The Disturbing Story Of Emperor Frederick II's Language Experiment

We learn to speak from our parents and the people around us. If you have a baby at home or know someone who does, watch how the baby babbles at people as if talking, then slowly begins to try out words, then eventually phrases and sentences. We are born with the capacity to learn, but we learn from other people. Or do we?

What language does a child speak when there are no adults around? What happens to that capacity? As far as anyone can tell, a developing child has a fairly narrow window to master speech. Miss your chance in infancy, and you may never really speak. We've seen examples of children like this over the years — feral children who grow up in the woods without human language. According to Business Insider, they all have difficulty picking it up later in life. 

But how can we know for sure? How do we know there isn't a basic, default way of speaking? In the 13th century, behind the walls of his domed, luxurious palace, a great emperor lost sleep over this mystery. Deep in his fabled library, he would come up with a way to find out once and for all what the default language of mankind was — an experiment as horrific as one of Josef Mengele's or Dr. Frankenstein's.

'Stupor Mundi'

The emperor in question was the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, 1194-1250 (seen above, crowning himself). Frederick was one of the great personalities of the High Middle Ages, known to his admirers as "stupor mundi," the wonder of the world. 

He earned the title. On his father's side, Frederick was a Hohenstaufen, a member of the warlike German family that had controlled much of modern Germany and Italy; the fabled Barbarossa was his grandfather (via Britannica). On his mother's side, he was a member of the Norman aristocracy of the island of Sicily. Frederick seems to have felt Sicilian more than anything, making his home in Palermo and ruling a splendid court in the Islamic style. Indeed, Frederick was a tolerant ruler, protective of Sicily's Jewish and Muslim minorities; he relied on these communities for books to satisfy his relentless curiosity about the world. He was connected to famous poets, and the university he founded in Naples is still called "Federico II."

Away from home, however, Frederick was despised. He seems to have deserved his reputation for cruelty and lust. Excommunicated by the pope and hounded by his enemies, his lasting fame would be in the works of Dante, who condemned the emperor to hell as an atheist.

'Pale Student of Unhallowed Arts'

Frederick had a restless intellect — he wrote a famous treatise on birds, founded wildlife preserves like a medieval Theodore Roosevelt, and learned a number of languages. But as History Answers reports, that curiosity had a sadistic tinge. A friar named Salimbene, who lived during Frederick's reign, wrote an entire book — sometimes called "The Twelve Calamities of the Emperor Frederick II" — to highlight the perverse excesses of the emperor's mind. It was partly a work of propaganda to discredit an enemy of the pope, but that doesn't necessarily mean its anecdotes are false.

For example, Salimbene recounts that Frederick had a prisoner stuffed into a barrel and starved. In the barrel was a peephole, through which the emperor observed the man's slow death with a scientist's dispassionate eye. The point was to see whether the soul visibly exited the body on death. In another account, the emperor was overcome by a curiosity about the effect of exercise on digestion. He ordered two men to eat the same meal — one of them went to bed after dinner, the other went out hunting. A few hours later, he had both men disemboweled and carefully examined the food in their stomachs for differences.

From the mouthes of babes

But the worst experiment Salimbene recorded was the attempt to discover man's original language. Language was a joy for the emperor, who is said to have spoken six quite fluently — Latin, Sicilian dialect, German, French, and Arabic, according to the museum of Castel del Monte.

But all of Frederick's joys bent to perversion, and — if the story is true — he concocted a brutal experiment to see what children would speak if raised without the language of others (via History Answers). Salimbene writes that Frederick ordered that a number of newborns be raised completely without speech. Their nurses could feed and wash them but not utter a single word nor interact with them except when absolutely necessary. The infants were then observed day and night in case they uttered a word. Sooner or later, he thought, they would begin to speak, and the language spoken in the Garden of Eden would be recreated.

It takes a cold man to seriously consider this kind of experiment. It takes a murderer to see it through. All of the babies died without uttering a word, crying inconsolably in their cells.

Fact or myth?

Horrifying — but is it true? History Answers notes that Salimbene, for one thing, had little contact with the emperor. He also had no lack of motives for inventing hideous stories. Italy at the time was being torn apart by a series of civil wars between two parties, the so-called Guelphs (who wanted the pope to hold final authority over the Holy Roman Emperor) and the Ghibellines (who thought the pope should have no role in politics), per Britannica. Anything that discredited this arch-Ghibelline would help Salimbene's cause.

But inventing sins for Frederick II would be carrying coals to Newcastle. Proverbially temperamental and undoubtedly a rake (he had numerous illegitimate children), Frederick had a troubling streak of megalomania. He went as far as to encourage people to compare him to Jesus Christ when he rode into Jerusalem during the Sixth Crusade. According to Psychology Today, a "dark triad" of personality traits is narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Frederick certainly exhibited signs of the first two. If Salimbene was telling the truth, or some version of the truth, it would be safe to call him a psychopath.

Science and brutality

Frederick's modern admirers continue to see him as the "stupor mundi," a genius several hundred years ahead of his time. It is hard to square the man's obvious brilliance with his moral decay. But in a way, Frederick's model of knowledge untethered by wisdom would repeat itself over and over again. Long after Frederick's nightmarish experiments were over, popular literature warned that science had no moral compass of its own and could easily be turned to evil. The Faust legend of the 17th century told of a man who sold his soul to the devil for unlimited knowledge; in Goethe's famous retelling, Faust causes all kinds of human misery through his recklessness, including infanticide. Mary Shelley's 1818 novel "Frankenstein" told a similar tale and posed the question: Even if you can play God and revive the dead, should you?

Life imitated art in the 20th century, when scientists performed experiments of unbelievable cruelty, like the Tuskegee Experiment. Sometimes, like in the case of Nazi concentration camp doctors like Josef Mengele, the cruelty was the point. But other experiments were as dispassionate, as cold-blooded, and as pointless as one of Frederick's. What point was there, for example, in creating a two-headed dog, which suffered miserably for the rest of its short life? 

One moral that could be taken from Frederick's language experiment is that there is no ur-language, nor any solid wall between science and evil.