Black servants and enslaved musicians at Frederick II’s court (1239-1240)

Drawing from official records of the Hohenstaufen court as well as from accounts of Frederick II’s enemies, we can get a sense of the diversity of people employed by and purchased for the court. Frederick II’s encounters with Muslim leaders around the Mediterranean gave him ready access to Muslim warriors and entertainers. Modelling himself on the Romans, Frederick hoped to create an image of himself as a cosmopolitan, universal ruler. He was also interested in maintaining good relations with his defeated Muslim subjects, and this provided his enemies with points of criticism.

Mandates such as these were the means by which administrators carried out often mundane matters. This mandate orders the training of Black slaves of a particular age as trumpeters. The fact that the mandate calls for the purchase of Black slaves if none are already available highlights the symbolic importance of Black trumpeters for symbolizing the grandeur and reach of Frederick II’s empire, a practice Frederick adopted from his father Henry VI

Jeff Bowersox and Astrid Khoo


By the imperial mandate created by master R. of Pietrastornina, G. of Consenza has written:

Frederick, etc., to Obbertus Fallamonachus, the secreto of Palermo, etc. Entrusting this request to your fidelity, we order that you should make a selection out of the black slaves of our court, if there are any suitable. If you do not find any suitable black slaves in our court, you should buy up to five using our funds, who are from the ages of 16 to 20, and see to it that they are trained to play the trumpet. Let four of them be trained for the trumpet, and one for the high trumpet, and you should send them as quickly as possible, once they have been trained, to our presence, along with four trumpets and one high trumpet. Besides, since we have understood that certain Jews who have recently come to live at Palermo wish to cultivate our date plantation there, and are prepared to do so, we order you to make arrangements with them to this end, even if that means relaxing some of the rights of the Crown.

Given at Cremona, 28th November, 13th indiction.

Source: J.-L.-A. Huillard-Bréholles, ed., Historia diplomatica Friderici Secundi, vol. 5, part 1, trans. by Astrid Khoo (Paris: Excudebat Henricus Plon, 1857), 535-536.

In this mandate, the emperor’s representative orders high-quality silver trumpets and the delivery of slaves who can play them. The slaves referred to here are the Black slaves mentioned in the previous document. These mandates give us a picture of one of the roles that slaves could play in the imperial court. Trumpeters were obviously highly valued, as their instruments and training required considerable investment.   

P. de Capua has written by imperial mandate:

Frederick, etc., to the secreto[1] at Messana, etc. Since we wish to have four trumpets and one high trumpet[2], all silver, in our chambers, entrusting this request to your fidelity, we order you to oversee the production of the trumpets and high trumpet, all silver, and to send them, well-made, to our chambers; for we wish them to be presented by the present messenger.

Given at Aretium, 14th January, thirteenth indiction[3].

By the same mandate, the same man has written:

Fredericus, etc., to Obbertus Fallamonachus, the secreto of Palermo, etc. Entrusting this request to your fidelity, we order that which we have already ordered you in our letter about teaching slaves to play the trumpet and high trumpet and sending these slaves to our court with their trumpets and high trumpets, according to what we have ordered you to do. Do take care to quickly carry this order out and fulfill this wish by sending the slaves with their trumpets and high trumpet to our court along with the carrier of this message. Do also make sure to provide all the necessary items to them for the journey, whether they will travel to our court by sea or by land. We also order you to repair the area of Minsa[4] below our palace, so that you might seem to hurry the work; construct a dovecote there, and feed doves for the purpose of our court.

Given at Aretium, 14th January, thirteenth indiction[5].

[1] A secreto is a type of secretary.
[2] Italian trombetta.
[3] An ‘indiction’ is a fifteen-year cycle used in medieval manuscript dating. A list of indiction years can be found here. Frederick II reigned from 1220 to 1250, hence the two possible years for these mandates are 1225 and 1240.
[4] Latin ‘Locum Minse’, with ‘Minse’ usually capitalised – perhaps this is the name of a town.
[5] See note [3] above.

Source: J.-L.-A. Huillard-Bréholles, ed., Historia diplomatica Friderici Secundi, vol. 5, part 2, trans. by Astrid Khoo (Paris: Excudebat Henricus Plon, 1857), 676-677.

In this mandate, written by one Laurentius who worked under the authority of Johannes Morus, he requests the assignment of particular servants to Nicolaus of Palermo, who will be placed in charge of guarding royal treasuries. It is striking that the two Black slaves are identified by name, but it is not clear why Musca and Mazaruch in particular have been chosen. Perhaps they have particular skills that will be useful to Nicolaus, or perhaps they are simply useful as symbols of the court’s reach. In any event, this document gives us a rare glimpse of individual Black slaves.  

By the imperial mandate created by lord Ioannes Morus, Laurentius wrote:

Frederick, etc. to Alexander the son of Henricus[1], etc. Since we have ordered that Nicholaus of Palermo[2], the bearer of the current letter, should be substituted in the place of the dead Jacobinus, in order to guard our treasuries at Canosa and Melfi[3], we order that you should provide the following from the Crown funds, which are managed by you according to the assizes of our court. Out of those who are assigned to the service of the treasury – if you have them – give to Nicholaus one squire and one work-horse; similarly, give to Bartholomeus his friend, who is present at the delivery of the current letter on Nicholaus’ behalf, one squire and one work-horse. Also give to them, upon departure, two black slaves by the name of Musca and Mazaruch as their personal servants.

Given at Pisa, 24th December, 13th indiction.

[1] I have retained the Latin spellings for Henricus and Laurentius but these might be Heinrich and Lorenz, or Enrico and Lorenzo etc.
[2] Again, this could be Nicholas of Palermo, Niccolo di Palermo etc.
[3] Note that the word ‘Melfi’ can also refer to present-day Amalfi. However, Melfi (in Apulia) is more likely as Frederick II gave the castle great importance, in which he maintained a treasury. Moreover, the second order makes it clear that Melfi is near Naples, which supports the Apulian interpretation.

Source: J.-L.-A. Huillard-Bréholles, ed., Historia diplomatica Friderici Secundi, vol. 5, part 1, trans. by Astrid Khoo (Paris: Excudebat Henricus Plon, 1857), 601-602.

In this mandate the imperial representative notes not only that a skilled “Saracen” dancer was “found” in Aquitaine in western France but also that Frederick valued such dancers at his court. 

By the imperial mandate created by master R. of Utrecht, G. of Consenza has written a letter in response, and these acts[1]:

Frederick, etc. to the secretariat at Messana, etc.

On the subject of the Saracen dancer whom you have found in the region of Aquitaine, who, as you have written, knows how to dance in diverse styles, and whom you have made sure to reserve for our court: we want you to send him to our court, in the previous messages, etc.

Given at Foligni, 5th January, 13th indiction.

[1] “Acts” as in legal acts/orders: Latin “capitulum.”

Source: J.-L.-A. Huillard-Bréholles, ed., Historia diplomatica Friderici Secundi, vol. 5, part 2, trans. by Astrid Khoo (Paris: Excudebat Henricus Plon, 1857), 721-3.

Nicolaus de Carbio was a close advisor to Pope Innocent IV, who was harried greatly by Frederick II, and his chronicle of the Pope’s life reflects the Holy See’s antagonism toward the Hohenstaufen emperor. Among the scandalous charges thrown at Frederick is his willingness to treat with Muslim leaders, reflected in his apparent disregard for Christian sexual morality, his abandonment of Christian maidens, and his embrace of the harem. 

27. On the Return of Frederick to the Kingdom of Apulia.

After this, not a long time later, Frederick returned to the Kingdom of Apulia; where, just like a raging bear who had cast off its chains, he raged heavily against secular clerics and prelates, but heaviest against the religious clergy. He expelled and exiled the Friars Minor[1], along with preachers, from the kingdom itself; some of whom were first put to the test with mockery and beatings, and then with chains and prisons. Finally they were hung up and skinned, and died punctured by swords. Moreover, so that he could fight the Church itself with a more vehement impetus, he contracted marriages with the infidels and thus joined himself to them by the bond of kinship, while also giving his daughter as a bride to Baccarius. He was also joined by a pact of friendship to the Saracens, and frequently dedicated many magnificent gifts[2] to Soldanus. Among these, in his capacity as an enemy to the Christian faith and religion, he even sent over young Christian maidens so as to win the goodwill of the Saracens; this ensured that finally, relying on their power, he could hinder the Church with a more acute tyranny. It is therefore unsurprising that Frederick and the Saracens entered into a full and intimate alliance, since he held all his own possessions in common with them. He even built a city for them in the middle of Apulia, which was rich and large, and which is still called Nocerium today. Moreover, he delegated some of the Saracens as guards to the palaces and chambers of his girls – or rather of his whores.

[1] I.e. Franciscans.
[2] Literally “parties,” “festive rites.”

Source: Nicolaus de Carbio, “Vita Innocente IV,” Archivio della Società romana di storia patria 21, trans. by Astrid Khoo (1898): 100-101.

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Black servants and slave musicians at Frederick II’s court (1239-1240) by Jeff Bowersox and Astrid Khoo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at