This article takes as its point of departure a series of anecdotes, written roughly between c.1200 and c.1270, about the election of Frederick Barbarossa as king of the Romans and emperor elect in 1152. They represent Frederick as using an artful ruse to obtain the throne, or as a usurper. They are of limited value for reconstructing the events of 1152. Yet the frequency and spread of the accounts – with examples to be found in France and North Africa, as well as Germany – as well as striking similarities between them, raise important questions about historical memory in thirteenth-century Europe. In addition, a strict emphasis in the German materials on hereditary norms of succession marks a striking contrast with contemporary realities, and thus points to a profound dissonance between political norms and political realities in later Staufen Germany.