A fake Frederick II brings black servants to Cologne (1283)

Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen (1194-1250) exercised control over lands that stretched from northern Germany all the way to Sicily, and he aspired to reconstitute a sort of Roman Empire that would reach as far as the Holy Land. As part of his efforts to consolidate his rule over these vast lands, he adopted techniques from his Roman forebears, including the practice of using spectacular displays of cosmopolitanism to cow his rivals and subordinates. He gathered representatives of all parts of his realm and incorporated them into his court and household, travelling with them ostentatiously and producing impressive pieces of art to illustrate the reach of his power.

From Clemens Specker, Austrian Chronicle (1476), courtesy of the Burgerbibliothek, Bern, Cod. A45, p. 154.

Frederick II was so successful in associating himself with a vast and diverse retinue that a later pretender adopted the same tactics when he arrived in Cologne claiming to be the true Emperor, who in actuality had died over three decades earlier. The textual account below outlines how the false Frederick used three Black retainers as the chief evidence for his claim. The image to the right, taken from a later account of the events, illustrates that both the imposter’s brazen and futile effort to assert his authority and Frederick’s association with Black subjects still resonated two centuries later.

Jeff Bowersox


To translate for information on the Black subjects in the imposter’s retinue: Ottokar, Österreichische Reimchronik in MGH, Deutsche Chroniken und andere Geschichtsbücher des Mittelalters(Hannover, 1892-1900), V, part i, 421, verse 32189, 422, verses 32221-25, 422-23, verses 32241-97.

Contemporary source is Anonymi Leobensis Chronicon in Scriptores rerum Austriae, ed. H. Pez (Leipzig 1721), I, 751-972, 855-56. Is there anything relevant for us in this passage?

Illustration to include along with introduction, mentioning as per Kaplan that this is an illustration from a later retelling of the false Frederick’s travels accompanied by Black attendants. From Clemens Specker, Austrian Chronicle (1476), courtesy of the Burgerbibliothek, Bern, Cod. A45, p. 154.

Details in Kaplan, “Hohenstaufen Iconography,” fn33 

33. The contemporary source is Anonymi Leobensis Chronicon, in Scriptores rerum Austriae, ed. H. Pez (Leipzig, 1721), I, 751-972, 855-56; but for information on the blacks in the imposter’s retinue, one must turn to Ottokar, Osterreichische Reimchronik, in MGH, Deutsche Chroniken und andere Geschichtsbiicher des Mittelalter (Hanover, 1892-1909), V, part i, 421, verse 32189, 422, verses 32221-25, 422-23, verses 32241-97. On this and other “false Fredericks,” see K. Schreiner, “Die Staufer in Sage, Legende und Prophetie,” in R. Haussherr and C. Vaterlein, eds., Die Zeit der Staufer, III, 249-62, 253-55.