Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Antichrist: A novel of the Emperor Frederick II by Cecelia Holland.
Historical novelist Cecelia Holland is the author of Antichrist: a novel of the Emperor Frederick II (1970). The British issue of the same book had a more timid publisher, it seems. The title there was Wonder of the World, in reference to Frederick’s renown as stupor mundi. The US Primate of the Gnostic Catholic Church identifies Frederick II as the “Frederick of Hohenstaufen” enumerated among the saints of Liber XV, and he points to Frederick’s notable antagonism with Rome, but he fails to note the item that gave Holland her title: a tradition of identifying Frederick as the Antichrist.
Antichrist is an inherently prophetic figure, and the prophecies of Frederick’s Antichrist status were initially derived from Joachim of Fiore’s writings. Holland observes this fact with a brief notice in her prefatory “Note” (ix). The Super Hieremiam was a pseudo-Joachimist work that identified Frederick as a head of the apocalyptic dragon and as the emperor whose death would inaugurate the age of the Holy Spirit. The prophecy regarding Frederick is one of the elements that made Joachim’s work topical for the Franciscans who became interested in it during the 1240s.
Holland’s story is set in the 1220s, with Frederick’s prosecution of the Sixth Crusade. She depicts the Franciscans in Outremer as opponents of the Emperor, and she has them accuse him of being Antichrist. Whether they would have done so at that time, before taking up the ideas from Joachim, or whether the accusation in the novel was anachronistic, I don’t know.
Besides the Franciscan Order, Antichrist includes a rough and caricaturing treatment of the military Orders of the Temple and the Hospital. Of the former, Holland writes that they “were beyond doubt Satanist,” choosing to take the French court proceedings as gospel on this count (xiii). She depicts both Orders—who were, after all, opposed to her protagonist Frederick—as corrupt and malevolent. In fact, her depiction of them is much in keeping with the villainous roles that they play in the novels of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832).
An important aspect of the novel (and the events it attempts to describe) is the relationship between Christians and Muslims, both in southern Europe and in Palestine. The idea that Frederick was Antichrist had much to do with his perceived and actual intimacy with Saracens and Islam. Holland creatively adds a member of the Order of Assassins to Frederick’s bodyguard in Palestine. This touch on her part leads to a historical error, in which she has the “Assassins” in question refer to themselves as Hashishiyyun (164). The Muslims associated with Alamut whom the Crusaders called “Assassins” were sometimes called hashishis as a term of derision by their Muslim antagonists, but they were in fact, and knew themselves as, Syrian Ismailis of the Nizari sect.
Holland’s book was great fun to read: it has a lot of witty dialogue and vivid description. If handled respectfully, it would probably make a terrific movie. Although she makes some outright errors, the author provides the unusual courtesy among historical novelists of pointing out which principal features of the story are her conscious interpolations (xii-xiii). As far as the broad outlines of her narrative go, there is nothing to contradict any of the history I have read. [via]