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Was Frederick II an Atheist?
by Luigi Mendola

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About Frederick II.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.

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