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Women of the Romance Countries By John R. Effinger Characters: 32986

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

The Age of the Countess Matilda of Tuscany

The eleventh century, which culminated in the religious fervor of the First Crusade, must not on that account be considered as an age of unexampled piety and devotion. Good men there were and true, and women of great intellectual and moral force, but it cannot be said that the time was characterized by any deep and sincere religious feeling which showed itself in the general conduct of society. Europe was just emerging from that gloom which had settled down so closely upon the older civilizations after the downfall of the glory that was Rome, and the light of the new day sifted but fitfully through the dark curtains of that restless time. Liberty had not as yet become the shibboleth of the people, superstition was in the very air, the knowledge of the wisest scholars was as naught, compared with what we know to-day; everywhere, might made right.

In a time like this, in spite of the illustrious example of the Countess Matilda, it cannot be supposed that women were in a very exalted position. It is even recorded that in several instances, men, as superior beings, debated as to whether or not women were possessed of souls. While this momentous question was never settled in a conclusive fashion, it may be remarked that in the heat of the discussion there were some who called women angels of light, while there were others who had no hesitation in declaring that they were devils incarnate, though in neither case were they willing to grant them the same rights and privileges which they themselves possessed. Though many other facts of the same kind might be adduced, the mere existence of such discussion is enough to prove to the most undiscerning that woman's place in society was not clearly recognized, and that there were many difficulties to be overcome before she could consider herself free from her primitive state of bondage.

In the eye of the feudal law, women were not considered as persons of any importance whatever. The rights of husbands were practically absolute, and led to much abuse, as they had a perfectly legal right to punish wives for their misdeeds, to control their conduct in such a way as to interfere with their personal liberty, and in general to treat them as slaves and inferior beings. The whipping-post had not then been invented as a fitting punishment for the wife beater, as it was perfectly understood, according to the feudal practices as collected by Beaumanoir, "that every husband had the right to beat his wife when she was unwilling to obey his commands, or when she cursed him, or when she gave him the lie, providing that it was done moderately, and that death did not ensue." If a wife left a husband who had beaten her, she was compelled by law to return at his first word of regret, or to lose all right to their common possessions, even for purposes of her own support.

The daughters of a feudal household had even fewer rights than the wife. All who are willing to make a candid acknowledgment of the facts must admit that even to-day, a girl-baby is often looked upon with disfavor. This has been true in all times, and there are numerous examples to show that this aversion existed in ancient India, in Greece and Sparta, and at Rome. The feudal practices of medi?val Europe were certainly based upon it, and the Breton peasant of to-day expresses the same idea somewhat bluntly when he says by way of explanation, after the birth of a daughter: Ma femme a fait une fausse couche. Conscious as all must be of this widespread sentiment at the present time, it will not be difficult to imagine what its consequences must have been in so rude a time as the eleventh century, when education could do so little in the way of restraining human passion and prejudice. As the whole feudal system, so far as the succession of power was concerned, was based upon the principle of primogeniture, it was the oldest son who succeeded to all his father's lands and wealth, the daughter or daughters being left under his absolute control. Naturally, such a system worked hardship for the younger brothers, but then as now it was easier for men to find a place for themselves in the world than for women, and the army or the Church rarely failed to furnish some sort of career for all those who were denied the rights and privileges of the firstborn. The lot of the sister, however, was pitiful in the extreme (unless it happened that the older brother was kind and considerate), for if she were in the way she could be bundled off to a cloister, there to spend her days in solitude, or she could be married against her will, being given as the price of some alliance.

The conditions of marriage, however, were somewhat complicated, as it was always necessary to secure the consent of three persons before a girl of the higher class could go to the altar in nuptial array. These three persons were her father or her guardian, her lord and the king. It was Hugo who likened the feudal system to a continually ascending pyramid with the king at the very summit, and that interminable chain of interdependence is well illustrated in the present case. Suppose the father, brother, or other guardian had decided upon a suitable husband for the daughter of the house, it was necessary that he should first gain the consent of that feudal lord to whom he gave allegiance, and when this had been obtained, the king himself must give his royal sanction to the match. Nor was this all, for a feudal law said that any lord can compel any woman among his dependants to marry a man of his own choosing after she has reached the age of twelve. Furthermore, there was in existence a most cruel, barbarous, and repulsive practice which gave any feudal lord a right to the first enjoyment of the person of the bride of one of his vassals. As Legouvé has so aptly expressed it: Les jeunes gens payaient de leur corps en allant à la guerre, les jeunes filles en allant à l'autel.

Divorce was a very simple matter at this time so far as the husband was concerned, for he it was who could repudiate his wife, disown her, and send her from his door for almost any reason, real or false. In earlier times, at the epoch when the liberty of the citizen was the pride of Rome, marriage almost languished there on account of the misuse of divorce, and both men and women were allowed to profit by the laxity of the laws on this subject. Seneca said, in one instance: "That Roman woman counts her years, not by the number of consuls, but by the number of her husbands." Juvenal reports a Roman freedman as saying to his wife: "Leave the house at once and forever! You blow your nose too frequently. I desire a wife with a dry nose." When Christianity appeared, then, the marriage tie was held in slight consideration, and it was only after many centuries and by slow degrees that its sanctity was recognized, and its rights respected. While, under the Roman law, both men and women had been able to get a divorce with the same ease, the feudal idea, which gave all power into the hands of the men, made divorce an easy thing for the men alone, but this was hardly an improvement, as the marriage relation still lacked stability.

It must not be supposed that all the medi?val ideas respecting marriage and divorce and the condition of women in general, which have just been explained, had to do with any except those who belonged in some way to the privileged classes, for such was not the case. At that time, the great mass of the people in Europe-men and women-were ignorant to the last degree, possessing little if any sense of delicacy or refinement, and were utterly uncouth. For the most part, they lived in miserable hovels, were clothed in a most meagre and scanty way, and were little better than those beasts of burden which are compelled to do their master's bidding. Among these people, rights depended quite largely upon physical strength, and women were generally misused. To the lord of the manor it was a matter of little importance whether or not the serfs upon his domain were married in due form or not; marriage as a sacrament had little to do with these hewers of wood and drawers of water, and they were allowed to follow their own impulses quite generally, so far as their relations with each other were concerned. The loose moral practices of the time among the more enlightened could be but a bad example for the benighted people of the soil; consequently, throughout all classes of society there was a degree of corruption and immorality which is hardly conceivable to-day.

So far as education was concerned, there were but a few who could enjoy its blessings, and these were, for the most part, men. Women, in their inferior and unimportant position, rarely desired an education, and more rarely received one. Of course, there were conspicuous exceptions to this rule; here and there, a woman working under unusually favorable circumstances was really able to become a learned person. Such cases were extremely rare, however, for the true position of woman in society was far from being understood. Schools for women were unknown; indeed, there were few schools of any kind, and it was only in the monasteries that men were supposed to know how to read and write. Even kings and queens were often without these polite accomplishments, and the right of the sword had not yet been questioned. Then, it must be taken into consideration that current ideas regarding education in Italy in this early time were quite different from what they are to-day. As there were no books, book learning was impossible, and the old and yellowed parchments stored away in the libraries of the monasteries were certainly not calculated to arouse much public enthusiasm. Education at this time was merely some sort of preparation for the general duties of life, and the nature of this preparation depended upon a number of circumstances.

To make the broadest and most general classification possible, the women of that time might be divided into ladies of high degree and women of the people. The former were naturally fitted by their training to take their part in the spectacle of feudal life with proper dignity; more than that, they were often skilled in all the arts of the housewife, and many times they showed themselves the careful stewards of their husbands' fortunes. The women of the people, on the other hand, were not shown any special consideration on account of their sex, and were quite generally expected to work in the fields with the men. Their homes were so unworthy of the name that they required little care or thought, and their food was so coarse that little time was given to its preparation. Simple-minded, credulous, superstitious in the extreme, with absolutely no intellectual uplift of any kind, and nothing but the sordid drudgery of life with which to fill the slow-passing hours, it is no wonder that the great mass of both the men and the women of this time were hopelessly swallowed up in a many-colored sea of ignorance, from which, with the march of the centuries, they have been making slow efforts to rise. So the lady sat in the great hall in the castle, clad in some gorgeous gown of silk which had been brought by the patient caravans, through devious ways, from the far and mysterious East; surrounded by her privileged maidens, she spun demurely and in peace and quiet, while out in the fields the back of the peasant woman was bent in ceaseless toil. Or again, the lady of the manor would ride forth with her lord when he went to the hunt, she upon her white palfrey, and he upon his black charger, and each with hooded falcon on wrist; for the gentle art of falconry was almost as much in vogue among the women as among the men of the time. Often it happened that during the course of the hunt it would be necessary to cross a newly planted field, or one heavy with the ripened grain, and this they did gaily and with never a thought for the hardship that they might cause; and as they swept along, hot after the quarry, the poor, mistreated peasant, whether man or woman, dared utter no word of protest or make moan, nor did he or she dare to look boldly and unabashed upon this hunting scene, but rather from the cover of some protecting thicket. Scenes of this kind will serve to show the great gulf which there was between the great and the lowly; and as there was an almost total lack of any sort of education in the formal sense of the word, it will be readily understood that all that education could mean for anybody was that training which was incident to the daily round of life, whatever it happened to be. So the poor and dependent learned to fear and sometimes to hate their masters, and the proud and haughty learned to consider themselves as superior and exceptional beings.

With society in such a state as this, the question will naturally arise: What did the Church do under these circumstances to ameliorate the condition of the people and to advance the cause of woman? The only answer to this question is a sorry negative, as it soon becomes apparent, after an investigation of the facts, that in many cases the members of the clergy themselves were largely responsible for the wide prevalence of vice and immorality. It must be remembered that absolution from sin and crime in those days was but a matter of money price and that pardons could be easily bought for any offence, as the venality of the clergy was astounding. The corruption of the time was great, and the priests themselves were steeped in crime and debauchery. In former generations, the Church at Rome had many times issued strict orders against the marriage of the clergy, and, doubtless as one of the consequences of this regulation, it had become the custom for many of the priests to have one or more concubines with whom they, in most cases, lived openly and without shame. The monasteries became, under these conditions, dens of iniquity, and the nunneries were no better. The nunnery of Saint Fara in the eleventh century, according to a contemporary description, was no longer the residence of holy virgins, but a brothel of demoniac females who gave themselves up to all sorts of shameless conduct; and there are many other accounts of the same general tenor. Pope Gregory VII. tried again to do something for the cause of public morality, in 1074, when he issued edicts against both concubinage and simony-or the then prevalent custom of buying or selling ecclesiastical preferment; but the edict was too harsh and unreasonable with regard to the first, inasmuch as it provided that no priest should marry in the future, and that those who already possessed wives or concubines were to give them up or relinquish their sacred offices. This order caused great consternation, especially in Milan, where the clergy were honestly married, each man to one wife, and it was found impossible to exact implicit obedience to its requirements.

So far as the general influence of women upon the feudal society of Italy in the eleventh century is concerned, it is not discoverable to have been manifest in the ways which were common in other countries. It will be understood, of course, that, in speaking of woman's influence here, reference is made to the women of the upper classes, as those of the peasant class cannot be said to have formed a part of social Europe at this time. It is most common to read in all accounts of this feudal period, which was the beginning of the golden age of the older chivalry, that women exerted a most gentle influence upon the men about them and that the honor and respect in which they were held did much to elevate the general tone of life. In Italy, however, chivalry did not flourish as it did in other countries. Since the time of the great Emperor Charlemagne all Italy had been nominally a part of the imperial domain, but owing to its geographical position, which made it difficult of access and hard to control, this overlordship was not always administered with strictness, and from time to time the larger cities of Italy were granted special rights and privileges. The absence of an administrative capital made impossible any centralization of national life, and it was entirely natural, then, that the various Italian communities should assert their right to some sort of local government and some measure of freedom. This spirit of citizenship in the free towns overcame the spirit of disciplined depe

ndence which was common to those parts of the empire which were governed according to the usual feudal customs, and, as a result, Italy lacks many of those characteristics which are common to the more integral parts of the vast feudal system.

The most conspicuous offspring of feudalism was chivalry, with its various orders of knighthood; but chivalry and the orders of knighthood gained little foothold in Italy, where the conditions necessary for the growth and development of such a social and military order were far from propitious. Knights, it is true, came and went in Italy, and performed their deeds of valor; fair maidens were rescued, and women and children were given succor; but the knights were foreign knights, and they owed allegiance to a foreign lord. So far, then, Italy was without the institution of chivalry, and, to a great degree, insensible to those high ideals of fealty and honor which were the cardinal virtues of the knightly order. Owing to the absence of these fine qualities of mind and soul, the Italian in war was too often of fierce and relentless temper, showing neither pity nor mercy and having no compassion for a fallen foe. Warriors never admitted prisoners to ransom, and the annals of their contests are destitute of those graceful courtesies which shed such a beautiful lustre over the contests of England and France. Stratagems were as common as open and glorious battle, and private injuries were revenged by assassination and not by the fair and manly joust à l'outrance. However, when a man pledged his word for the performance of any act and wished his sincerity to be believed, he always swore by the parola di cavaliere, and not by the parola di cortigiano, so general was the acknowledgment of the moral superiority of chivalry.

It was in the midst of this age of ignorance that Matilda, the great Countess of Tuscany, by means of her wisdom and intelligence and her many graces of mind and body, made such a great and lasting reputation for herself that her name has come down in history as the worthy companion of William the Conqueror and the great monk Hildebrand, later Pope Gregory VII., her most distinguished contemporaries. Matilda's father, Boniface, was the richest and most powerful nobleman of his time in all Italy, and as Margrave and Duke of Tuscany, Duke of Lucca, Marquis of Modena, and Count of Reggio, Mantua, and Ferrara, he exerted a very powerful feudal influence. Though at first unfriendly to the interests of the papal party in Italy, he was just about ready to espouse its cause when he fell under the hand of an assassin; and then it was that Matilda, by special dispensation of the emperor, was allowed to inherit directly her father's vast estate, which she shared at first with her brother Frederick and her sister Beatrice. Generally, fiefs reverted to the emperor and remained within his custody for five years-were held in probate, as it were-before the lawful heirs were allowed to enter into possession of their property. Frederick and Beatrice were short-lived, however, and it was not many years before Matilda was left as sole heir to this great domain; she was not entirely alone, as she had the watchful care and guidance of her mother, who assisted her in every emergency.

As the result of this condition of affairs, both mother and daughter were soon sought in marriage by many ardent and ambitious suitors, each presenting his claims for preferment and doing all in his power to bring about an alliance which meant so much for the future. Godfrey of Lorraine, who was not friendly to the party of the Emperor Henry III., while on a raid in Italy, pressed his suit with such insistency that the widowed Beatrice promised to marry him and at the same time gave her consent to a betrothal between Matilda and Godfrey's hunchback son, who also bore the name of Godfrey. This marriage with an unfriendly prince, after so many years of imperial favor, and this attempt at a consolidation of power for both present and future, so angered Henry that he insisted that Beatrice must have yielded to violence in this disposition of her affairs. Finally, in spite of her repeated denials, she was made a prisoner for her so-called insubordination, while Matilda was compelled to find safety in the great fortress at Canossa. In the meantime, Godfrey had gone back to Lorraine, more powerful than ever, to stir up trouble in the empire.

In this same year, 1054, Henry III. died, and his son, Henry IV., won over by the prayers of Pope Victor II., made peace with Godfrey and restored Beatrice to liberty. They, being more than grateful to Victor for this kindly intervention, invited him to come to their stately palace in Florence and tarry with them for a while. From this time on, in the period when Matilda was growing into womanhood, the real seat of the papal power was not in Rome, but in Florence, and Godfrey's palace became an acknowledged centre of ecclesiastical activity.

Matilda was a girl of a mystic temperament, credulous, it is true, and somewhat superstitious like all the other people of her time, and yet filled with a deep yearning for a greater knowledge of the secrets of the universe. Her ideal of authority was formed by intercourse with the various members of her own circle, who were all devoted heart and soul to the cause of the Holy See, and it was but natural that, when she became old enough to think and act for herself, all her inclinations should lead her to embrace the cause of the pope. While it is beyond the province of the present volume to describe in detail the exact political and religious situation in Italy at this time, it should be said that the pope was anxious to reassert the temporal power of his office, which had for a long time been subservient to the will of the emperors. He desired the supremacy of the papacy within the Church, and the supremacy of the Church over the state. Early filled with a holy zeal for this cause, Matilda tried to inform herself regarding the real state of affairs, so that she might be able to act intelligently when the time for action came. Through skilful diplomacy, it came to pass that Matilda's uncle-Frederick-became Pope Stephen X.; and then, of course, the house of Lorraine came to look upon the papal interests as its own, and the daughter of the house strengthened the deep attachment for the Church which was to die only when she died. Nor must it be thought that the priestly advisers of the house were blind to the fact that in Matilda they had one who might become a pillar of support for the fortunes of the papacy. The monk Hildebrand, for a long time the power behind the pope until he himself became pope in 1073, was a constant visitor at Matilda's home, and he it was who finally took her education in hand and gave it its fullest development. She had many teachers, of course, and under Hildebrand's guiding genius, the work was not stopped until the young countess could speak French, German, and Latin with the same ease as she did her mother tongue.

Finally, in 1076, when she was thirty years of age, her mother-Beatrice-died, and also her husband, Godfrey le Bossu. The great countess, acting for the first time entirely upon her own responsibility, now began that career of activity and warfare which was unflagging to the end. No other woman of her time had her vast power and wealth, no other woman of her time had her well-stored mind, and no other, whether man or woman, was so well equipped to become the great protector of the Holy Church at Rome. People were amazed at her ability-they called her God-given and Heaven-sent, and they felt a touch of mystery in this woman's life. Surely she was not as the others of her time, for she could hold her head high in the councils of the most learned, and she the only woman of the number! Nor was she one-sided in her activity and indifferent to all interests save those of the papal party, as her many public benefactions show her to have been a woman filled with that larger zeal for humanity which far transcends the narrow zeal for sect or creed. For, in addition to the many temples, convents, and sepulchres, which she caused to be scattered over the northern part of Italy, she built the beautiful public baths at Casciano, and the great hospital of Altapascio.

Never strong physically, Matilda was possessed of remarkable vitality and an iron will, and she showed great powers of execution and administration, never shirking the gravest responsibilities. A part of her life was spent in the rough camps of her devoted feudal soldiery, and-weak woman though she was-she led them on to battle more than once, when they seemed to need the inspiration of her presence. Women warriors there have been in every day and generation in some part of the world perhaps, but never one like this. Clad in her suit of mail, and urging on her battle horse at the head of her followers, her pale face filled with the light of a holy zeal, it is small wonder that her arms triumphed, and that before her death she came to be acknowledged openly as by far the most important person in all Italy.

It happened at one time that the emperor-Henry IV.-deserted by his friends in Germany, and excommunicated by the pope, found that his only hope for restoration to popular favor lay in a pardon from his enemy and the lifting of the ban of excommunication. He set out, therefore, alone and without an army, to meet the pope and sue for peace. Gregory, uninformed as to Henry's intended visit (for news did not travel quickly in those early days), was at the time on his way to Germany, where an important diet was to be held, and with him was his faithful ally Matilda. When they learned of the emperor's approach, however, the papal train turned aside to the nearby fortress of Canossa, one of Matilda's possessions, there to await the royal suppliant. In the immense hall of that great castle, all hung with armor, shining shields and breastplates, and all the varied accoutrements of war, the frowning turrets without and the dark corridors within swarming with the pope's defenders, Henry, the great emperor, who had once tried to depose Gregory, was now forced to his greatest earthly humiliation and was compelled to bend the knee and sue for pardon. Matilda it was who sat beside the pope at this most solemn moment, and she alone could share with Gregory the glory of this triumph, for she it was who had supplied the sinews of war and made it possible for the pope to impose his will.

On their return to Rome, to insure a continuance of papal success and give stability to the ecclesiastical organization, she made over by formal donation to the Holy See all her worldly possessions. This was not only an act of great liberality, but it was a very bold assertion of independence, as it was not customary to make disposition of feudal possessions without first gaining the emperor's consent. As it was a foregone conclusion that he would never give his consent to this arrangement, Matilda thought best to dispense with that formality.

Henry's submission was the distinct recognition of papal supremacy for which Matilda had been battling, but Gregory, in his exactions, had overstepped the bounds of prudent policy, as he had shown himself too arrogant and dictatorial. In consequence, all Lombardy rose against him, Tuscany soon followed suit, and, in 1080, Matilda herself was forced to take refuge in the mountains of Modena. Henry, who had regained in part his power and his influence at home, descended upon Rome in 1083, and in revenge for his former disgrace, expelled Gregory, who retired to Salerno, where he died soon after. Now comes a period of conflict between popes and anti-popes, Matilda sustaining the regular successors of Gregory, and Henry nominating men of his own choice. The long period of warfare was beginning to weigh heavily upon the land, however, and in a solemn assembly at Carpinetto, the friends and barons of Matilda implored her to cease her struggles, but she refused to listen to their entreaties because a monk of Canossa had promised her the aid of heaven if she should persevere in this holy war. Before long, Lombardy, which had long been restless, revolted against the emperor, and Matilda, by great skill and a display of much tact, was enabled to arrange matters in such a way that she broke Henry's power. This victory made Matilda, to all intents and purposes, the real Queen of Italy, though in title she was but the Countess of Tuscany. Then it was that she confirmed her grant of 1077, giving unconditionally to the pope all her fiefs and holdings. While the validity of this donation was seriously questioned, and while it was claimed that she had really intended to convey her personal property only, so ambiguous was the wording of the document that the pope's claims were in the main allowed, and many of her lands were given over to his temporal sway.

After the death of Henry IV. (1106), she continued to rule without opposition in Italy, though recognizing the suzerainty of his successor, Henry V. In 1110, this emperor came to visit her at Bibbianello, where he was filled with admiration for her attainments, her great wisdom, and her many virtues. During this visit, Henry treated her with the greatest respect, addressing her as mother; before his departure, he made her regent of Italy. She was then old and feeble, physically, but her mind and will were still vigorous. A few years later, during the Lenten season in 1115, she caught cold while attempting to follow out the exacting requirements of Holy Week, and it soon became apparent that her end was near. Realizing this fact herself she directed that her serfs should be freed, confirmed her general donation to the pope, made a few small bequests to the neighboring churches, and then died as she had lived, calmly and bravely. Her death occurred at Bendano, and her body was interred at Saint Beno?t de Ponderone. Five centuries later, under the pontificate of Urban VIII., it was taken to Rome and buried with great ceremony in the Vatican.

As to Matilda's character, some few historians have cast reflections upon the nature of her relations with Pope Gregory, their stay together at Canossa, at the time of Henry's humiliation, being particularly mentioned as an instance of their too great intimacy. Such aspersions have still to be proved, and there is nothing in all contemporary writings to show that there was anything reprehensible in all the course of this firm friendship. Gregory was twice the age of the great countess, and was more her father than her lover. During her whole lifetime, she had been of a mystic temperament, and it is too much to ask us to believe that her great and holy ardor for the Church was tainted by anything like vice or sensuality. By reason of her great sagacity and worldly wisdom she was the most powerful and most able personage in Italy at the time of her death. If her broad domains could have been kept together by some able successor, Italian unity might not have been deferred for so many centuries; but there was no one to take up her work and Italy was soon divided again, and this time the real partition was made rather by the growing republics than by the feudal lords.

A consideration of the life of the Countess Matilda points to the fact that there was but this one woman in all Italy at this time who knew enough to take advantage of her opportunities and play a great r?le upon the active stage of life. Many years were to pass before it could enter the popular conception that all women were to be given their chance at a fuller life, and even yet in sunny Italy, there is much to do for womankind. Then, as now, the skies were blue, and the sun was bright and warm; then, as now, did the peasants dance and sing all the way from water-ribbed Venice to fair and squalid Naples, but with a difference. Now, there is a measure of freedom to each and all-then, justice was not only blind but went on crutches, and women were made to suffer because they were women and because they could not defend, by force, their own. Still, there is comfort in the fact that from this dead level of mediocrity and impotence, one woman, the great Countess of Tuscany, was able to rise up and show herself possessed of a great heart, a great mind, and a great soul; and in her fullness of achievement, there was rich promise for the future.

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