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Lectures for A Medieval Survey

Lynn H. Nelson

Frederick II (1215 - 1250)

The Problem of the Hammer and the Anvil

Emperor Henry VII Hohenstaufen died in 1197, leaving his son Frederick heir to both the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and the German Empire. Innocent III took young Frederick as his ward and, when civil war broke out in Germany, supported Otto of Brunswick against the Hohenstaufens. Otto won in 1209, but invaded the Papal States. Innocent started the civil war again, this time supporting Frederick. He also broke the old alliance with the Empire to ally with France.

WhenFrederick was proclaimed emperor in 1215, Innocent had him promise to give up the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and to undertake a crusade, but Innocent died before he could crown Frederick or force him to keep those promises.

Frederick's Policies

Frederick got Innocent 's successor to crown him emperor without having to promise to give up Two Sicilies. He then gave away imperial power to the German nobles, ensuring that the German empire would be powerless without a leader and racked by internal dissension. He intended to base his power in Italy.

Frederick and the Crusade

Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241) excommunicated Frederick for not having kept his crusading vow. Frederick then launched the Sixth Crusade and made a favorable treaty with the Muslims based upon freedom of religion, at least within Jerusalem. (The fact that he had married the heiress to the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem was a factor in his actions.) Gregory was furious; rejected the treaty, placed Jerusalem under an interdict, and invaded the Kingdom of Two Sicilies.

Frederick and Italy

Frederick defeated Gregory militarily by 1230 and virtually abdicated all authority in Germany. He then began organizing the Kingdom of Two Sicilies into a modern centralized state. The Constitutions of Melfi established uniform laws, local government, fair taxes, support of commerce, and representative assemblies. Among other things, he established the first state university at Naples, and ordered religious toleration for Christians, Jews, and Muslims throughout his lands. He also declared his intention of making the imperial cities of the north of Italy another province of his Italian kingdom.

Frederick and the Papacy

The towns of northern Italy (Lombardy) formed a Lombard League against Frederick and were supported by the popes, who excommunicated Frederick and called upon other monarchs to join in a war against him. Frederick, in turn, advocated reducing the church to apostolic poverty.

The struggle ended with Frederick' s death in 1250. The papacy continued to work against the Hohenstaufens, and the family was eventually destroyed. The papacy introduced a French dynasty into the Kingdom of Two Sicilies in 1266. In 1282, the Sicilians rebelled against the French (The Sicilian Vespers), and the Aragonese took over the kingdom. The Aragonese remained in control until the 18th century.

Frederick's Significance

He was a remarkable man, in advance of his times in many ways.

A. A free thinker, he supported religious toleration (except for heretics), and was willing to oppose the church in almost anything. He pioneered in the establishment of a complete secular government and was instrumental in promoting the spread of Roman law and representative institutions.

B. Remarkably learned, he spoke several languages, was a composer of music, and supported the arts in his court. He was himself a naturalist, writing and illustrating the art of hunting with birds, the first scientific ornithologist, and engaging in (often bizarre) physical experiments.

C. He weakened the power of the papacy in its own lands and drove it into a closer reliance on the French, and so set the stage for the Avignon papacy (1305-1378)

d. But he failed in his plans and set the papacy on the path of opposing any unification of Italy, with the effect that Italy did not emerge as a modern state until the 1860's and had little role in Europe's Age of Expansion.

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