Frederick II, Holy Roman emperor and German king: Character and Legacy

Character and Legacy

Frederick II was one of the most arresting figures of the Middle Ages. He called himself “lord of the world”; his contemporaries either praised him as stupor mundi [wonder of the world] or reviled him as anti-Christ. Norman and German in ancestry but essentially a Sicilian, Frederick always felt a stranger in Germany. He spent most of his time in Italy and Sicily, where his legal reforms set up an efficient administration. This system he tried, with some success, to transfer to Germany.

Himself an expert trader engaging in far-flung business affairs, Frederick encouraged commerce and soon expanded it to Spain, Morocco, and Egypt. Agriculture and industry were likewise fostered. Towns, though at first somewhat curbed, enjoyed a more generous treatment in the later years of his reign, and many developed into important trade centers.

Frederick was also a gifted artist and scientist. A poet himself, he was surrounded by Provençal troubadours and German minnesingers. He patronized science and philosophy and interested himself in medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and astrology. His De arte venandi cum avibus, on hawking as well as the anatomy and life of birds, was the first modern ornithology. Frederick's personality was a curious mixture of German-Christian and Byzantine-Muslim influences. Although Christian, he maintained a harem; though he was frequently at odds with the papacy, he ruthlessly persecuted heretics; though sensitive to art and poetry, he could be extremely cruel.

The intense struggle between Frederick and the papacy led to the ruin of the house of Hohenstaufen and severely damaged papal prestige. With his rule the great days of the German empire ended and the rise of states in Italy began. The interregnum (see Holy Roman Empire) ended only with the election (1273) of Rudolf I of Hapsburg.

Sections in this article:

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: German History: Biographies