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Mediocre, but the best available
on September 29, 2009
In Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor, David Abulafia sets out to revise the histories of Frederick II from previous generations. "Frederick II," Abulafia writes, "is one of a small band of medieval rulers who possess modern admirers." But Abulafia "contends that rather little of his reputation is soundly based," and intends to prove it. In particular, Abulafia concerns himself with Ernst Kantorowicz's Frederick the Second and T.C. van Cleve's The Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, Immutator Mundi.
But while better than Kantorowicz's romantic and nationalist interpretation of Frederick II and than van Cleve's dull plodding, Abulafia's book is not much better. Abulafia presents the life and work of Frederick II in a largely narrative form, often painfully dragging readers through the minutiae of thirteenth-century papal politics, pausing only occasionally to examine the workings of Frederick's government in the kingdom of Sicily or of Frederick's court in Palermo, and he does all of this without scholarly citations. Where Kantorowicz wanted so desperately to see Frederick II as the ideal German emperor, Abulafia almost refuses to see him as a German emperor at all. As far as Abulafia is concerned, Frederick II was the king of Sicily first and the Holy Roman Emperor last, claiming only to have "integrated what is known about Frederick's policies there [Germany] into a wider picture of his aims in Italy and the Latin East." While it seems likely that Frederick II thought of himself ethnically as an Italian and felt more at home in Palermo than in Koln or Mainz, Abulafia places far too little importance on Germany.
Despite these shortcomings, Abulafia's book contains some scholarly gems. Abulafia opens his work with two chapters on the crowns Frederick II inherited, the one from his maternal grandfather the Norman king of Sicily Roger II Hauteville, and the other from his paternal grandfather, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I "Barbarossa." The Norman inheritance takes precedence over the German, taking up fifty pages versus twenty, but it is an excellent work on its own. Abulafia details the birth of the kingdom of Sicily from the swords of the Hautevilles, but gives equal weight to the Byzantine and Muslim cultural and social identity of twelfth-century Sicily. Roger II takes up the bulk of the chapter, and Abulafia looks to him as the model ruler (indeed, one gets the impression from this chapter that Abulafia would rather be writing a biography of Roger II). Perhaps the most excellent feature of this chapter is the emphasis Abulafia gives to the notions of monarchy and royal power under Roger II and to Roger II's administration of his kingdom. Abulafia points to these as the basis of and background for Frederick II's concept of himself, his office, and his power.
Though short, Abulafia's chapter on Frederick II's German inheritance is also good. Here Abulafia outlines the peculiar problems of the Holy Roman Emperor, briefly discussing the German constitutional process, German concepts of monarchy and royal power, and the role of the Papacy in imperial affairs. Abulafia also points to the very real issue of imperial prestige and relations between the Holy Roman Emperor and the emperor in Constantinople, looking back at his earlier discussion of Sicilian relations with the same potentate. Lacking, though, and glaringly, from this treatment of Frederick II's German inheritance is any notion that Frederick II might have inherited any bit of cultural or social outlook from the German side of his family; as far as Abulafia is concerned, Frederick II's German inheritance was nothing more than political. Yet, taken as a whole (and these chapters comprise Part One of Abulafia's three-part structure) these chapters present the reader with a great deal of political, diplomatic, social, and cultural background for understanding Frederick II, his two states, his family, and his world.
Another worthwhile portion of the book is chapter six, "Law and Monarchy in Sicily," in which Abulafia interrupts his dense narrative to address the historical and historiographical problems surrounding the Constitutions of Melfi (often called the Liber Augustalis). Here Abulafia seeks to refute those historians who see in the Constitutions of Melfi an attempt to create a model state. To this Abulafia writes that Frederick sought only "to deal with the problems specific to a kingdom in urgent need of reconstruction." According to Abulafia, earlier historians sought (and claimed to have found) evidence that the Constitutions of Melfi prove that Frederick II saw himself as a Roman emperor such as Justinian or Constantine. Abulafia demonstrates that this notion is ridiculous, proving (by citing both the document itself and the work of other historians) that the origins of the law code can be traced back to both Roman and more contemporary sources, and puts the Constitutions of Melfi into the historical context of the thirteenth-century rise of universities and the creation of ambitious law codes elsewhere in Europe. Finally, Abulafia mines the document for a glimpse at Frederick's fiscal policies and explores how they illuminate other royal policies.
The core argument of Abulafia's book is that Frederick II was not the "stupor mundi" or the "infidel emperor" or a "Renaissance prince," as many have styled him, but a very ordinary medieval emperor. Frederick II's reputation as a modern man stuck in the Middle Ages derives largely from perceptions of the intellectual life at his court. Abulafia devotes chapter eight, "Culture at Court," to disproving this perception, and this chapter is far and away this book's great contribution to historiography. Abulafia writes, "the question is, therefore, whether Frederick II revived and enlarged upon the cultural interests of his forebears. And the answer has to be no." Abulafia first demonstrates that "the cultural mixing attributed to the Norman court is not visible under Frederick II." Abulafia claims that the great Muslim forces of Roger I and Roger II had diminished to a small bodyguard under Frederick II; that there were few Muslims or Greeks at court; that Arabic poetry was almost non-existent during his reign; and that Greek poetry, though plentiful, was not very good. Furthermore, Frederick II never established a true court at Palermo as Roger II had, but ran an itinerant government (like the rest of Europe) and stayed most frequently in places where the hunting was good. "A further problem in Frederick's reputation as a great patron of cultural activity," Abulafia writes, "is the tendency to attribute to his influence every exciting intellectual development between 1200 and 1250." Abulafia shows that while many of the great minds of this period lived in Frederick II's empire, and that some of them even had contact with the emperor, for most of them that contact was very limited and that the majority of these men had in fact made most of their intellectual and scientific achievements outside of Frederick II's empire earlier or later in life. There is very little Latin literary achievement during Frederick II's reign, and what there is owes more to early traditions than to Frederick II. Of vernacular literary achievement, too, there is very little, though Frederick II has earned a reputation as the founder of Italian lyric poetry. Finally, Abulafia turns to Frederick II's reputation as a great builder. Abulafia systematically refutes these claims, showing, in fact, that Frederick II tried to spend as little money as he could on building and rebuilding, doing only what was necessary, save for the few hunting lodges he built.
Taken as a whole, Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor is not a great book, nor is it even a good book. But there are some excellent chapters that go a long way to redressing the historiographical errors and wishful thinking of previous generations. Abulafia may not have written the definitive work of Frederick II, but he has opened the doors for future historians.