Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Matilda of Tuscany, "La gran contessa"

Matilda of Canossa, margravine of Tuscany (died 24 July 1115)

Far too often when I begin a post, I must note that there is very little evidence about the life of the woman I am writing about. Fortunately, that is not the case for Matilda of Canossa (or Matilda of Tuscany, as she is also known). As only one indication of the wealth of material available for her life and work, just check out Wikipedia.

Although I do not rely on Wikipedia as a source for my posts, it's not because I do not appreciate the efforts of those who contribute to "the free encyclopedia"--it's because anyone can easily access that information for herself. But I always do check to see whether there is an entry for the woman about whom I'm writing--and so today, if you click on the Wikipedia entry for Matilda, you will find a lengthy, detailed history, with an extensive bibliography, including many works on Matilda in German, Italian, and English.

Matilda of Tuscany,
from Donizo of Canossa's
Vita Mathildis
Even so, the date of this remarkably accomplished woman's birth is unknown, though it is generally placed about the year 1046. Matilda's father was Boniface III, margrave of Tuscany (and count of Brescia, Canossa, Ferrara, Florence, Lucca, Mantua, Modena, Pisa, Pistoia, Parma, Reggio, and Verona--whew!!). 

Matilda's mother was Boniface's second wife, Beatrice of Lorraine. Beatrice's maternal aunt, Gisela, was the wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II, and Beatrice had been reared at the empress's court--Boniface first encountered Beatrice there in 1036, and the two were married in 1037. (It was the Emperor Conrad who had awarded Boniface with the lordship of Tuscany, in return for Boniface's support for Conrad's becoming Holy Roman emperor.)

The couple, Boniface and Beatrice, had three children: a son, Frederick, and two daughters, Beatrice and Matilda. Matilda is widely regarded as the youngest of the three, though birth order of the children isn't clear. 

Boniface had his son and heir, which might suggest that his daughters would be expected only to be prepared to fulfill a role in marital politics--but Matilda was well educated, probably under her mother's direction. Matilda's twelfth-century biographer, Donizo of Canossa, claims that the "learned Beatrice" carefully tutored "lofty Matilda, modest in mind." According to the monk, Matilda was literate in Latin, composing her own letters in that language, and fluent in both German and French. 

In his seventeenth-century account of Matilda's life, the Italian chronicler Lodovico Vedriani writes that Matilda received military training as well: she "learnt how to ride like a lancer, spear in hand, to bear a pike as a foot-soldier, and how to wield both battle-axe and sword." The historian-priest also depicts her, armed, riding at the head of her army:
Now there appeared in Lombardy at the head of her numerous squadrons the young maid Matilda, armed like a warrior, and with such bravery, that she made known to the world that courage and valour in mankind is not indeed a matter of sex, but of heart and spirit.

(However appealing these accounts are, modern historians tend to discount Vedriani's claims for Matilda's military training and activity.) 

On 7 May 1052, Matilda's father was ambushed while out hunting and killed. After Boniface's assassination, Beatrice seems to have acted as regent on behalf of her son, Frederick, but the situation is both murky and fraught--the second of couple's daughters, possibly named Beatrice, after her mother, died on 17 December 1053, and under increasing pressure to preserve her husband's lands and titles (as well as her own), the widowed Beatrice married her cousin, Godfrey III of Upper Lorraine. 

The marriage, however, had taken place without the permission of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III (who was Conrad II's son), against whom Godfrey had already rebelled. (Beatrice's first husband, Boniface, had always been a supporter of the emperor). Traveling to Florence in 1055 for a meeting with the pope, the emperor had Beatrice and her surviving daughter, Matilda, arrested--the two were taken back with him to Germany. The young Frederick, meanwhile, died within days of his mother's arrest.

But the emperor himself died suddenly in October of 1056, succeeded by his son, Henry, a minor. The boy's mother, Agnes of Poitou, was appointed to act as the boy's guardian and regent--and she rather quickly reconciled with Godfrey of Lorraine. Beatrice and Matilda were released and reunited with Godfrey, who was recognized as margrave of Tuscany. 

Following her return to Italy in 1057, Matilda largely disappears from the record for a time, though she accompanied her mother and stepfather to Rome in 1059. But in 1069, as Godfrey III of Lorraine lay dying, Matilda was married to his son, another Godfrey (he would succeed his father as Godfrey IV). 

The two were not well matched and found themselves on opposites sides of the contemporary power struggle pitting the pope against the empire--Godfrey supported the young emperor, Henry IV, while Matilda supported the pope. Godfrey and Matilda were together long enough to produce a daughter, Beatrice, who was born and died in January 1071. After the child's death, Matilda left Godfrey, and by January of the next year, she was in Mantua, with her mother.

Godfrey demanded Matilda's return, traveling to Italy and attempting to claim control of Tuscany in Matilda's right. He appealed to Pope Gregory VII for assistance in recovering his wife and promised aid if the pope would make Matilda return to him. But nothing could persuade Matilda, and by 1073, Godfrey headed back, wifeless, to Lorraine. He also failed in his promise to assist the pope. Even so, Gregory would not grant the dissolution that Matilda requested. Godfrey would be assassinated on 27 February 1076, thus solving the matter.

A sixteenth-century 
depiction of Matilda--
I love the headgear!*
In the mean time, with Godfrey distracted by conflicts and challenges in his own lands, Matilda had begun to assume power in Tuscany, under her mother's tutelage. After Godfrey's death, the two women governed together, but only briefly--after Beatrice died on 18 April 1076, Matilda of Tuscany became "the major imperial feudatory in Italy": despite the fact that, under Salic law, a woman could not inherit a title or land, "Matilda held the counties of Reggio, Modena, Mantua, Brescia, Verona, and Ferrara, as well as Tuscany." Whatever her own strength of character and abilities, it didn't hurt her cause that, without a male heir, her father's lands and titles would otherwise have gone to the emperor. Her support for the papacy and papal power made sure that did not happen. And, for good measure, Matilda made claims in her dead husband's Lorraine as well.

As the rupture between the papacy and the empire grew, Gregory VII excommunicated Henry IV--Matilda not only supported the pope but protected him, offering him safety in her stronghold, the castle of Canossa. It was there that the emperor, standing barefoot in the snow, made his penance. Two women--Matilda and Henry IV's mother-in-law, Adelaide of Turin, negotiated the terms of the reconciliation. (It was something of a family affair--Henry and Adelaide were both Matilda's second cousins.)

That wasn't the end of the conflict between pope and emperor, however--while Matilda continued to support the papacy, she also contributed to the dispute when, in 1079, she gave her lands to the pope, despite the fact that she held many of them as fiefs from the Holy Roman Empire. (She reserved the right to govern them through her lifetime.) 

In the years that followed, from 1080 until her death thirty-five years later--through the life of Gregory IV and his successors, Victor III, Urban II, and Pascal II, through the tumultuous years of Investiture Controversy, and even through a politically expedient second marriage to the young heir to the duchy of Bavaria, some twenty-five years her junior--Matilda remained firm in her support of the papal cause.

As Joan Ferrante notes, "Matilda was the major imperial feudatory in Italy, a force in imperial-papal politics, [and] a supporter of the reform papacy. . . . She offers a striking example of a woman who inherited land and power, who ruled over large territories, put down rebellions, and took part in major events."

In addition to her decades of political and military involvements, Matilda of Tuscany promoted manuscript production, encouraged and supported the development of the law and the judicial system, and patronized the building of scores of churches, monasteries, and hospitals. As Michèle K. Spike notes, Matilda's "cultural legacy is enormous" and includes some 136 "extant stone constructions," many of them "listed by UNESCO" as part of the "heritage of the world."

Before her death on 24 July 1115, Matilda of Tuscany may or may not have reconciled with Henry V, who had succeeded his father as Holy Roman Emperor in 1111, and may or may not have recognized him as her heir. Whatever she did or did not do, after Matilda's death, he took possession of all the land and titles Matilda held as margravine of Tuscany.

Matilda of Tuscany died while staying in a small castle in Reggiolo, and she was buried in the Benedictine Abbey of San Benedetto in Polirone (near Mantua), which had been founded by her grandfather. Matilda had developed and expanded the abbey and established its library, commissioning a magnificent gospel book which was her gift to the monastery. In the seventeenth century, her remains were moved to the Basilica of St. Peter (Rome) and placed within a tomb designed by Bernini.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini's tomb for Matilda,
St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The events of Matilda's life are so well documented and her accomplishments so many that I cannot do them justice here. A readable account of her life, as documented by Donizo of Canossa, is in Joan Ferrante's To the Glory of Her Sex, to which I have linked, above.

Paolo Gollinelli's detailed biographical essay from Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani is available online at the Treccani website (click here). And a large selection of letters to and from Matilda is available at Epistolae: Medieval Women's Latin Letters (click here).

Michele Spike's Tuscan Countess: The Life and Extraordinary Times of Matilda of Canossa was published in 2004 and is readily available. The scholarship is excellent, but it's a bit too romanticized for my taste--you can access Mary Huddy's 1906 Matilda, Countess of Tuscany and Nora Duff's 1909 Matilda of Tuscany, La gran donna d'Italia via the Internet Archive.

I especially recommend Penelope Nash's Empress Adelheid and Countess Matilda: Medieval Female Rulership and the Foundations of European Society--it's very expensive, so maybe Interlibrary Loan?

Update, 14 December 2021: I am now mid-way through a project I had always planned for my retirement, reading the entirety of Dante's Divine Comedy (I'd read Inferno, but never Purgatorio and Paradiso). It has taken me several years to get around to this--I retired in 2014! But, having started, I am slowly making progress. And who should I meet today, in Canto XXVIII of Purgatorio? As Dante enters the Garden of Eden, he meets a singing lady, picking flowers, later identified as "Matelda" (XXXIII.119). According to the notes (I am reading the Hollander and Hollander edition), Dante's "Matelda" is probably supposed to represent Matilda of Tuscany. (Though, "in Dante studies there is practically a separate industry devoted to problems associated with ["Matelda's"] identity and significance.")

*I searched through many pages of Google images, trying to find out more about this portrait--it seems likely to have been painted by Giuseppe Rivelli as a copy of a lost portrait by Parmigianino, and it seems to be in the Museo Diocesano Francesco Gonzaga di Mantova. Here's a link. A similar sixteenth-century portrait, perhaps another copy bt Rivelli, is in Musei Reali (Turin). For Liana de Girolami Cheney’s discussion of this portrait to Lavinia Fontana’s Cleopatra the Alchemist, click here and scroll to pp. 1175-1178.