History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

According to legend, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who was intelligent (spoke six languages) and influential, also purportedly used cold-blooded methods to further his "scientific" inquiries. According to the Wikipedia entry:

[Frederick] was also alleged to have carried out a number of experiments on people. These experiments were recorded by the monk Salimbene di Adam (who despised Frederick) in his Chronicles. Amongst the experiments included shutting a prisoner up in a cask to see if the soul could be observed escaping though a hole in the cask when the prisoner died; feeding two prisoners, sending one out to hunt and the other to bed and then have them disemboweled to see which had digested their meal better; imprisoning children without any contact to see if they would develop a natural language.

I've read this elsewhere long ago, and as there isn't too much information about Frederick, I'm wondering if anyone can point to a definitive source. Certainly Salimbene di Adam might have had an axe to grind, but the consistency of the accounts makes them seem believable and, given the character of Frederick (his belief in reason, his winning of Jerusalem by treaty rather than by war), which points to an unconventional mind that was unhobbled by conventional restraints.

Can anyone clarify this issue? Was Frederick a real monster or someone who had been given the 13th century version of a swift-boating by the Church he defied?

share|improve this question
If you're going to question a narrative, please provide a reason why.. You've cited one source, and then invoked Godwin's law. Is there a reason you doubt the source/narrative? If you're just looking to confirm or deny the existing narrative, the hyperbolic references to Nazi's undermine your question. – Mark C. Wallace Jan 14 at 13:14
@MarkC.Wallace: The narrative is already in question. That second sentence in the Wikipedia quote alludes to it, and every time I have encountered the reference it has been cast into doubt even as it is being put forth. Now, what exactly is hyperbolic about my reference (singular) to a single Nazi? If the "experiments" Frederick had carried out were fairly recorded, they would certainly be tantamount to the kind of soulless cruelty Mengele practiced, so any reference to such deeds would be facts, not exaggerations, and drawing a comparison between the two figures would not be invidious at all. – Robusto Jan 14 at 14:12
up vote 3 down vote accepted

I found a number of various sources that had different versions of the examples you provided from Wikipedia. For example, one story claimed that he put a number of prisoners in an airtight room and then once he was certain they had suffocated, he had the door opened very slowly so that he could observe whether or not their souls could be seen escaping the room. With the experiment on infant children, each example I found stated that the mothers were instructed to not speak or show any form of expression towards the children so that he could see if they would develop natural speech on their own. There were different views on whether the experiment involved two, three, or possibly more children, but all sources agreed that each of the children died before developing any speech patterns.

Perhaps the best answer to this came from a Lecture in Medieval History:

Not all of his scientific bent was exercised [in] such unacceptionable ways; he often engaged in bizarre physical experiments. With Frederick one never knows whether what one reads in sources from the period is an honest attempt to tell the truth about him, a fantastic bit of gossip, or a downright lie.

share|improve this answer
Interesting. The man sounds like a very dangerous figure -- somewhat intelligent, wielding huge power, yet so evil. Still, one wonders whether things were exaggerated somewhat here. – Noldorin Oct 28 '11 at 16:35

There is a strong probability that the stories about his experiments were lies circulated by his enemies. The story about the child experiment has also been told about other historical characters, for example. I suppose that the story tellers considered him to be evil not so much for harming people cruelty but for questioning and experimenting with topics were were part of religion.

share|improve this answer
This would be a stronger answer if you quoted some sources to support your argument. – Steve Bird Jan 14 at 6:21

Frederick II. was in opposition to the popes. Stories presenting him in bad light are nowadays attributed to the popes' propaganda.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.