May 23, 2018

A Medieval Emperor's Natural Language Experiment

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II as depicted in the Shrine of Charlemagne, which he commissioned, c. 1215.
The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) was known as the stupor mundi ("the astonishment of the world") among his European contemporaries. But he did not cut an impressive physical figure, at least according to the Baghdad-born chronicler Sibt ibn al-Jawzi. "The Emperor was covered with red hair, bald, and myopic," al-Jawzi recorded. "Had he been a slave, he would not have fetched 200 dirhams at market."

The quip didn't reflect any particular animus on the part of al-Jawzi. In fact, Emperor Frederick was well-regarded by many in the Muslim world. Dante, that most judgmental of all medieval writers, placed Frederick in the sixth level of his Inferno: the region reserved for heretics. The emperor was by all accounts deeply religiously heterodox, and was famous for feuding with the Pope and enlisting Muslim soldiers in his personal bodyguard.

The same unorthodox manner that had repelled Dante seems to have endeared Frederick to his rival Al-Kamil, the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt. A strikingly good-natured exchange took place during the two rulers' parlay over the fate of Jerusalem. Al-Kamil's muezzin, out of respect for the presence of a Christian king, had refrained from the morning call to prayer. Emperor Frederick supposedly rebuked him, saying: "I stayed overnight in Jerusalem in order to overhear the prayer call of the Muslims and their worthy God." Frederick's ability to maintain respectful relations with the Sultan resulted in a bloodless transfer of Jerusalem to the Emperor's rule, in stark contrast to previous crusades which had typically resulted in massive amounts of senseless violence.

Emperor Frederick II and Sultan Al-Kamil clasping hands at the gates of Jerusalem, from Giovanni Villani's Nuova Cronica, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 14th century. 
Frederick's most recent biographer, David Abulafia, calls Frederick a "scientific" emperor, noting his deep-seated interest in the natural world, his rejection of religious orthodoxy, and his support for astronomical research. But a closer look into the Emperor's own "experiments" yields some surprises.

Frederick's interests are emblematic of the difference between medieval investigations of nature and those that we today associate with modern science. For one thing, they were insanely unethical by modern standards. According to the Franciscan monk Salimbene (who we should take with a grain of salt - Abulafia calls him a "shameless gossip"), these experiments included dissections of two men who had been fed meals hours earlier, to see how vigorous exercise influenced digestion. Salimbene also mentions a dubious-sounding incident in which Frederick compelled a man known as "Nicholas the Fish" (who was said to have been "condemned to an amphibious life" by his mother's curse!) to continually dive and fetch an underwater golden cup until he drowned.

Children playing, from a c. 1338 Alexander Romance (Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Bodley 264).
According to Salimbene, Frederick was also perhaps the first figure in recorded history to conduct a language deprivation experiment. What happens to infants who are deprived of all language? It's a question with profound implications, because it potentially sheds light on long-standing debates over the degree to which the human brain has a "language instinct," as Steven Pinker put it in his book of the same name. But it's an experiment so deeply cruel that it has only been entertained as an option by a handful of medieval and early modern rulers (a category of human beings for whom harshness and violence were sometimes lauded as a virtue).

Here's my attempt at translating from Salimbene's Latin, which you can read here in full here:

The second of [Frederick's] superstitions is that he wished to discover what sort of language and speech children developed, when growing up, if they were spoken to by no one. And so he ordered nurses to give milk to the infants, and for their breasts to be suckled, and for them to be bathed and cared for, but that they should be in no ways be played with or spoken to. The emperor wanted to know whether these infants would begin to speak the Hebrew language (which had been the first), or the Greek, Latin, or Arabic tongues, or whichever language had been spoken by the parents from which they were born. However, he labored in vain. Whether children or infants, they all perished. For it was not possible to live without the rejoicing and games and happy faces and blandishments of their caregivers and nurses. 
This inhumane episode, if it was actually ever carried out, is oddly reminiscent of some of the work of mid-20th century behavioralists, like B. F. Skinner, and their critics, like Harry Harlow. Harlow's interest in what he called the "pit of despair" afflicting isolated infants (which the psychologist apparently originally wanted to refer to with the even more medieval-sounding phrase "dungeon of despair") led him to conduct a now-infamous series of experiments involving the total isolation of baby rhesus monkeys.  Harlow found that even providing access to an inanimate "surrogate" mother (if the surrogate was soft to the touch) could provide what he called a "psychological base of operations" that increased survival rates and improved the baby's ability to cope with stressors. Monkeys with no such comfort quickly succumbed to profound psychological distress; some even died.

A Life Magazine photograph of one of the unfortunate infant monkeys involved in Harlow's infamous monkey experiments, circa 1959.
Without wading too much into psychological explanations, it may be worth pointing out at this juncture that Frederick II lost his own mother at the age of three. Medieval lives tended to be harsh, and perhaps his own experience of traumatic loss of a loving parent inspired Frederick's supposed dabbling in the dark side of behavioralist psychology.

Or maybe Salimbene, the monk on whom so much of what we supposedly know of Frederick depends, was simply slandering the emperor. It's hard to know at this point. But the episode does serve as a good reminder that many ideas and practices we associate with "modern science" often have much older (and stranger) antecedents than we realize. Incidentally, the obsession with seeing Hebrew as the "natural language" of humankind would stick around for a very long time. As late as 1760, the author of A New Complete English Dictionary speculated that Hebrew was the "language which God taught Adam." However, he noted that "others hold for the Syriac, Childee, Ethiopian, or Armenian" as potential first languages.

What I find most interesting, though, about Frederick's cruel experiment is not the speculation about some hypothetical "first" language, but the question of whether infants are somehow naturally able to speak the language of their parents, even without exposure to them. The idea seems to me tantalizingly similar to the theory of inheritance popularized by Jean-Bapistque Lamarck centuries later, toward the end of the eighteenth century.