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The life and afterlife of a legendary German monarch

Frederick Barbarossa: The Prince and the Myth - John B. Freed

The German emperor Frederick Barbarossa is often ranked with the English king Henry II as one of the two great monarchs of 12th century Europe. Yet unlike his English counterpart, who has been the subject of numerous academic studies and popular works, the number of English-language biographies that have been written about Frederick have been surprisingly few. John Freed fills the void with this massive new study, a detailed look at Frederick's life based upon the available sources that seeks to address not just Frederick's long reign but how he emerged posthumously as a symbol of German nationalism.


Though born a member of the Staufen dynasty, Freed argues that Frederick's illiteracy indicates that his assumption of the imperial throne was unexpected, Though unprepared for such a role, Frederick assumed it upon the death in 1152 of his uncle Conrad III. The position he assumed was weak, with the main source of wealth being the communes of northern Italy. During the first two decades of his reign Frederick spent many years engaged in a series of campaigns designed to bring the recalcitrant communes to heel, only for his hopes to be dashed with his defeat at the battle of Legnano in 1174. Yet the failed efforts brought with them a silver lining, as the death of so many German nobles in his campaigns brought Frederick an opportunity to expand his power base in Germany, which he did with a measure of success. Dying while on the Third Crusade in 1190, Freed sees his demise abroad as key to his historical image, as Frederick was transformed in the centuries that followed into a legendary "sleeping hero" whose reemergence tied to the idea of a unified Germany.


Freed's book offers a thorough account of Frederick's life, one that is likely to serve as the standard biography of the emperor for years to come. Yet it suffers from two flaws that keep it from being the definitive study Frederick deserves. The first is a lack of context, for while Freed devotes considerable space to describing the dynastic issues surrounding Frederick's rise he treats the reader's knowledge of the 12th century German polity as assumed, which is a serious mistake given the complexity of the subject. The second issue is more compositional, as Freed's text can often be a dense thicket of names into which the reader must wade to learn about the subject. For those who do, however, they are likely to be rewarded with a deeper understanding of a complicated monarch and his influential but misleading iconography.