Book Review: The Falconer June 11 2017
In Waldorf schools, history is taught largely through the medium of biography. The life stories of individual human beings, famous and not so famous, good and not so good, are told by the teacher or read in books. Each life, interesting in itself, illuminates the events and conditions of the time in which the person lived.
The thirteenth century was a remarkable period in Europe. The Holy Roman Empire—notable for being neither holy, Roman, nor an empire—included much of present-day Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic, eastern France, and northern and southern Italy. The Roman Catholic Church, believed by most people to hold the keys to the kingdom of Heaven, was very rich and powerful. The pope, both a temporal and spiritual ruler, controlled central Italy, and was often at odds with the rulers of the empire. This was the time of the building of many great cathedrals and of Francis of Assisi—who, by example, tried to call Christians to a life of virtue, piety, and simplicity. In southern France, the Cathars and Albigensians, deemed heretical by the Church, challenged its dogmas and worldliness and were eventually destroyed by the pope and his allies.
This was a time of struggle also between the Christian and the Muslim worlds. The Saracens still controlled parts of Spain and Italy, but their presence and rule was constantly being challenged by Christian armies. Christian knights, urged on by the pope, periodically launched crusades to wrest control of the Holy Land from the Muslims. In some parts of the Mediterranean world, however, Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together in peace and mutual tolerance.
The Falconer tells the story of Friedrich II of Hohenstaufen (1194-1250). Born and raised in Italy, the son of a German king and a Norman princess, Frederick Federico—believed himself chosen by God to rule. As a youth of eighteen, he led an army from southern Italy into Germany to establish himself as king and in 1220 was elected emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. His entire reign was characterized by struggles with the popes and the Church. At one point, Federico was excommunicated for refusing to launch a crusade and then excommunicated again for—as a non-Christian destined for Hell—launching a crusade.
Federico was a many-talented, dynamic person with wide interests and was in many ways a visionary. He was a free thinker who rejected the strict dogmas of the Church. He gathered in his court Christian, Jewish, and Muslim philosophers, theologians, scholars, mathematicians, poets, and musicians. He sought wisdom and insight into the mysteries of life from every quarter. According to legend, Federico met Saint Francis of Assisi and—after unsuccessfully tempting him with a dancing girl—became close friends with him. After defeating the Saracens in Sicily. Federico made Saracen knights his personal attendants and bodyguards. He had a deep respect for Muslim culture and learning.
Federico was deeply interested in the world of nature and carried on a lifelong study of birds, particularly of the art of falconry. He wrote and illustrated a book on this method of hunting.
As a ruler, Federico was active and innovative. He enlarged the harbors of his kingdom and established a navy and fleet of merchant vessels. He brought trade under state control and created state monopolies for certain products. He established a civil service and founded the first European state university, in Naples in 1224. Federico also founded one of Europe's first medical schools. He instituted a clear legal system in his domains and put in place a rule of law under which all persons enjoyed equal rights.
At the time of his unexpected death, Federico was seen either as an Antichrist or a savior. A legend circulated in Germany that he was encapsulated in a mountain and would return as a latter-day emperor to punish the worldly Church and bring universal peace and harmony. The Falconer presents Federico's life and times in a clear and engaging manner. It draws the reader into Federico's world, a world where travel was slow—it might take a month for a party of knights to travel a few hundred miles: where human life was fragile—two of Federico's four wives died in childbirth; and where political and military conflict was relentless—within twenty-two years of his death, all of Federico's heirs had perished in the conflict with the papal forces. The book is an excellent read for sixth graders and above and for adults with an interest in this often-neglected period of history.