The Medieval Review 11.10.29

Bressler, Richard. Frederick II: The Wonder of the World. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, LLC, 2010. Pp. 205. $26. ISBN 978-1-59416-109-4. . .

Reviewed by:

Chris Jones
University of Canterbury

The Emperor Frederick II has long proved a source of fascination to both writers of history and the wider public. Amongst the former, it was one of Frederick's contemporaries, the English Benedictine Matthew Paris, who coined the well-known phrase that forms the subtitle to Richard Bressler's new biography. While Bressler is by no means the first to employ one of Matthew's descriptions as part of a book title, unlike Matthew and some subsequent biographers, he largely manages to avoid what Suzanne Lewis characterised in Matthew's case as "inflated tones of awestruck admiration." [1] This is a generally sober biography. It is also one written without academic pretensions.

Richard Bressler describes himself as "an avid reader of medieval European history" (xv). His dust jacket adds that he is a graduate of Lawrence University and recently retired after thirty-three years' service as a financial professional (or, according to his publisher's website, after the same period employed by the U. S. Government). Bressler makes no claims that his biography offers innovative interpretations or uncovers new facts about Frederick's reign, and takes care to stress his debt to earlier work.[2] It is, perhaps, an awareness of the potential criticisms professional historians are sometimes inclined to level at works of popular history that lies behind Bressler's emphasis at the outset that he is not seeking to compete with academic biographies. Instead, his aim is "to provide a less-annotated, more-condensed version of [Frederick's] life for the general reader in order to bring this fascinating personality to a larger audience" (xv-xvi). Leaving aside the fact that neither Georgina Masson's biography, nor the most recent scholarly account of the reign in English by David Abulafia contains much by way of annotation, it would be very easy to criticise Bressler's approach. An academic biographer would doubtless, for example, wish to engage with the many arguments that might be marshalled against the idea that it is possible to reconstruct medieval personalities even if, ultimately, they then chose to dismiss them. Without overlooking what are, from an academic perspective, problems, it seems, however, important to assess this book on its own terms. Does, in other words, Bressler provide the general reader with a clear, engaging and essentially sound account of Frederick's reign?

Bressler's opening chapter traces Frederick's Hohenstaufen and Hauteville inheritance back into the twelfth century. This approach is somewhat reminiscent of the first part of David Abulafia's account, albeit Bressler's version is highly compressed by comparison. More generally, Abulafia's work seems to have left its mark upon this book. Although Bressler makes attempts to restore, albeit cautiously, some of the uniqueness that Abulafia sought to strip from the emperor, it is Abulafia's Frederick, the conservative pragmatist, who dominates this portrait. Frederick is depicted, as he almost certainly was, as a man content to govern as an autocrat in Sicily but to rule loosely in the German lands of the Empire. For all that, however, Bressler does tend to rather overlook Abulafia's important argument that for Frederick what really mattered were dynastic concerns. [3]

In eleven chapters of workmanlike prose Bressler provides a largely straightforward, chronological account of Frederick's life. There are some sidesteps within these chapters that discuss topics such as justice ("Frederick as Lawmaker", 94-98) and finance ("Matters of Finance", 98-105), but the only major departure from the model is chapter seven, "Personality, Family, and Interests". This latter is probably the most engaging part of the book, providing a lively overview of the emperor's patronage of art, architecture and science. Particular time is, rightly, devoted to Frederick's interest in hunting, and to his own contribution to ornithology, De arte venandi cum avibus (123-30).

Bressler's biography is generally accessible and straightforward, if, on occasion, slightly repetitive. One of its strengths lays in the author's attempt to place Frederick in a wider context. Bressler highlights, for example, that Frederick's military efforts were hindered, like those of other Europeans, by an inability to conduct efficient sieges. In doing so he draws a striking comparison with medieval China (190). It is also useful to be reminded that Frederick's fate--indeed that of Europe as a whole-- was to some extent decided by the far off events that brought an end to Mongol incursions into Europe in 1241 (165). Bressler's terminology, on the other hand, and in particular his use of the word "sources", is potentially confusing. For example, his comment that "[o]ne source states that Frederick had been a pupil of Cencio's in his younger days, but that does not appear in any of the other sources" (61), appears to be a reference not to chronicles or documents, as historians would normally take the term "sources" to imply, but to the biographies written by modern historians. Bressler has employed Dante's Divine Comedy, his Monarchy and Frederick's own book on birds in English translation, but, beyond these, his acquaintance with the primary sources is second hand. A minor rephrasing that replaced the word "sources" with "modern biographers" would resolve any confusion in the majority of cases. Beyond this, the other phrasings that may irritate professional historians are anachronistic tendencies to refer to the "Vatican" or to Frederick himself as a "Roman Catholic" (see, for example: xvii, 11). While such terms may make the book slightly more accessible to the non-academic reader, they are more misleading than they are helpful. More positively, the general reader is likely to find the list of "Principal Persons" that prefaces the book a useful point of reference (ix-xiii). This might have been improved by the inclusion of slightly more detailed biographies but it does serve a useful function in assisting a reader unfamiliar with the period in distinguishing between the many individuals called "Constance," "Richard" or "Otto" who perennially crop up in any account of the thirteenth century. Similarly, although again more might have been done in this area, Bressler does provide the reader with some sense of how historians have viewed Frederick. He notes, for example, the generally negative interpretation of generations of German scholars (188).

The book contains very few typos. "Palermo" is misspelled on one of the generally useful and informative maps (31) and, while Frederick's second wife appears as "Isabella" in the text, she is "Isabel" in an image caption (71). The antipope Anacletus II is unfortunately mislabelled "Analectus" throughout. More substantially, there are a number of points in the book where Bressler's interpretations might be questioned. His explanation of the term ministeriales as simply "ministers" is, for example, misleading (7). This is one area where the author would have benefited from reading somewhat more widely in the secondary literature on medieval Germany. Wider reading may also have led Bressler to revise a rather peculiar description of the Salian emperor Henry V as the "first Hohenstaufen emperor" (3). While Bressler is undoubtedly correct to highlight the importance of certain events in Frederick's life, such as the emperor's decision to take a crusading vow (53), a broader knowledge of the historiography would also have assisted him in addressing topics such as the relationship between the "Roman Empire" and its medieval incarnation, the "Holy Roman Empire". Bressler's view that there was a clear distinction between the two institutions rather distorts the medieval perspective that one was the continuation of the other. See, for example, the comment: "This may have been the beginning of [Frederick's] conviction that he was the successor to the Roman (not Holy Roman) emperors..." (51; see also 144). Equally, a broader familiarity with the secondary literature might have led Bressler to reconsider his view that Pope Innocent III's efforts to unseat Markward of Anweiler did not constitute a crusade (30). Bressler assumes that the nature of a "crusade" in the early thirteenth century can be determined with rather more precision than is probably the case. As Abulafia suggests, the actions taken against Markward seem to have been viewed as involving the traditional elements associated with holy war. [4]

While Bressler's Frederick II is engaging and offers the non-academic reader a useful overview of the reign, many of the topics discussed would have benefited from a willingness on the part of its author to go beyond the standard English biographies of Frederick. Setting aside the extensive work in German, including the recent two-volume account of the reign by Wolfgang Stürner, there are many journal articles and broader studies in English that might have assisted Bressler in contextualising and developing aspects of his portrait of the emperor. [5] As a consequence, while this is certainly not the "very dreary foot-slog through the reign" that Abulafia once memorably labelled van Cleve's work, nor is it a book that one can recommend whole-heartedly as a general introduction to Frederick. [6]. I would still unhesitatingly recommend undergraduates--or those with some knowledge of the Middle Ages--make Abulafia's work, despite its length, their starting point. On the other hand, despite Bressler's occasionally questionable assessments of Frederick as having "laid the foundation" for the Renaissance (197) or as a "forerunner" of the Reformation (194), I might well recommend his account to someone with no detailed knowledge of the Middle Ages, and who had simply expressed an interest in knowing more about Frederick and the period. While some points of interpretation and style are, from a professional historian's perspective, problematic, these are not enough to detract from what is a broadly accurate and clear account. Readers of this book will not, in other words, obtain a distorted or misleading picture of the Middle Ages. They are far more likely to want to know more about the period. For that fact alone historians should doubtless thank Richard Bressler. While many historians continue to choose to abandon the field of popular history, focusing instead on the scholarly monograph, journal article and textbook, it is to be hoped that the void is filled by books of a quality equal to this one. [7].



1. Suzanne Lewis, The Art of Matthew Paris in the Chronica Majora (Berkeley & Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1987), p. 269.

2. Bressler is, as he acknowledges, reliant on four works in particular: David Abulafia, Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor (London: Allen Lane, 1988); Ernst Kantorowicz, Frederick the Second, 1194-1250, trans. by E. O. Lorimer (London: Constable, 1931); Georgina Masson, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen: A Life (London: Secker & Warburg, 1957); T. C. van Cleve, The Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen: Immutator mundi (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972).

3. Compare Bressler's statement, "[Frederick] did not consider himself a German but a Sicilian" (54), with Abulafia's comment: "He was not a Sicilian, nor a Roman, nor a German, nor a mélange of Teuton and Latin, still less a semi-Muslim: he was a Hohenstaufen and a Hauteville.": Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor, rev. edn (London: Pimlico, 1992), p. 439.

4. Abulafia, Frederick II, rev. edn, pp. 97-99.

5. Wolfgang Stürner, Friedrich II., I: Die Königsherrschaft in Sizilien und Deutschland 1194-1220 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1992); Friedrich II., II: Der Kaiser 1220-1250 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2000). An important work that would have enabled consideration of how Frederick was viewed by his contemporaries is Andrea Sommerlechner, Stupor mundi? Kaiser Friedrich II. und die mittelalterliche Geschichtsschreibung (Vienna: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1999). Bressler's exploration of Frederick's treatment of the Muslim population, might, for example, have benefited from employing: J. P. Lomax, "Frederick II, his Saracens and the Papacy," in Medieval Christian Perceptions of Islam, ed. by J. V. Tolan (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000); J. M. Powell, "Frederick II and the Muslims: The Making of an Historiographical Tradition," in Iberia and the Mediterranean World of the Middle Ages, I: Studies in Honor of Robert I. Burns, ed. by L. J. Simon (Leiden: Brill, 1995) and J. A. Taylor, "Lucera Sarracenorum: A Muslim Colony in medieval Christian Europe," Nottingham Medieval Studies, 43 (1999). Amongst the many other works Bressler might have consulted profitably, his seventh chapter would, in particular, have benefited from consideration of Intellectual Life at the Court of Frederick II Hohenstaufen, ed. by W. Tronzo (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1994).

6. Abulafia, Frederick II, rev. edn, p. 436.

7. This review was written shortly before the publication of a substantial new biography of Frederick. This latter has been written with a broad audience in mind: Richard F. Cassady, The Emperor and the Saint: Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, Francis of Assisi, and Journeys to Medieval Places, foreword by John Julius Norwich (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011).