Friday 18 November 2011

Read in 2011 - 26: Friedrich II.

Friedrich II. (born 1196, died 1250) is someone I have been fascinated with since my teenage years, when I first read a biography of him. For Christmas 1985 (I was 17 then), my parents gave me a historic novel (much more a history book than a novel, really, since everything was well researched and based on facts) about Friedrich. Only 3 months before, I had travelled rather extensively on Sicily and seen for myself many of the places where Friedrich lived, and I had stood at his tomb in the cathedral of Palermo (I have written about that here).
More than 25 years later, in the literature section of my weekly newspaper, the ZEIT, was a short article about a new Friedrich biography. Since I still had a gift certificate for one of the book shops in my town, I decided to use it on that biography:  "Friedrich II." by Olaf B. Rader.

It would be too much to go into all the detail here of Friedrich's life and death and the times he lived in; for a summary, you can go to the wikipedia article about him.

Professor Rader did, in my opinion, a very good job in that he does not simply repeat what others had written before him (and believe me, a great deal has been written about Friedrich!) but he puts the contrasting descriptions, legends and myths that started to form even while the man himself was still alive in context with what we actually do know as historically secure information.
A lot of the legends are explained that way; not much different from today's journalism, the "facts" presented about a certain topic, a person or a country dipend very much from the writer's perspective and opinion.

The book is non-fiction, but written so well and entertaining it is not boring for a second. There are illustrations and a map at the end as well as a very useful family tree - with so many Friedrichs and Heinrichs and the succession of wives "our" Friedrich had, it is easy to get confused.
Equally useful is the timeline at the end of the book.

The author looks at Friedrich's life not just from one angle, but scrutinizes his subject under various aspects such as "The Seafarer", "The Lover", "The Poet", "The Tyrant", "The Antichrist", "The Emperor", "The Falconer" and many more. The picture that emerges is that of a highly complex character who lived and ruled in a very complex environment - certainly not an easy life, in spite of all the wealth, and also certainly never boring.

I learnt some (to me) astonishing things about how the administration of an empire and the royal court was organised in the Middle Ages, and how advanced some of the ideas back then were.

This was a book I do not regret having spent a gift certificate on - I am definitely going to read it again at some stage.


  1. Hello:
    It is so refreshing when one discovers a book about a favourite subject but handled from an entirely new perspective. As you say, quite a challenge when the subject is so very well known and about whom much has been written. We must confess that the life of Friedrich is an empty page to us and we could easily imagine that this new biography might well intrigue us to find out more.

  2. Not a subject I know anything about but I echo Jane and Lance in saying how refreshing it is when one finds a new book on a favourite subject. I have a passion for Richard III (of England) and enjoy new books about him - both fiction and non-fiction.

  3. It is always nice when you find a new book on a subject you're interested in. I would wonder how much we can understand anyone from the 13th century, though, as it was such a different world.

  4. Jane and Lance, Friedrich's life is well worth examining, since a lot of what was done and decided back then still reflects on today's political and cultural landscape in Europe.

    Scriptor, the nearest I ever got to Richard III was visiting a restaurant of the same name in Scarborough; I hardly know anything about him. Are you going to write about him in your blog some time?

    Jenny, in many ways, the world back then was indeed completely different from ours, but there were also some rather surprising similarities to our times. What makes it difficult to understand how people thought and felt back then is the lack of testimonials; there is hardly any personal and honest writing left from those days, only the highly embellished and pompous official documents. If in several hundred years a historian read any of our official documents, state laws or rules set up by a town council, for instance, they would hardly get a glimpse into what was really on people's minds.