I quite often hear from club members that they’re not, or weren’t before they started hanging with us, ‘good at languages’.
It’s common that people in Britain think this, though hardly surprising given that they live on an island and that if they mistakenly venture off it, their native tongue is used just about everywhere as the lingua franca.
The same is true, more or less, for Americans, though with such a large Spanish-speaking minority and a land border with Mexico, I’d have thought there would be some greater interest in foreign languages. Though not so much, it appears.
I guess that’s the point – language and status often go hand in hand. Spanish Spanish is groovy, Mexican Spanish less so.
Similarly, few people in Italy are interested in learning Romanian or the various slavic languages that are spoken by the middle-aged East European women who clean their houses and look after their aged parents. Why would anyone want to learn an ‘inferior’ language, after all?
On the other hand, while it seems to be de rigueur for children from Italy’s Chinese communities to have Italian names by which they are known to outsiders, to speak Italian at school, and to learn English as their classmates do, they also commonly attend extra Chinese classes, often on Saturday mornings, poor things. China is a global power, after all, and perhaps one day will be THE global power. So it’s got to make sense for expatriate families to hedge their bets…
In many respects, language is power, and knowing multiple foreign languages, arguably, gives a merchant or a leader an advantage. Angela Merkel, for instance, currently Chancellor of Germany, can speak Russian to President Putin and English to President Biden if she so chooses. Or vice versa, though that probably wouldn’t go down so well. Either way, she’s got at least a pyschological advantage.
That said, Britain’s current Prime Minister is also supposed to be familiar with multiple foreign tongues, due to his family background, privileged education, and years spent abroad as a youth.
But anyway, all this is by way of introduction to Emperor Federico II, Stupore del Mondo (‘Wonder of the World’), who is the subject of today’s twentieth episode in our FREE Summer Series on the Middle Ages in the Italian peninsula.
Wikipedia quotes historian Donald Detwiler, who apparently wrote:
A man of extraordinary culture, energy, and ability – called by a contemporary chronicler stupor mundi (the wonder of the world), by Nietzsche the first European, and by many historians the first modern ruler – Frederick established in Sicily and southern Italy something very much like a modern, centrally governed kingdom with an efficient bureaucracy.
So probably more of a Merkel than a Johnson…
Our own writer explains that:
l’imperatore stesso conosce sei lingue: il latino e il greco, come tutte le persone colte del suo tempo, l’arabo che, come abbiamo detto nel precedente capitolo, studia con un maestro e utilizza per comunicare con califfi, sultani e con le sue guardie del corpo, il tedesco e il francese che si parlano nei suoi domini a nord, e il siciliano, che si sviluppa come lingua letteraria proprio alla sua corte
Everyone who was anyone at the time spoke Latin and Greek, Federico’s mum was a Norman, so that explains the French, and he was emperor of Germany, hence the interest there. But what about Sicilian dialect, and Arabic??
Despite being Emperor of just about the whole of Western Europe, Federico preferred to base his court in Palermo, Sicily, perhaps because the weather was better than in Northern Italy, or in what is now France and Germany.
And a popular pastime in Palermo, Sicily, in those days before Netflix, was romantic poetry. Thanks to Fede’s interest and patronage, Sicilian was developed as a language of literature, a hundred years before Dante came along and wrote in his own Tuscan dialect.
And Arabic? We heard in Episode 19 about the crusades and how Federico eventually became King of Jerusalem with the consent of the Sultan, who Federico was conveniently able to chat up in his own language. So there were obvious diplomatic reasons to know Arabic.
But Sicily had been controlled by Arabs for centuries (if I remember correctly) and had only relatively recently been taken over by Fede’s mother’s Normans (check the details, because I haven’t), at which point the infidels were expelled to some isolated spot on the mainland.
Except that Federico II, whether out of his interest in languages or, more likely, because he didn’t trust the catholics that surrounded him (the Emperor and the Pope were in constant conflict), hired a bunch of now-dispossessed muslims as soldiers, and made the elite troops his personal bodyguard.
We’ll shortly have an ebook ‘easy reader’ story coming out about Federico and his Arab bodyguards (when I get around to publishing it, I’m a little behind), but in the meantime, you can find out more about this fascinating and memorable emperor in today’s free article with audio:
This one, and all the previous episodes, as well as last year’s thirty articles on the Romans, can be found permanently linked to from our History page, which is, in turn, findable from the main menu on the club website.
A venerdì, allora.