Customer Reviews: Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor (Oxford Paperbacks)
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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.
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on June 13, 1999
I used this book as background-studies for a paper I wrote on Frederick II. I especially liked the way Abulafia remains objective to this great personality, compared to other writers(as Kantorowitz). The book is very detailed, and I was grateful for the many details about the disputes between the Pope and the Emperor, as well as about the culture in the court of Frederick II. If you are have an interest in The Hohenstaufen-family, this is definately a book worth reading.
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VINE VOICEon July 10, 2005
This book is generally acknowledged as an excellent, recent account of the life of Frederick II. Frederick is famous in the German-speaking world for being an inspiration to the Nazi party. The earlier biography by Kantorowicz(who later taught in America), was seized on by Nazi's and Nazi sympathizers in support for a strong, mystical leader who would bring Germany back to greatness. Although Abulafia notes this troubled history in the notes, he account is mostly concerned with Frederick II's actual life and times. In a way, he is trying to debunk the superstition and legend that was built up around Frederick II in the early part of the twentieth century.

So who was Frederick II? He was the heir to the kingdom of Sicily and the Holy Roman Empire. He managed to unify his vast kingdom during his lifetime, he re-conquered Jerusalem without a fight, he wrote a subperb book on Falconry, corresponded with Arab scholars and, oh yes, fought bitterly with a succesion of Popes who just hated his guts.

In fact, these Popes, more then Frederick himself, emerge as the focal point of this book. More then anything it was their unreasoning hatred for Frederick's power that defined his life. Particularly, it seemed like Frederick spent the majority of his life fighting rebels in Lombardy who were supported by the Pope.

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HALL OF FAMEon June 2, 2000
Several prominent historians recommended this book so I decided to read it. I found it extrememly well informed, heavily documented and clearly written. The book covers a number of years in a period once called the "Dark Ages" and now referred to as the Middle Ages. I read this book to further my knowledge of the Middle Ages. Also, although I am interested in the history of England, the Netherlands, France and Italy, and not a devotee of German History per se, my interests led me to Frederick II, the Emperor of Germany, because he once ruled parts of Italy including Sicily.
Abulafia, had access to the Vatican archives to research his book, and thus has been able to recast these years of the Middle Ages, as well as the character of Frederick II. Some call this kind of writing revisionist history, if so, it is revisionism at it's best as Abulafia does not appear to have an "axe to grind" or a preconceived notion of what transpired. He reports the facts as he finds them. For example, many have long admired Frederick as a secular leader who "stood up to the Pope." However, it appears Frederick was a bit more fickle in his relationships with Popes than had been thought. He may have been able to get around Pope Honorius, he met his match in Gregory.
Frederick had promised to go on a crusade to expiate his sins, but he failed to do so. Gregory told Frederick "Do not put yourself in a position where I have to take action against you; go on a crusade as promised or else." Frederick failed to keep his word and Gregory excommunicated him. Abulafia's depiction of the struggle between these two powerful individuals reads like a novel.
An interesting note--the basis of Shakespeare's dueling families in "Romeo and Juliet" is revealed--they were antagonists because one sided with the Pope and his faction, and the other with Frederick. The Waibles and the Welfs of Germany became the Guelfs and Ghibllines of Italy--and precursors to the Protestant and Catholic struggles centuries later.
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on July 7, 2015
This 1988 biography of Frederick II Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Frederick II reigned as emperor from 1215 C. E. (in the Current Era) until 1250 C.E. The major benefit of this book over other earlier biographies of Frederick II is the fact that Professor David Abulafia had unique access to the papal registers of Frederick II's documents for the years from 1239 1240 C.E. which are currently held in the Vatican. Professor Abulafia studied these registers extensively and relied on the information gathered from these registers to write this book. Accordingly, this book offers a unique biography of Frederick II, especially for the years of 1239 C.E. through 1240 C.E., of Frederick's reign.
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on July 16, 1999
I was somewhat disppointed by Dr Abulafia's introduction to the enigma of Frederick II Hohenstaufen, other wise known as Stupour Mundi, the Wonder of the World.
Dr Abulafia tries to remove the surreal mystique surrounding his person and his achievements. He attempts, through regular comparisons with Toledo and Aragon , to present Frederic as a man of his time. That he was largely misunderstood, excommunicated and his dynasty exterminated within 20years of his death would suggest otherwise.
Dr Abulafia provides erudition but not soul to this offering and one cannot help but mourn that more humane and reasoned accounts of this brightest of all the hohenstaufen should be treated with so little enthusiasm. His achievements-notably the sixth crusade, which was more a cultural exchange rather than a war demonstrated a belief in the commonality of human beings which transcends race, religion, culture, education, something that was not to find expression in international politics until the latter half of the 20th century.
Whereas german historians in the 1930's were keen to encourage the myth of FREDERIC as a German hero, and Dr Abulafia commendably seeks to explode this myth, alas, he fails to demonstrate what motivated Frederic, and to what aim, beyond dynastic concerns, he challenged the Church, invoking their terrible anger, and the utter destruction of his heritage and bloodline.
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on July 14, 2016
A thorough and for the most part interesting book to read that explores Frederick 's life and rule and the years immediately before and after. It is clear he is in dialogue with and refuting earlier biographers. Some chapters on Frederick 's later conflicts with the pope tend to drag.
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on February 28, 2015
I found the book by David Abalafia, if a medieval emperor, exceeded my expectation, and the intrecet details iod that time and family names used, bought the era of that time to life, excellent book, I would personally give the book a 4 star rating.
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VINE VOICEon November 24, 2006
Abulafia has written a wonderful biography of one of the most important rulers of European history. His biography is detailed and precise, a well documented look at Frederick's life from childhood to his death, even ending the book with a great chapter to quickly tell what happened to the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Throughout the book you get an even non-biased representation of what Abulafia interpreted through his extensive research.

I did feel that there were two chapters out of place and did not belong in the scope of the biography. Towards the end we read "Culture at Court" and "Remote Control". "Culture at Court" is a nice chapter to evaluate the culture of the times - such as falconry, hunting, music, poetry, fashion - but did not add anything to the biography of Frederick II. "Remote Control" reads more like an appendix chapter to explain the registers and how much of the information is known. Both chapters are good but they do not figure into the overall structure that Abulafia used to write about Frederick II.

I am amazed to see this book trashed because one reviewer calls Abulafia a revisionist. Is not history furthered through new research and interpretations? Or should we accept the prevailing notion of history revolving around a subject as the one and true way? Abulafia has looked at the facts and interpreted them the way he saw it, and his arguments are very sound. I've always saw Frederick II this way and agree with Abulafia's interpretation. If you don't like a book because of its research or prose than discredit the book, but not because a historian writes a different view than the prevailing view.

All in all this biography is one of the better ones I have read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I would definitely recommend Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor to anyone.

4.5 stars.
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on January 16, 2008
This is an easy read that stays on track and manages to convey what the period must have been like. Though David dispels some of the mystique, he also brings home the life of Frederick II. I have read this several times now and enjoy it every time.
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