Salimbene: On Frederick II, 13th Century
From the Chronicle of Salimbene, thirteenth-century Italian Franciscan, as translated and paraphrased by G. Coulton
To Salimbene, as to Dante, Frederick was a man of heroic proportions in his very sins. "Of faith in God he had none; he was crafty, wily, avaricious, lustful, malicious, wrathful; and yet a gallant man times, when he would show his kindness or courtesy; full of solace jocund, delightful, fertile in devices. He knew to read, write, and sing, to make songs and music. He was a comely man, and we formed, but of middle stature. I have seen him, and once I loved him, for on my behalf he wrote to Bro. Elias, Minister-General of the Friars Minor, to send me back to my father. Moreover, he knew to speak with many and varied tongues, and, to be brief, if he had been rightly Catholic, and had loved God and His Church, he would have had few emperors his equals in the world."
[Salimbene] goes on to enumerate several specimens of the Emperor's "curiosities" or "excesses," though for sheer weariness he will not tell them all. Frederick cut off a notary's thumb who had spelt his name Fredericus instead of Fridericus. Like Psammetichus in Herodotus, he made linguistic experiments on the vile bodies of hapless infants, "bidding foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the chidren, but in no wise to prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would speak the Hebrew language (which had been the first), or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been born. But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments. "
Again, "when he saw the Holy Land, (which God had so oft-times commended as a land flowing with milk and honey and most excellent above all lands,) it pleased him not, and he said that if the God of the Jews had seen his land of Terra di Lavoro, Calabria, Sicily, and Apulia, then He would not so have commended the land which He promised to the Jews."
Again, he compelled "Nicholas the Fish," whom his mother's curse had condemned to an amphibious life, to dive and fetch his golden cup a second time from the very bottom of Charybdis: in which repeated attempt the poor man knew that he must perish. Fifthly, "he enclosed a living man in a cask that he might die there, wishing thereby to show that the soul perished utterly, as if he might say the word of Isaiah 'Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.' For he was an Epicurean; wherefore, partly of himself and partly through his wise men, he sought out all that he could find in Holy Scripture which might make for the proof that there was no other life after death, as for instance 'Thou shalt destroy them, and not build them up': and again 'Their sepulchres shall be their houses for ever.'
Sixthly, he fed two men most excellently at dinner, one of whom he sent forthwith to sleep, and the other to hunt; and that same evening he caused them to be disembowelled in his presence, wishing to know which had digested the better: and it was judged by the physicians in favour of him who had slept. '
Seventhly and lastly, being one day in his palace, he asked Michael Scot the astrologer how far he was from the sky, and Michael having answered as it seemed to him, the Emperor took him to other parts of his kingdom as if for a journey of pleasure, and kept him there several months, bidding meanwhile his architects and carpenters secretly to lower the whole of his palace hall. Many days afterwards, standing in that same palace with Michael, he asked of him, as if by the way, whether he were indeed so far from the sky as he had before said. Whereupon he made his calculations, and made answer that certainly either the sky had been raised or the earth lowered; and then the Emperor knew that he spake truth."
Yet Salimbene is careful to note that Frederick's cruelties might justly be excused by the multitude of his open and secret enemies, and that he had a saying sense of humour. "He was wont at times to make mocking harangues before his court in his own palace, speaking for example after the fashion of the Cremonese ambassadors," at whose tediousness and outward flourishes our good friar laughs again later on. "Moreover, he would suffer patiently the scoffings, and mockings and revilings of jesters, and often feign that he heard not. For one day, after the destruction of Victoria by the men of Parma, he smote his hand on the hump of a certain jester, saying 'My Lord Dallio, when shall this box be opened?' to whom the other answered, ' 'Tis odds if it be ever opened now, for I lost the key in Victoria.' The Emperor, hearing how this jester recalled his own sorrow and shame, groaned and said, with the Psalmist, 'I was troubled, and I spoke not.' If any had spoken such a jest against Ezzelino da Romano, he would without doubt have let him be blinded or hanged. . .
From G. G. Coulton, St. Francis to Dante, (London: David Nutt, 1906), pp. 242-43
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(c)Paul Halsall Jan 1996