History textbooks have increasingly negative connotations: dry, colorless accounts filled with names and dates that over-emphasize kings and military battles at the expense of that lives of the commoners, and that leave important things out while oversimplifying everything.
Some history teachers try to jazz things up by going through the textbook in a non-linear fashion, or treating students like "little historians" (and flying in the face of findings in cognitive science on the differences between novices and experts), by having their students spend significant time on primary sources.
Like "traditional math taught badly," traditional history can be butchered by bad teaching. And, just as with traditional math, the best textbooks come from long ago. It's today's "traditional" textbooks, for all their colorful sidebars, that are dry and colorless.
Consider these two passages about Frederick the Great, the first from McDougal and Littel's World History, published in 2005:
Disorder in the Empire
By 1152, the seven princes who elected the German king realized that Germany needed a strong ruler to keep the peace. They chose Frederick I, nicknamed “Barbarossa” for his red beard.
The Reign of Frederick I Frederick I was the first ruler to call his lands the Holy Roman Empire. However this region was actually a patchwork of feudal territories. His forceful personality and military skills enabled him to dominate the German princes, yet whenever he left the country, disorder returned. Following Otto’s example, Frederick repeatedly invaded the rich cities of Italy. His brutal tactics spurred Italian merchants to unite against him. He also angered the Pope, who joined the merchants in an alliance called the Lombard League.
In 1176, the foot soldiers of the Lombard League faced Frederick’s army of mounted knights at the Battle of Legnano. In an astonishing victory, the Italian foot soldiers used crossbows to defeat feudal knights for the first time in history. In 1177, Frederick made peace with the pope and returned to Germany. His defeat, though, had undermined his authority with the German princes. After he drowned in 1190, his empire fell to pieces.
The German States Remain Separate German kings after Frederick, including his grandson Frederick II, continued their attempts to revive Charlemagne’s empire and his alliance with the Church. This policy led to wars with Italian cities and to further clashes with the Pope. Conflicts were one reason why the feudal states of Germany did not unify during the Middle Ages. Another reason was that the system of German princes electing the king weakened royal authority. German rulers controlled fewer royal lands to use as a base of power than French and English kings of the same period, who, as you will learn in Chapter 14, were establishing strong central authority.From Outlines of European History, Part I, published in 1914:
A generation after the matter of investitures had been arranged by the Concordat of Worms the most famous of German emperors, next to Charlemagne, came to the throne. This was Frederick I, commonly called Barbarossa, from his red beard. He belonged to the family of Hohenstaufen, so called from their castle in southern Germany. Frederick's ambition was to restore the Roman Empire to its old glory and influence. He regarded himself as the successor of the Caesars, as well as of Charlemagne and Otto the Great. He believed his office to be quite as truly established by God himself as the papacy. When he informed the pope that he had been recognized as emperor by the German nobles, he too took occasion to state quite clearly that the headship of the Empire had been "bestowed upon him by God" and he did not ask the pope's sanction as his predecessors had done.Both books include pictures and sidebars, though those of Outlines of European History are in black and white. And, to be fair, the modern World History text has a lot more to cover. But its summary account of Frederick the Great shows just how boring excessive summarization can be. The first passage is so forgettable (and leaves so many questions unanswered) that perhaps the authors shouldn't have even bothered with this episode in history. The Outlines of European History passage does a wonderful job answering the questions that World History leaves unanswered, and many others, giving a much better sense of the broader context and significance, and extending far beyond names, dates, and kings. While its much longer sentences may elude today's attention-challenged students, it clarifies where the other passage baffles, and is ultimately (for those readers who are up to its lofty Lexile Level) much more memorable.
In his lifelong attempt to maintain what he thought to be his rights as emperor he met, quite naturally, with the three old difficulties. He had constantly to be fighting his rivals and rebellious vassals in Germany ; he had to face the opposition of the popes, who never forgot the claims that Gregory VII had made to control the emperor as well as other rulers. Lastly, in trying to keep hold of northern Italy, which he believed to belong to his empire, he spent a great deal of time with but slight results.
One of the greatest differences between the early Middle Ages and Frederick's time was the development of town life. Up to this period we have heard only of popes, emperors, kings, bishops, and feudal lords. From now on we shall have to take the towns and their citizens into account. No nation makes much progress without towns ; for only when people get together in considerable numbers do they begin to build fine buildings, establish universities and libraries, make inventions and carry on trade, which brings them into contact with other people in their own country and in foreign lands. (See below, Chapter XI, for town life.)
The towns had never decayed altogether in Italy, and by the time of Frederick Barbarossa they had begun to flourish once more, especially in Lombardy. Each of such towns as Milan, Verona, and Cremona were practically independent states. Their government was in the hands of the richer citizens, and the poorer people were not given any voice in city affairs. Compared with a modem city they were very disorderly, for sometimes the poor revolted against the rich, and often the nobles, who had moved in from the country and built fortified palaces in the towns, fought among themselves. And then the various towns were always fighting one another.
But in spite of all the warfare and disorder, the Italian cities became wealthy and, as we shall see later, were centers of learning and art similar to the ancient cities of Greece, such as Athens and Corinth. They were able to combine in a union known as the Lombard League to oppose Frederick, for they hated the idea of paying taxes to a German king from across the Alps, Frederick made several expeditions to Italy, but he only succeeded, after a vast amount of trouble, in getting them to recognize him as a sort of overlord. He was forced to leave them to manage their own affairs and go their own way. They could, of course, always rely upon the pope, when it came to fighting the emperor, for he was quite as anxious as the towns to keep Frederick out of Italy.
So Frederick failed in his great plans for restoring the Roman Empire ; he only succeeded in adding a new difficulty for his descendants. In spite of his lack of success in conquering the Lombard cities, Frederick tried to secure southern Italy for his descendants. He arranged that his son should marry Constance, the heiress of Naples and Sicily. This made fresh trouble for the Hohenstaufen rulers, because the pope, as feudal lord of Naples and Sicily, was horrified at the idea of the emperor's controlling the territory to the south of the papal possessions as well as that to the north.
After some forty years of fighting in Germany and Italy Frederick Barbarossa decided to undertake a crusade to the Holy Land and lost his life on the way thither. His son was carried off by Italian fever while trying to put down a rebellion in southern Italy, leaving the fate of the Hohenstaufen family in the hands of his infant son and heir, the famous Frederick II. It would take much too long to try to tell of all the attempts of rival German princes to get themselves made king of Germany and of the constant interference of the popes who sided now with this one and now with that. It happened that one of the greatest of all the popes, Innocent III, was ruling during Frederic II's early years. After trying to settle the terrible disorder in Germany he decided that Frederick should he made emperor, hoping to control him so that he would not become the dangerous enemy of the papacy that his father and grandfather had been. As a young man Frederick made all the promises that Innocent demanded, but he caused later popes infinite anxiety.
Frederick II was nearsighted, bald, and wholly insignificant in person ; but he exhibited the most extraordinary energy and ability in the organization of his kingdom of Sicily, in which he was far more interested than in Germany. He drew up an elaborate code of laws for his southern realms and may be said to have founded the first modern well-regulated state, in which the king was indisputably supreme. He had been brought up in Sicily and was much influenced by the Mohammedan culture which prevailed there. He appears to have rejected many of the opinions of the time. His enemies asserted that he was not even a Christian, and that he declared that Moses, Christ, and Mohammed were all alike impostors.
We cannot stop to relate the romantic and absorbing story of his long struggle with the popes. They speedily discovered the that he was bent upon establishing a powerful state to the south of them, and upon extending his control over the Lombard cities in such a manner that the papal possessions would be held as in a vise. This, they felt, must never be permitted. Consequently almost every measure that Frederick adopted aroused their suspicion and opposition, and they made every effort to destroy him and his house.
His chance of success in the conflict with the head of the Church was gravely affected by the promise which he had made before Innocent Ill's death to undertake a crusade. He was so busily engaged with his endless enterprises that he kept deferring the expedition, in spite of the papal admonitions, until at last the pope lost patience and excommunicated him. While excommunicated, he at last started for the East. He met with signal success and actually brought Jerusalem, the Holy City, once more into Christian hands, and was himself recognized as king of Jerusalem.
Frederick's conduct continued, however, to give offense to the popes. He was denounced in solemn councils, and at last deposed by one of the popes. After Frederick died (1250) his sons maintained themselves for a few years in the Sicilian kingdom ; but they finally gave way before a French army, led by the brother of St. Louis, Charles of Anjou, upon whom the pope bestowed the southern realms of the Hohenstaufens.
With Frederick's death the medieval empire may be said the close of to have come to an end. It is true that after a period of " fist law," as the Germans call it, a new king, Rudolf of Hapsburg, was elected in Germany in 1273. The German kings continued to call themselves emperors. Few of them, however, took the trouble to go to Rome to be crowned by the pope. No serious effort was ever made to reconquer the Italian territory for which Otto the Great, Frederick Barbarossa, and his son and grandson had made such serious sacrifices. Germany was hopelessly divided and its king was no real king. He had no capital and no well-organized government.
By the middle of ihe thirteenth century it becomes apparent that neither Germany nor Italy was to be converted into a strong single kingdom like England and France. The map of Slates Germany shows a confused group of duchies, counties, archbishropics, bishropics, abbacies, and free towns, each one of which asserted its practical independence of the weak king and emperor.