Evolving Thoughts

A meme. A medieval meme.

… a female deer. Oops, sorry, wrong thread.

Anyway, a medievalist, goblinpaladin, has tagged me with a meme. Now I don’t’ get tagged a lot with memes, possibly because folk know I have published on them, both for and more recently against, but you can’t deny the buggers on the Interwubs. Here it is:

1) Link to the person who tagged you.

2) List 7 random/weird things about your favorite historical figure.

3) Tag seven more people at the end of your blog and link to theirs.

4) Let the person know they have been tagged by leaving a note on their blog.

It’s hard work, because I don’t actually have any friends, so I need to randomly search the Interwiks for victims. But I do have a favourite historical figure. And it’s not Charles Darwin, who I know more about than this guy. Oddly, he’s medieval… which goblinpaladin who tagged me explicitly exempted me from having to choose within.

My meme hero is…


Frederick II Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Sicily and Jerusalem (1194-1250). What’s not to like?

1. He was a secularist in an age of papal absolutism. He installed a legal system based on Roman Law and effectively established Luther’s much later Two Kingdoms doctrine in practice. There were matters the Church had no say over.

2. He considered starting his own religion with himself as Messiah, to oppose the popes. He managed to get himself excommunicated not once, but twice, which takes some doing. While excommunicate, he led a crusade to Jerusalem, where he politely discussed the role of Jerusalem for Christendom with the Saracens, and came to a negotiated settlement. This enraged the pope of the day – crusades were for killing infidels, not talking to them. Naturally the demagogue preachers called him the Antichrist, because, you know, peace is so not what Jesus would have wanted…

3. He was a Norman, who were regarded by the rest of “civilised” Europe as barbarian war mongers. Nevertheless his court was educated and sophisticated, and he was called the “Stupor Mundi”, the wonder of the world by his subjects.

4. He was a religious skeptic. A slander by the orthodox was that he wrote a text called “Three Imposters”, naming Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, but that is probably a setup, as it was ascribed to various figures the Catholic church did not like over the next few centuries, a bit like the later Protocols of Zion being ascribed to Jews by Marxists, Russian imperialists, and American democrats.

5.He kept exotic, mainly African, animals such as elephants, cheetahs, lynxes, leopards and birds in a zoo that he moved around from city to city to impress the populace. He funded the first secular university, the University of Naples, and decreed that doctors should study anatomy by dissection which was regarded by the religious as blasphemous.


6. He spent about as much time on affairs of state as he did on falconry, a recently developed fad among the European nobility, and he had several hundred falconers and thousands of birds. He wrote a classic manual De Artes Venandi Cum Avibus (The art of hunting with birds). I’ve read this. It’s an empirically based work quite unlike any other of the day. He repeats no mythological travellers’ tales. He debunks myths about birds, and what is more, he identifies “kinds” (Lat. species) of birds as those that interbreed irrespective of temperament, colouration or form. You can guess why I like him.

7. And this is the thing that most attracts me to him: he debunked Aristotle. Aristotle! Within 30 years of Aristotle’s Liber Animalium (Book of Animals, the History, the Generation, and the Movement bound together) being translated into Latin by Michael Scot, Frederick is prepared to write in the preface to De Artes:

Inter alia, we discovered by hard-won experience that the deductions of Aristotle, whom we followed when they appealed to our reason, were not entirely to be relied upon, more particularly in his descriptions of the characters of certain birds.

There is another reason why we do not follow implicitly the Prince of Philosophers: he was ignorant of the practice of falconry ? an art which to us has ever been a pleasing occupation, and with the details of which we are well acquainted. In his work ?Liber Animalium? we find many quotations from other authors whose statements he did not verify and who, in their turn, were not speaking from experience. Entire conviction of the truth never follows mere hearsay.

In case you haven’t made the connection – Aristotle is supposed to be beyond criticism by the medievals according to a well worn view of western intellectual history. Here’s a guy in the thirteenth century who is a skeptic, an empiricist, and afraid of no authorities. No bloody wonder they called him stupor mundi. He must have stupified them. And had he been a better tactician, he might have defeated papal and church power five hundred years sooner, and set in train an age of enlightenment.

Here’s a site that gives much more information about Fred. There’s a lot more I could say about him, but I’ll contain myself to the following anecdote. The Khan of the day was wont to send threatening letters to European monarchs demanding that they pledge allegiance to him. There was little chance the khans could have taken over Europe at that time, however. Still, sending a letter back to the Khan saying that he would gladly surrender his crown to the Khan if only the Khan would guarantee he, Frederick, could be the Khan’s falconer, well that was a little bit individualistic. I think, if he hadn’t had me killed, I would have liked him a lot.

Who to tag? OK, since I’m off to Arizona soon anyway, I’ll tag Lynch at Stranger Fruit, so he can hit me when I get there. Ian Musgrave, Astronomy Blogger and all round genius is next. I will tag PZ Miares, even if goblinpaladin wouldn’t, because I have no fear. Larry Moran at Sandwalk has plenty of spare time [see? No fear at all. Nor sense.] Mike Dunford at The Questionable Authority needs a break from work. John Pieret needs no break being a lawyer and all. But his Thoughts in a Haystack is a good place to visit. And to round it off, Janet at Adventures in Ethics and Science. Have fun…

Late note: I forgot to link to my previous post on Frederick. Tsk.


  1. #1 goblinpaladin
    February 25, 2008

    Oh, Fred is one of my heroes! Thank you, O Doctor Wilkins for choosing a truly awesome medieval monarch. More people need to learn about him.

    And no, I’ve not read his book. I really, really need to do that; I’ve been meaning to do so for some time.

  2. #2 Bob O'H
    February 25, 2008

    It sounds like you need to write a populist biography of him some day.

    Incidentally, as a Norman, he would have been of Viking stock and would also have spoken French. Far be it for to racially stereotype about barbarians, but…


  3. #3 John S. Wilkins
    February 25, 2008

    Norman French was not regarded highly by the Italianate sophisticates at that time. Sure, they ruled France and England, and were fierce warriors, but they weren’t, you know, nice like the upper classes.

    Of course that was a complete slander, but even amongst the best of the Normans, Frederick was outstanding.

  4. #4 pwe
    February 25, 2008

    Excellent post, John.

    Good to see an American, who actually knows something about European history for once.

    - pwe

  5. #5 John S. Wilkins
    February 25, 2008

    Alas, I am Australian. But I like Americans. Does that count?

  6. #6 Thony C.
    February 25, 2008

    Frederick also played host to specialists in anatomy, ethics, metaphysics, what passed then for chemistry and agriculture, as well as astrology (which didn’t helped him achieve success, because it is, of course all rubbish, as Frederick may have come to realise).

    The above quote is taken from the web site to which Mr Wilkins’ links and its author Mr Liebreich could not be more wrong in his assessment of Frederick’s involvement with astrology. Frederick introduced astrology into Mediaeval Europe by being the first European ruler to have, in imitation of the Arabs, a court astrologist as one of his advisors. This was copied by others and by the Fifteenth Century almost every court in Europe, large and small had a court astrologist. Those ignorant of the real history of science (as opposed to the mythology of science) will probably say so what, astrology is a waste of time so why should we thank Frederick for having introduced it into Mediaeval Europe?

    In the High Middle Ages and particularly in the Renaissance astrology was not only regarded as a science it was considered the most important of the mathematical sciences. It supporters and practitioners were however aware of its faults and problems and their attempts to produce a reliable ‘scientific’ astrology was the major driving force behind the evolution of the new astronomy in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. From 1400 to 1600 almost all of the leading astronomers were convinced practicing astrologers whose work in astronomy was motivated by their desire to produce a better more accurate astrology. Frederick’s embracing Arabic astrology in his programme of scientific knowledge was an important step in the evolution of the new astronomy one of the factors that ushered in the evolution of modern science in the Seventeenth Century.

  7. #7 PZ Myers
    February 25, 2008

    I like the idea that goblinpaladin is too pathetic to fall under my radar…but not John Wilkins’. Nice subtle snub, that.

    By the way, while the Staufen line of Holy Roman Emperors died out, it’s preserved in the name of a Drosophila protein important in early development. You forgot to mention the connection to molecular genetics!

  8. #8 goblinpaladin
    February 25, 2008

    Actually, it was because I’ve met Doctor Wilkins in the Real World and he has commented on my blog. If you had done the same, I would have linked to you in trembling, awesome fear.

    I have this irrational respect for academics with real blogs.

  9. #9 John Pieret
    February 25, 2008


    It’s one thing to spread one these screaming memies or whachacallits about like the snifflers but to do one about history and then do it so well that ya set the bar impossibly high? Yer a right bastard you are!

    Now I’ve got to go out and hire professional history decorators and everything so I can keep up with the Jones’ … er, Wilkinsesssesses … or my wife will make my life a living hell … “Why’s that Wilkins lot got nicer histories than we got? Can’t ya get a better job? Me mum told me you were a worthess laysabout!”

    You’ve really done it now!

  10. #10 Thony C.
    February 26, 2008

    I want to play, too and as I don’t have a blog and so can’t be tagged I shall abuse Mr Wilkins’ hospitality and post my contribution here. Usually in such games the participants go for the ‘big names’ well known historical figures who in their opinion have made a major contribution to the progress of the human race. Mr Wilkins chose Frederick II, goblinpaladin Newton, albeit Newton the alchemist and not Newton the mathematician. I shall instead choose one of the small guys because I believe that, in particular in the history of science, a concentration on the big names and their big achievements leads to a distorted picture of the historical development or evolution of science which is much more gradual and incremental than it is usually presented with the majority of progress resulting out of the accumulation of many small contributions by many largely ‘insignificant’ workers.

    My subject is the Franconian Mathematicus Johannes Schoener who was born January 16th 1477 in Carlstadt on Main in Lower Franconia and died January 16th in Nuremberg. Not really mediaeval but a Renaissance scholar on the boundary between the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period.

    1)Schoener gained immortality in the history of science in 1540 as the addressee of Rheticus’ Naratio Prima (The First Report) the first ever published account of Copernicus’ new heliocentric cosmology. Rheticus had spent several months in 1539 studying astrology under Schoener in Nuremberg and it is probably here that he first heard of the astronomer in the far northern principality of Ermland who was propagating a strange new cosmology.

    2)In 1526 Phillip Melanchthon had appointed Schoener as the first professor for mathematics at Germany’s very first gymnasium the Egidien Oberschule in Nuremberg. In those days schoolteachers were called professor. The gymnasium is still the crown jewel in the German secondary school system.

    3)Schoener was one of the leading astrologers of his time and his two books on astrological theory remained standard textbooks on the subject for the next two hundred years. In his famous Brief Lives, a data collections towards the establishment of an empirical astrology, John Aubrey names Schoener as the ideal scientific astrologer.

    4)Even without his connections to Rheticus and Copernicus Schoener is an important figure in the history of science. He was the first serial producer of scientific terrestrial and celestial globes. His pairs of globes terrestrial (1515) and celestial (1517) and both terrestrial and celestial (1533) set standards and conventions for such globe pairs that survived with modification into the nineteenth century. Today we regard a terrestrial globe simple as a three-dimensional map but from the 16th till the 19th centuries they were scientific instruments used for demonstrating and teaching various aspects of applied astronomy used in cartography and navigation. Celestial globes were of course used to teach astronomy and astrology. Following Schoener’s lead globes were almost always manufactured and sold in matching pairs.

    5)In 1528 Schoener wrote and published an Arzneibuch that is a collection of patent remedies and cures for a large collection of common illnesses and ailments. Written in German this was one of the first books of this type to be printed putting Schoener at the beginning of a long line of Home Doctor books that have helped to finance the wellbeing of many a publisher.

    6)As well as his other activities Schoener also worked as a scientific editor editing, annotating and seeing through the press mathematical manuscripts from Johannes Werner, Georg Peuerbach, Regiomontanus and others. Many of these books were of great significance in the evolution of the mathematical sciences in the 16th century and probably would not have seen the light of day without Schoener’s efforts.

    7)Schoener did historians the favour of dying on his seventieth birthday, which means one only has to remember one date, his birthday or date of death, and then add or subtract seventy years to get the other.

    Who is your favourite minor scientists and what do you do perpetuate his or her memory?