for crimes against women, and allowed women to inherit estates;
- created a representative assembly, with each town sending two delegates to inform the king about local needs;
- allowed the government to legitimize the illegitimate children of priests;
- banned trial by ordeal, a practice in which guilt or innocence was established by subjecting a defendant to various forms of torture to see whether God would protect him or not; and
- ensured freedom of worship for Muslims and Jews.
The Pope, as usual, was outraged, and denounced the entire Constitution as soon as he heard about it.
Frederick surrounded himself not only with scholars, sculptors, and scientists, but with troubadours and dancing girls, a menagerie of exotic animals, carnivals and jousting tournaments in which the knights of France were eager to participate. His cosmopolitan court had an air of Eastern splendor and magnificence, graced by poets, musicians, artists, and beautiful women. Dante Alighieri later called Frederick the father of Italian poetry: not for his financial support, but for his own written work. He even took a bath every day, in an age when dirt was considered to be an outward sign of Christian humility.
The Church saw where all this was heading, and was even more disturbed by stories of Frederick calling Christ, Moses and Muhammad “three impostors,” and saying of the Eucharist: “How long will this hocus-pocus continue?” As the war of words escalated, Frederick began calling the clergy “insatiable leeches … disguised in sheep’s clothing, these ravenous wolves send legates hither and thither to excommunicate, to suspend, to punish – not as sowers of seed, that is the word of God, but to extort money, to harvest and reap that which they did not sow.” War broke out when the Pope excommunicated Frederick once again in 1239. Though Frederick brought his army to the gates of Rome, he unwisely backed down when the Pope paraded an object said to be the head of St. Peter through the streets and placed his own tiara on it.
Before the printing press, no one could match the Church’s capacity for spreading information via the pulpit. Europeans were taught that Frederick was evil incarnate:
His sentence is absolutely irrevocable! His probation is the voice of God by the Church: he is condemned and forever! His viper progeny are included under this unmitigable proscription. Whoever then loves justice should rejoice that vengeance is thus declared against the common enemy and wash his hands in the blood of the transgressor.
Though Frederick survived repeated assassination attempts, civil war instigated by the Pope dragged on for years. When Frederick died a broken man in 1250, the Pope exclaimed “Let the heavens rejoice and the earth exult!” All ten of his “viper progeny” children and grandchildren were then either executed by the Pope or died in his dungeons. Europe’s Enlightenment, which Frederick seemed about to launch, was delayed for another 500 years.