Matilda’s tomb in St. Peter’s, Rome

The Most Powerful Woman in the Middle Ages?

When you think about powerful women in the Middle Ages, women who made a lasting difference, you might mention Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hildegard of Bingen, or in China, Mu Guiying, but you probably would not name Matilda of Canossa (ca. 1046–1115).

Not innocent…

Michèle Spike’s innocent title Tuscan Countess gives no hint of the political and ecclesiastical dynamite she packs between her book’s covers. In fact, this reader thinks it is the only weakness of this complex, powerful book. It combines history, travel, scholarship and theology quite well, and so is itself a literary tour de force.

All because they were in love

These happened because a woman and man profoundly, deeply, passionately loved one another: Matilda the Countess of Canossa and Pope Gregory VII. Spike tells their story from Matilda’s point of view, beginning with her father’s rise as a force to be reckoned with in Tuscany. She lost him at age 6, and her life changed dramatically as a female whose only real role in life then was to marry, cement alliances, and have babies. All her life she struggled to get her inheritance, her father’s lands, though as a woman she had no legal right to them.

No shy wallflower

Spike breaks up her historical narrative with lively, very personal descriptions of her voyages to retrace the steps of Matilda in Italy and Germany. She also takes time to show her mastery of Matilda scholarship, including a brilliant deconstruction of what amounts to her autobiography. She relentlessly and persuasively challenges biographers who portray her subject as a weak, vacillating woman. Besides using her lawyer training to prove her points with plenty of evidence and sharp, cogent arguments, Spike also describes how Matilda launched the school of canon law in Bologna, the direct ancestor of all modern law schools.

They snatched her corpse

Victorious warrior, careful scholar, profound believer, linguist, devoted lover, ruthless ruler and gentle nurse of battlefield wounded, the Matilda she presents to us is a complex person, whose internal contradictions are as it were writ large across the history of Italy. She and her man Hildebrand, the adulteress and the unchaste pope, enforced clerical celibacy. The reforms by a Jew’s grandson brought about the persecution of that people. They who so ardently desired to enshrine the power and glory of the city of Rome brought about its devastation. Together the pope and the Tuscan countess were a formidable team, yet undone. But in the end, one woman’s love triumphed, and the world has never been the same since. No wonder that another, much later pope ordered her body stolen and enshrined in St. Peter’s, Rome, in a gorgeous sarcophagus by Bernini surmounted by his vision of Matilda, Athena-like in her power and grace.

Bishop in charge, Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, 2001–2019. French-American. Musician, composer, author, happily married. www.pierrewhalon.info

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