Book Review: Frederick Barbarossa
by John B. Freed
Yale University Press, 2016
Emeritus history professor John Freed is certainly correct in estimating that Frederick Barbarossa, the 12th-century German king and Holy Roman Emperor who’s the subject of his massive new book, is today remembered mainly as the namesake of the mad military gamble that cost Nazi Germany the Second World War: Hitler named his invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 “Operation Barbarossa,” fired by the hyper-sentimentalized place Frederick had as one of the greatest German kings and warriors in the entire fractious history of the country. Frederick loomed like a colossus in that national mythology, a combination of Goliath and King Arthur, a guardian of the Fatherland.
That legendizing – and the vilifying that always accompanies it – was well under way even in Frederick’s lifetime and was only strengthened by his comic-bookish attributes, his size, his ferocity, his attempts to be fair to his own people, his ability to affect political and social directness even while he was ceaselessly maneuvering behind the scenes, his unfailing instinct for the grand public gesture, his near-constant warring, and perhaps most of all his abrupt and totally unexpected death by drowning in June of 1190 while on Crusade. Frederick was the ceaselessly-agitating powerhouse at the center of a vast web of family and feudal connections stretching across all of Europe and beyond, and the bewildering complexity of the whole subject might account for the relative scarcity of English-language biographies of this figure.
All this makes the appearance of Freed’s enormous new book, Frederick Barbarossa: The Prince and the Myth, all the more welcome. For Freed, Frederick is “first and foremost a 12th-century German prince,” and Freed has sifted through mountains of documents, including many never before worked to such extensive effect. “The real Frederick,” Freed writes, “was an illiterate, courageous, often violent and cruel prince and a man with enormous stamina, ready to avenge every slight to his honor” – and Freed’s book is by far the best biography of that real Frederick that’s ever been written.
Freed of course leans parts of his account on The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa, the remarkably readable book written about Frederick by his uncle Otto of Freising (why there’s been no readily-accessible paperback edition of Uncle Otto’s book is difficult to understand). Otto is naturally a cheerleader, but Freed very refreshingly believes him whenever there’s no reason not to, as in the central characteristic of the man, ceaseless brute violence:
Frederick showed throughout his life great personal courage in combat. Oto said that in the battle that ended with the capture of Spoleto on 27 July 1155, one month into Frederick’s imperial reign, “none fought more energetically than the prince, no one, not even a common knight, was quicker to take up arms, no professional soldier was more ready than he to undergo dangers.”
Frederick took power in Germany in 1152 and became Holy Roman Emperor in 1155, and much like his contemporary King Henry II of England, his reign was characterized by both enormous, manic energy and an almost compulsive antagonistic edge to his relationship with the Papacy (indeed, Freed calls the 1177 concord that finally forced Frederick to acknowledge Alexander III as Pope “the first international peace conference in European history”). Freed’s chapter on the Third Crusade, coming of course as the conclusion to his story, is the narrative high point of the book.
This is the doorstop biography Frederick Barbarossa has always deserved, an account that, as Freed puts it, uncovers the prince beneath the myth. In the process, the book also gives a highly-charged a portrait of the wild animal show that was 12th-century kingship.