Stupor Mundi and the Sixth Crusade, 1229

While the Mongols were trampling Central Asia, life went on as before for the European West and the Middle East. During the years of Temujin’s rise, Europe was focused on the young King of Sicily and Germany, who had finally received the titles King of the Romans and Holy Roman Emperor, in 1220. Frederick II was supposed to be the ultimate Crusader, the one who’d finally win back Jerusalem. He sat out the Fifth Crusade, but by 1229 he was ready to act.

First, a bit about Frederick. He was descended from Charlemagne’s line on his father’s side; his grandfather was the Crusader Emperor who drowned when his horse slipped in a Turkish river. On his mother’s side, he combined two lines of descent: the Normans who conquered Sicily and the Counts of Rethel who were the ancestors and relatives of the Jerusalem royal family. His mother Constance raised him in Sicily, since his German father had died. Frederick had green eyes and red hair; he was King of Sicily from the age of 3. In his time, it was a powerful empire that included much of southern Italy.

Young Frederick spoke Sicilian Italian and his mother’s Norman French; he also learned Arabic on the streets of Palermo. Someone taught him German. His tutor Cencio, who was from Rome, educated him in Latin and Greek. He studied mathematics with Arabic numbers and later sponsored the work of Fibonacci, an Italian mathematician whose work Liber Abaci re-introduced decimal numbers to Europe. He was also stubborn and strong-willed, skeptical and irreligious. He was an avid falconer all his life.

Frederick’s nickname around Europe was “Stupor Mundi,” or the World Wonder. When his tutor became Pope Honorius, he didn’t soften his battles against the Papacy. Chiefly at stake was that he wanted to keep both inheritances, his native Sicily and his father’s Germany. His mother married him at 14 to the widowed Queen of Hungary, who was also a Princess of Aragon. This sophisticated young woman could be regent of Sicily while he battled to regain power in Germany, and she had one son. However, she died two years after they were jointly crowned Holy Roman Emperor/Empress.

In 1225, Frederick added a new title: King of Jerusalem. He married the teenage Queen of Jerusalem, called Yolanda but “reigning” as Isabella II. Born in Sicily, she had never been to the Holy Land, nor did she go now. She stayed behind in Palermo and died in 1228 while giving birth to a son. But in the meantime, Frederick had taken on her inheritance rights and shortly after their son was born, he set out for Acre. He was in a state of excommunication at the time, but he just didn’t care.

Frederick’s arrival in Acre was the Sixth Crusade. It’s very odd that historians gave him the official number, since the next Crusade is just called the Barons’ Crusade without a number. They probably accorded his effort the numbered title not because of any military success, but because he negotiated with Sultan al-Kamil of Egypt and just made a deal to get back rule of Jerusalem for a ten year period. That was the Sixth Crusade, right there.

During the negotiations, Frederick was the invited guest of al-Kamil in Jerusalem, where he was able to chat in Arabic. He made a point of staying overnight so that he could hear the muezzin’s call in the morning. ¬†Al-Kamil was still warring with relatives in the cities of Syria and the last thing he wanted was another battle front. It was clearly in his interests to negotiate with Frederick. So while the process took five months, in the end they agreed that Latin rule under Frederick would resume in an unfortified Jerusalem, and it would include Bethlehem and Nazareth, but not the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Because Frederick was still under excommunication, the Latin bishop refused to crown him, so he set the crown on his own head. His wife had died and the infant Conrad II was in Sicily, but Frederick didn’t care. He didn’t care, either, that the city was in a state of Latin civil war as his agents and the remaining Crusader lords of the Holy Land could not work together.

Frederick returned to his European lands and had many adventures: wars against the Papacy, wars against another branch of the German ruling family (the Guelphs or Welfs), wars in Lombardy. Frederick hunted with falcons, wrote poetry, and carried out shocking scientific experiments on human beings. It takes a World Wonder to be arrogant enough to do things like raising a baby in complete silence to find out what language Adam and Eve spoke.

Did he really do this? A Franciscan friar who wrote the main records of this time and place claimed that he did this and more: trapped a man in a cask to see if his soul could be seen coming out of the bung hole when he died, or cutting men open to see whose food had been digested better. But it’s possible the friar was making things up. Frederick was an agnostic at best and often at war with Rome; it was in the church’s interests for Frederick to be seen as shockingly immoral.

Frederick did his best to be seen as shockingly immoral, too. He married again, this time choosing a sister of the King of England. She arrived in Germany to find that the Emperor had set up a Muslim-style harem at the palace in Worms. He seems to have followed the Ayyubid style of using African eunuchs as caretakers of the women bought at Middle Eastern slave markets. He added the Princess of England to his harem; she was crowned King and Empress, but her daily life was not at all like other queens’. She didn’t rule or sit with him, she was not prepped to take up the role of regent as other queens were. I suppose Frederick had gotten used to his wives being far away or dead; he didn’t want the usual royal family life, and as Stupor Mundi, he stood up to all peer pressure to be normal. The Pope could excommunicate him again, what of it?

Young Conrad, King of Jerusalem, came to Germany when he was about eight, and his father made him Duke of Swabia in place of older brother Henry who had rebelled. Conrad ruled the Sicilian-German empire after Frederick’s death in 1250. Conrad passed the Jerusalem title down to his son Conradin, who died without issue. The by-then-meaningless title was bounced back to the nearest branch of his relatives, the Lusignan family of Cyprus.


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