Matilda’s tomb in St. Peter’s, Rome

The Most Powerful Woman in the Middle Ages?

The struggle between Henry IV, the German emperor, and Hildebrand, the Italian pope known as Gregory VII, is well known, and has often been portrayed as the forge of the modern papacy as well as modern Europe. Matilda’s role has been recognized before, but always as ancillary to the two men.

Enter her modern biographer, Michèle Spike. In her book, Tuscan Countess: The Life and Extraordinary Times of Matilda of Canossa (New York: Vendome Press), she convincingly argues that, without Matilda, for good and for ill, history would be quite different. The Roman Catholic Church might not be “Roman,” resembling the Anglican Communion in its governance; the German people might never have sought their “place in the sun,” spilling oceans of blood in the process. The Church in Italy might still be divided between Catholic in the north and Orthodox in the south: and the split might be an amicable one. The Crusades might not have happened at all, and the dreadful history of persecution of the Jews in Christian Europe might not have been written. Without the Reformation, the great reaction to Gregory’s reforms, the discovery of America might have taken place completely differently. And on and on…

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.

In it the reader meets two strong, intelligent women: Matilda of Canossa — and Michèle Spike. The author relates her growing preoccupation and even relationship with the great Tuscan leader, as she unfolds a new view of Matilda: the person who served as the pivot of European history.

Spike writes:

The idea that the Gregorian reform, which created the modern Roman Catholic Church, was instituted by a pope with Jewish roots and the woman he loved completely fascinates me. So do the following facts. When Hildebrand, Matilda and Henry IV were born, there was only one holy Catholic and apostolic Church. Before their death, the church had divided and a thousand years of tolerance between Christians and Jews had ended. (p. 88)

And the celibacy of the clergy became obligatory.

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.

In the process, she was married off, very badly, to Godfrey the Hunchback, a nobleman of Lorraine, and eventually came to know a brilliant, handsome and ambitious churchman named Hildebrand, grandson of a converted Jew. Having deserted her husband, Henry IV’s best warlord, she attended Hildebrand’s consecration as Pope Gregory VII, Bishop of Rome. Spike dates their emerging relationship from that moment — both of them were stunningly attractive. She swims against a great tide of biographers and hagiographers (Gregory VII was canonized in 1728) by arguing from the long periods of time they spent under one roof, her estranged husband’s public (and humiliating) accusations of their adultery, and Gregory’s own passionate letters that they had a deep love for one another, probably celebrated sexually, at least for a time. Spike also shows her pivotal role in persuading Gregory to lift his famous excommunication of Henry IV, certainly a major strategic error, but one which seemed reasonable to Matilda at the time, and therefore to Gregory, who valued her opinion above all others.

After his papacy collapsed with the disastrous sack of Rome by his Norman enemies, and his deposition by rivals, Gregory fled to Salerno and died there, a broken, apparently defeated man. Cut off from her man by enemy armies, Matilda devoted the rest of her life to using all her considerable intelligence, skills, wealth and influence to making sure that Gregory’s reforms took hold. Without her single-minded devotion, the popes probably would not be known today as “vicar of Christ,” but as they were then, “vicar of Peter.” Clerical celibacy became the norm, as did the pope’s power to appoint bishops. Gradually monarchs lost their power to appoint them, and the wealthy could no longer buy a church office. With this concentration of power, the papacy began its long ascendancy to its position of preeminence today.

Matilda’s chosen pope, Urban II, preached the First Crusade at Clermont-Ferrand, France, in 1095, and a new and dark chapter of history opened, whose consequences are still very much with us today. One of these was the end of almost a millennium of tolerance of the Jews, both in Rome and elsewhere.

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.

The bishops of Rome certainly owe Matilda. It took her very formidable biographer to uncover just how much.

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

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