Frederick I (1122-90) was a skilled military commander, cunning political strategist and charismatic leader. Known as “Barbarossa” because of his red beard, Frederick ruled as Duke of Swabia (1147), king of the German territories (1152) and Holy Roman Emperor (1155).
In the late 1150s, Frederick marched his army to northern Italy to suppress recalcitrant cities in Lombardy. During this campaign Frederick left his wife, Beatrice, in Milan. The Milanese treated her poorly, however, seizing Beatrice, placing her backwards on a mule and forcing her to ride out of the city.
Frederick was outraged by this gross insult but did not have to wait long for his revenge. In March 1162 his forces laid siege to Milan, which quickly capitulated. According to chroniclers like Giambattista Gelli, repeated here by Nathaniel Wanley, Frederick got his own back for the mule incident – and them some:
“The Emperor, justly incensed, urged the besieged [citizens] to yield, which they at last did… he received them with mercy upon this condition: that every person who desired to live should, with their teeth, take a fig out of the genitals of a [she] mule.”
According to two accounts, this bizarre ritual was carried out in Milan’s largest square. A few Milanese refused to participate in it and were duly beheaded – but most submitted. Frederick remained true to his word, sparing their lives, however for decades the incident was used to humiliate and insult the Milanese. The fig sign – an insulting medieval hand gesture – may well emanate from this event.