He was the most scientific
monarch of the thirteenth century, and probably
the most intellectually distinguished ruler of the Middle Ages, following in the footsteps of his
inquisitive grandfather, Roger II, who
filled the Sicilian court with scientists and men of letters. Frederick
II was King of Sicily, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and
King of Jerusalem - all actual dominions he ruled. But the greatest
title attributed to him was Stupor Mundi, Wonder of the World.
Frederick II was pragmatic. His Crusade to the
Holy Land was undertaken without spilling a drop of blood, much to the chagrin
of the Pope, who had already excommunicated him. He ruled more of Europe
than any of his contemporaries, plus part of Palestine and a piece of northern
Africa. Two writings of Frederick have come down to us that shed light on
the man and his genius. The lengthier is a guide to
falconry which is actually a rudimentary treatise dedicated to ornithology
and certain other aspects of zoology. His legal code, the
Constitutions of Melfi, reveals some of his thoughts.
What is there to suggest that Frederick was an atheist?
It would be more accurate to use the term deist. In referring
to modern figures - even scientists - evolutionary biologist Richard
Dawkins, an outspoken atheist, makes the point that atheism per se was not widespread as
a term or description even as recently as Victorian times. It certainly
was not part of medieval vernacular. For our purposes,
let's define atheism as a lack of a belief in God, while deism
is a belief in a supreme being only in the abstract, perhaps as the creator of
the universe, but without religious dogma and without believing in supernatural
events (miracles, ghostly apparitions and the like). Today, the typical deist does not practice any religion or belong to any
religious denomination (though some deists nominally belong to one), and he usually takes a scientific approach to understanding
the world around him.
In any historical analysis, it is important to avoid ascribing our modern perceptions of specific philosophies or ideologies
to persons who lived long ago. Historians used to do this with Frederick II, making him into an anachronistic Renaissance Man or
free thinker as those phrases are understood today.
For context, seeking to understand the whole person, we must first consider Frederick's unique education.
Raised in Palermo, then the most cosmopolitan city of Europe, Frederick
was exposed to Christians (both Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox), Muslims
and Jews. He became fluent in Norman French, Arabic, German and Medieval
Sicilian, the last a Romance tongue marked by obvious French, Greek and
Arabic influences. He seems to have had a working knowledge of Latin and
perhaps Greek. In the polyglot Palermo of Norman
and Swabian times it was not unusual to meet ordinary Sicilians
who spoke two or three languages, but Frederick's linguistic knowledge clearly eclipsed this standard.
As a child, Frederick probably had more access to science and philosopy than any other young
man in Europe or the Mediterranean world. He was taught the precepts of the three great
faiths of his realm by believers - monks, rabbis, imams - and probably understood classical philosophical
concepts like the differences between Idealism and Materialism. Given the close ties between the Norman kingdoms
of Sicily and England, he was probably familiar with the ontological arguments of Anselm of Canterbury.
It isn't presuming too much to postulate that
a person raised with an easy intellectual familiarity with all three Abrahamic faiths might be reluctant to
privilege one over the other. This was the point made by Matthew Festing,
head of the Order of Malta, which had knights
and hospices in Frederick's realms, when he said that, "children are taught 'comparative religion'
and leave school believing it does not matter what religion you profess."
The Normans' ephemeral Kingdom of Sicily proved that religious tolerance
was possible and that a multiethnic society could embrace diverse philosophies
without destroying itself from within. By 1200, however, one could discern
a general if subtle trend towards christianization of the Muslims and latinization
of the Greeks. What is important is that Frederick was exposed to these
religions and also took an interest in Sicily's Jews. Nominally Catholic,
Frederick was a scientist as much as a humanist.
Considering his upbringing, it shouldn't surprise us that Frederick was something of
a polymath. Thanks to the Arab and Byzantine influences, Palermo afforded scholars more knowledge of certain
sciences than, say, London or Cologne.
Like his Norman grandfather's court, Frederick's boasted competent botanists, zoologists
and astronomers. The gardens of the Genoard, the vast royal park, included
an extensive zoo, and astronomical observation was possible from the royal
palace's Pisan Tower, where the dwarf planet Ceres
was first observed using more modern equipment six centuries later.
He was neither fickle nor quixotic. Willing to dissent, never cowed by views different from his own, Frederick was a genuine
intellectual. Yet it would be unrealistic to have expected him to transcend his times by founding a
new religious or philosophical movement.
Nevertheless, several events in his adult life shed light on Frederick's ethics and beliefs, reflecting his tendency
to think outside the Catholic box. In 1221 he founded the University of Naples as a secular (non-religious) institution under royal
charter in stark distinction to the monastic schools of the day.
A particularly telling incident occurred during his visit ("crusade") to Jerusalem eight years later,
when Muslims devout in their faith were scandalized by Frederick's apparent lack of piety or seriousness in the
practice of his own.
The Sixth Crusade itself was pacific. While the rule of Jerusalem was largely a
political question, it seems clear that Frederick the crusader didn't consider religious differences
worth killing over.
Medieval politics and personalities were nothing if not complex, but
Frederick's reaction to excommunication merits mention in any record of
cavalier indifference or sheer chutzpah by a medieval monarch. One imagines
that even England's cynical Henry II would have taken the mere threat of
excommunication or interdict far more seriously than Frederick did.
But perhaps the greatest indication of Frederick's reliance on ethical
principles rooted in something other than religious belief is his legal
code, the Constitutions of Melfi, for here we find
ideas more suited to the Age of Enlightenment than to the High Middle Ages.
Though the influences of the Judaeo-Christian ethos and firmly-established precedents on Frederick's law are
by no means absent, certain ideas clearly reflect a belief in humanistic
"natural law" rather than a fixed moral code emanating from Rome
or Constantinople that one would expect of thirteenth century legislation.
While recognizing heresy as a crime, Frederick places full legal authority with
the Crown in all matters civil, criminal and ecclesiastical, barely even mentioning
the Papacy or its pretensions to any authority whatsoever.
The Constitutions addressed such matters as protection of the environment
from hazardous materials, the manner in which divorce was permitted, the
rights of women against rape, the rights of young children, and the equal
right of a woman to inherit her father's property in the absence of male
heirs. All of this has a very modern ring to it.
Today we take these legal guarantees for granted, but for a long time
they were considered exceptional, even bizarre, and in Italy most of them
did not survive into the fourteenth century and the Inquisition. Only in
1973 did Italy legalize divorce, so in some ways Frederick's subjects enjoyed
more rights in 1231 than their descendants did over seven hundred years later.
The same can be said of the right to a speedy trial, an important feature of Frederick's
Constitutions (and England's Magna Carta a few years earlier), but a
principle which is still seeking to find its way into Italian civil and criminal law.
Scholars debate the meaning of the passage on capital punishment, which
may actually refer to loss of citizenship rather than to execution. More
explicitly, judicial conflict of interest is outlawed in a statute establishing
that circuit judges can not hear cases in territories where they hold land.
Frederick's ideals would not have seemed out of place to the enlightened
deists who influenced early law in the United States. Was Frederick also a deist?
It is quite possible.
The definitive biography of Frederick II is David Abulafia's Frederick II - A Medieval Emperor.
About the Author: Luigi Mendola has written for various publications. The
comment by Matthew Festing was quoted in The Times (London) on 11 March 2008 in Knights of Malta elect
Englishman as new leader by Richard Owen.