Post-classical history

Otto of Freising (d. 1158)

Bishop of Freising (1137-1158) and chronicler.

Otto was born around 1110, the younger son of Margrave Leopold IV of Austria (d. 1141) by his marriage to Agnes, daughter of Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor. He became a monk at the Cistercian abbey of Morimond in 1133 and in 1137 was chosen bishop of Freising in Bavaria. He played a prominent part in the Second Crusade (1147-1149), serving under his half-brother, the German king Conrad III. He was also one of the most important historical authors of his time; he wrote a world chronicle, the Historia de duabus civitati- bus, in 1143-1146, and the first two books out of an intended four of the deeds of his nephew Emperor Frederick I Bar- barossa, entitled Gesta Friderici imperatoris (begun in 1156). After Otto’s death in 1158 this work was completed by his secretary Rahewin.

After the German army of the Second Crusade had crossed the Bosporus in October 1147, Conrad III split his forces, leading the main army into the center of the Anatolian plateau but sending Bishop Otto with many of the poorer pilgrims and noncombatants, along with a small escort, on a supposedly safer route along the western and southern coast, where at least some of the territory was in Byzantine hands. However, Otto’s force was ambushed by the Turks at Laodikeia in Phrygia in December and almost wiped out, although the bishop himself escaped. It is unclear whether he then accompanied Conrad to the Holy Land, although in book 1 of the Gesta Friderici imperatoris he gives a brief account of the king’s time there in 1148.

Despite his personal participation, Otto’s account of the Second Crusade is very disappointing, and in particular he says nothing of his own role, details of which must be gleaned from other sources. Similarly, while mentioning Conrad’s discussions with King Baldwin III of Jerusalem as to the strategy to be pursued, he refuses to discuss the failure of the siege of Damascus. His brief account of the First Crusade (1096-1099) in his earlier chronicle is almost wholly unoriginal, derived from the earlier work of Ekkehard of Aura, although he adds a few details to the latter’s account of the subsequent expedition of 1101, and here he briefly describes Muslim beliefs. However, in book 7 of the Historia de duabus civitatibus he does discuss the embassies to the papal court from the Armenian catholicos and from the Franks in the East led by Bishop Hugh of Jabala in 1145, after the fall of Edessa. Otto was also the first Western writer to mention the legendaryPrester John, the priest-king of the East who was supposedly keen to help the Christians of Jerusalem.

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