It happened today - June 10, 2016

Frederick Barbarossa as a crusader, miniature from a copy of the Historia Hierosolymitana, 1188. (Wikipedia)

On this day in history Frederick Barbarossa came to a sour end. On June 10 1190 his glorious dreams of victory in the Third Crusade ended when he drowned in the Saleph river in Armenia and his son Frederick IV of Swabia apparently stuffed him into a barrel of vinegar in a failed attempt to preserve his body. Sic transit gloria mundi. Barbarossa is a name to conjure with. You’ve heard of him even if you don’t know what he did. And you may guess he had a red beard. (Especially as the Germans call him Kaiser Rotbart which is characteristically short and to the point but less flowing.) He was apparently a spectacularly successful Holy Roman Emperor, which you might think is in the “tallest building in Wichita, Kansas” category. But he was Emperor for 35 years and was renowned for his political cunning, military skills and organizational capacities, an important quality for good or evil not to be underestimated. King John of England was also apparently a very hard-working man with an eye for detail… unfortunately. Indeed, it was under Barbarossa that the so-called Roman Empire of the Dark and Middle Ages, essentially a rather loose German-centred entity created by Charlemagne and Pope Leo III in 800, first became referred to as Holy. I was going to say “became Holy” but that is much less clear. I’ve never been very sure what it was for or what good it did, because it did seem to keep a certain high ideal of unity and rule of law alive but was a meddlesome and turbulent entity in practice. Barbarossa himself was forever fighting wars in Italy that I don’t think did the Italians, the Germans or him any good. As for his Crusade, well, I realize he wasn’t planning to drown, possibly the result of a heart attack. His army was set upon and mostly slaughtered in the aftermath, leaving the Third Crusade in the hands of Richard I of England and Philip II of France who really didn’t like one another. And Richard went on to have lots of fun fighting Saladin, won a bunch of battles, and didn’t capture Jerusalem, before staggering back toward England, being captured, ransomed and generally doing England no good either. But I digress. Barbarossa’s grand venture wound up getting him in a terminal pickle. It also generated an Arthurian-style legend that he is not dead but sleeping with his knights in a cave in some mountain in Thuringia or Bavaria and will one day be awoken by ravens and restore Germany to its greatness. Which might explain why Hitler called his invasion of the USSR Operation Barbarossa. Another reason to prefer Arthur. The point is, for all his glory, what legacy does he have? Like Richard II, he would be less famous but a greater benefactor of mankind if he’d stayed home and governed well. Oh, one final weird point. His semi-preserved remains were eventually buried in a variety of places, his meat in the Church of St. Peter in Antioch, his bones in Tyre Cathedral and his heart and vital organs in Tarsus. Not as an insult; for some reason this was considered an honorable way to dispose of remains in those days. (Likewise Richard Coeur de Lion’s heart was buried in Rouen, his guts in Chalus and the hollowed-out remains at his father’s feet in Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou.) In the end, you can scatter your remains afield if you like. But in life Barbarossa, like Richard, ought to have been more focused, stayed at home and tried to govern his own people instead of walloping others. Such earthly glory is fleeting, and generally hollow even before it flits.