Otto of Freising

The German historiographer and philosopher of history Otto of Freising (ca. 1114-1158) was the first chronicler to treat religious and political events with artistic skill and vivid color and to depict them in their temporal as well as their transcendental significance.

Otto of Freising was the son of Margrave Leopold III of Austria (later St. Leopold) and of Agnes, the daughter of Henry IV. He was also a half brother to Emperor Conrad III, the founder of the Hohenstaufen line. Otto studied at the University of Paris and about 1133 entered the French Cistercian monastery of Morimont in Champagne, whose abbot he soon became. In 1137/1138 he was made bishop of Freising. In 1146 Otto took part, under his half brother, Conrad, in the Second Crusade, in which Jerusalem was lost to Saladin. Otto wrote the Chronicon sive historia de duabus civitatibus (Chronicle or History of the Two Cities), a history of the world in eight books covering events up to 1146. Otto of St. Blaise later continued the history to events through 1209. A moral history of the world, Otto's chronicle depends upon St. Augustine's On the City of God and upon Aristotle's philosophy and ranks as one of the most remarkable creations of the Middle Ages.

On the basis of material secured from his nephew Emperor Frederick I and from his chancellery, Otto also wrote the Gesta Friderici I imperatoris (The Deeds of Emperor Frederick I), the most important source for information concerning the early life of that emperor. Otto's two books were continued with two more books, covering events to 1160, by his notary, Rahewin. Both the Chronicon and the Gesta were reprinted in edited versions in the German Monumenta Germaniae historica.

Otto's writings, all in Latin, reveal a gift for individualization and an ability to penetrate into the spirit of his sources and to treat them in an elegant style. Though not always dependable in details, his works breathe life from their pages. Otto was one of the first German students of Aristotle. A disciple of St. Augustine, he viewed all worldly events as preludes to eternal ones, believing that each temporal happening, however somber, has a happy sequel in eternity. Although he recorded events and their circumstances faithfully, Otto did not slavishly follow the techniques of ancient historians. He enlivened his works with direct address, and he depicted countries, cities, and customs conscientiously. Otto also animated his stories of battles and sieges.

Otto did not gloss over ecclesiastical and theological disputes but deplored them as evils. He practiced scholasticism on its highest level. His account of the illstarred Second Crusade pictures it as starting in a dream of springtime and ending in a nightmare. His presentation, however, employs a modicum of sad detail. An optimistic mood characterizes even more strongly his The Deeds of Emperor Frederick I, in which Otto assumed the cheerful disposition of the Emperor and revealed a sure grasp of the spirit of the age of chivalry. Otto died on Sept. 22, 1158.


Further Reading on Otto of Freising

Otto's works were translated, with useful biographical and critical introductions and annotations, by Charles C. Mierow: The Two Cities: A Chronicle of Universal History to the Year 1146 A.D. (1928) and The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa (1953). Discussions of Otto's life and work are in Harry Elmer Barnes, A History of Historical Writing (1937), and James Westfall Thompson, A History of Historical Writing (2 vols., 1942).