Medieval Women in Power - Matilda of Tuscany and her precursors
Updated: Sep 29, 2021
Medieval Europe did not really have historians in the modern (or ancient Greek) sense of the word. It had chroniclers and propagandists. It was, in many ways, the original age of fake news. If it is hard for us today to interpret correctly the contradictory claims of the sources with regards to kings and popes, it is twice as hard to identify the thoughts and intentions of women, whose mere existence as political players was at best barely tolerated and at worst seen as an aberration of the order of things.
In the words of XI-century Cardinal Hubert of Silva Candida - the esteemed churchman whose diplomatic intransigence caused the schism between Western and Eastern churches - women should not even be allowed to speak in church. So how do we find their voices? The voices of empresses, queens, saints, abbesses, the women who delivered and sometimes shaped the boys who ruled Europe? I would start from Epistolae, the amazing collaborative project set up and run by Columbia University. It is a collection of letters to and from women in the Middle Ages, from the 4th to the 13th century.
The sources are staring at us with a few inspiring words and huge silences, and I suppose my decision to research for and write Lotharingia has been partly driven by a desire to fill those silences. Often, the recorded actions of medieval women leaders are all we have left, and making sense of these actions in today's world, with today's parameters, is an exercise in humility - a constant admission of failure. I accept that I will never know the characters I am writing about. The only homage I can pay to these brave trailblazers is the homage of fiction - turning them into stories, acknowledging and embracing the role they played in a men's world.
I first came across the historical character of Countess Matilde of Canossa as a child. Later on, while studying the period, I was fascinated by the unusual number of women who seem to have played leading roles in eleventh XI century imperial politics. Matilde, her mother Margravine Beatrice of Tuscany-Lotharingia, and Dowager Empress Agnes of Poitou, by a combination of fate and tenacity, managed to hold on to positions of incredible power in a very male-dominated era. The Church, Humbert of Silva Candida notwithstanding, held countess, margravine and empress in the highest esteem.
In addition to the Epistolae, other documents, from the Regesta Imperii to the Vita Mathildis, record their alleged actions, but the characters remain fleetingly elusive.
Of the three, Beatrice fulfilled a more traditional role, ruling behind the scenes, through marriage to a powerful duke. This could explain the relative kindness of the sources. However, we are dealing with a formidable political player - a woman who raised armies against her German overlord, and who spent the second part of her life fighting to preserve her daughter's rights and inheritance - and succeeded. Empress Agnes is a more problematic figure. She did not settle for the traditional fate of a highborn widow (remarriage or monastery), and German sources hostile to her regency subjected her to slander and accusations of being a loose woman. Yet she remained so influential in Rome that the Church tasked her with a number of extremely sensitive diplomatic missions.
Countess Matilde was probably the first woman to lead wars against an emperor since Roman times and ruled for most of her life without a husband. She pushed the acceptable boundaries of feminity and the chroniclers condemned her to face a similar fate as Agnes, generating extremely polarised representations. Yet she always retained the trust of the papacy and acted repeatedly as the sword of Saint Peter. Was she a prefiguration of Joan of Arc, a pious woman denied her wish to retire to the cloisters and forced to rule against her deepest wishes? To me, her lifelong political involvement suggests that there was much more to her than a series of fatal coincidences that brought her to become the largest landowner in the empire. Matilde stayed in power, fought for her power, with too much passion and determination. Saint, virago, sinner, and if so, what was her real sin?
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An Image of Empress Agnes and her husband Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich III.