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Otto of Freising

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Otto of Freising

Otto of Freising

Otto of Freising (Otto Frisingensis) (c. 1114 – 22 September 1158) was a German churchman and chronicler. He was bishop of Freising as Otto I from 1138.


  • Life 1
  • Works 2
    • Chronica de duabus civitatibus 2.1
    • Gesta Friderici Imperatoris 2.2
  • References 3
  • Further reading 4
  • External links 5


Born in Klosterneuburg, he was the fifth son of Leopold III, margrave of Austria, by his wife Agnes, daughter of the emperor Henry IV. By her first husband, Frederick I of Hohenstaufen, duke of Swabia, Agnes was the mother of the German king Conrad III, and grandmother of the emperor Frederick I. Also, Otto's sister Judith or Ita was married to the Marquess William V of Montferrat. He was thus related to the most powerful families in Germany and Northern Italy.

The notices of his life are scanty and the dates somewhat uncertain. He studied in Paris, where he took an especial interest in philosophy, is said to have been one of the first to introduce the philosophy of Aristotle into Germany, and he served as provost of a new foundation in Austria.

Having entered the Cistercian order, Otto convinced his father to found Heiligenkreuz Abbey in 1133, thus bringing literacy and sophisticated agriculture (including wine making) to the region that would become Vienna. He became abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Morimond in Burgundy about 1136, and soon afterwards was elected bishop of Freising. This diocese, and indeed the whole of Bavaria, was then disturbed by the feud between the Welfs and the Hohenstaufen, and the church was in a deplorable condition; but a great improvement was brought about by the new bishop in both ecclesiastical and secular matters.

In 1147 he took part in the disastrous crusade of Conrad III. The section of the crusading army led by the bishop was decimated, but Otto reached Jerusalem, and returned to Bavaria in 1148 or 1149. He enjoyed the favour of Conrad's successor, Frederick I; was probably instrumental in settling the dispute over the duchy of Bavaria in 1156; was present at the famous diet of Besançon in 1157, and, still retaining the habit of a Cistercian monk, died at Morimond on 22 September 1158. In 1857 a statue of the bishop was erected at Freising.


Otto is most remembered for two important historical works.

Chronica de duabus civitatibus

The first of these is his Chronica sive Historia de duabus civitatibus (Chronicle or history of the two cities), a historical and philosophical work in eight books, which follows to some extent the lines laid down by Augustine and Orosius. Written during the time of the civil war in Germany (1143–1145), it contrasts Jerusalem and Babel, the heavenly and the earthly kingdoms, but also contains much valuable information about the history of his own time. The chronicle, which was held in very high regard by contemporaries, goes down to 1146, and from this date until 1209 has been continued by Otto, abbot of St Blasius (d. 1223). In the Chronica, Otto reports a meeting he had with Bishop Hugh of Jabala, who told him of a Nestorian Christian king in the east named Prester John. It was hoped this monarch would bring relief to the crusader states: this is the first documented mention of Prester John.

Painting of Otto of Freising by Hans Part. The Bishop is looking at the cathedral and city of Freising from the east bank of the Isar river.

Gesta Friderici Imperatoris

Better known is Otto's Gesta Friderici imperatoris (Deeds of Emperor Frederick), written at the request of Frederick I, and prefaced by a letter from the emperor to the author. The Gesta is in four books, the first two of which were written by Otto, and the remaining two, or part of them, by his pupil Ragewin, or Rahewin; it has been argued that the third book and the early part of the fourth were also the work of Otto. Beginning with the quarrel between Pope Gregory VII and the emperor Henry IV, the first book takes the history down to the death of Conrad III in 1152. It is not confined to German affairs, as the author digresses to tell of the preaching of Bernard of Clairvaux, of his zeal against the heretics, and of the condemnation of Pierre Abélard; and discourses on philosophy and theology. The second book opens with the election of Frederick I in 1152, and deals with the history of the first five years of his reign, especially in Italy, in some detail. From this point (1156) the work is continued by Ragewin. Otto's Latin is excellent, and in spite of a slight partiality for the Hohenstaufen, and some minor inaccuracies, the Gesta has been rightly described as a "model of historical composition."



Further reading

  • Mierow, Charles Christopher. "Bishop Otto of Freising: Historian and Man", Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 80. (1949), pp. 393–402.

External links

  • Article on his life (in German), with complete works (in Latin)
  • Otto of Freising at The Latin Library
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