Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Emperor and the Saint

The Wall Street Journal reviews a new book called The Emperor and the Saint by Richard F. Cassady. To quote:
The lives of Frederick II and St. Francis of Assisi overlapped for some three decades in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, but the Holy Roman Emperor and the founder of the Franciscan Order never met. If the two men ever thought about each other, those thoughts are not recorded. The men's interests and destinies were poles apart.

Frederick was a worldly polymath and one of the most powerful and ruthless rulers of his time: German emperor, king of southern Italy and Sicily, and nominally king of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. "Stupor Mundi" (the "wonder of the world") is what a contemporary chronicler called him, and the label has stuck. By comparison, Francis was a reclusive visionary with little understanding of the world and no desire to acquire more. His posthumous reputation is due mainly to the very beautiful legends crafted by his companions and to the achievements of the Franciscans after his death.

If mismatched in history, Frederick and Francis are paired by Richard F. Cassady in "The Emperor and the Saint," a book that seems intended as both dual biography and a touring guide to places associated with the men. Mr. Cassady devotes about 10 times as much space to Frederick as he does to Francis, which is probably fair enough. But the switch from one life to the other can still come as a shock, a bit like advertisements interrupting a movie. And the appearance of the touring-guide mode is even more abrupt—usually announced with some artifice such as "It is pleasant to think that Frederick might have stopped off at X" (in fact, he took another route) or Francis "would not have seen Y" (because he never went there or it was built only after his death).

Yet there is a certain poetry in the juxtaposition of these two very different lives. Frederick II was the last of a line, not just dynastically but in a broader and more important sense. He was the last Holy Roman Emperor of the medieval period to try to unite Germany and Italy in one realm and one of the last to entertain a truly international vision of his office. Charlemagne, the ninth-century founder of the empire, had envisaged a universal monarchy for European Christendom and perhaps for all Christendom—the successor of Imperial Rome. Frederick II lived this myth. (Read entire review.)

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