Behind every great man

Matilda of Tuscanys struggle for reform

Michle Kahn Spike
September 20, 2007

In June, 1007, Tedaldo, a German marquis, donated money to build a monastery on the island of San Benedetto in the Po River, in memory of his wife, Guilia. To the monks who would live in the monastery, Tedaldo gave ‘half of the island, including the houses, woods, fields and vineyards and the fruits, vegetables, fish and sheep found thereon, and five servants all of Italian nationality’.


The property was left to his granddaughter, Matilda of Canossa, who bequeathed the remainder of the island to the monks and freed the Italians from their servitude to the German feudal overlords.


Cloisters may seem faintly irrelevant today, but during Matilda’s lifetime, the cloister and the Roman church were the sole advocates of freedom and human rights in a rigid feudal society ruled by arbitrary laws. The German hierarchy was an ‘all boys club’ in which feudal lands passed from father to son or grandson, or to a brother or a nephew—never to a woman. Matilda refused this standard and, in the process, transformed the lives of western European women forever.


In her struggle to establish the rights to her father’s lands, Matilda turned to Emperor Justinian’s sixth-century Codice Juris Civilis, a set of laws inspired by another great woman, Theodora, wife of Justinian and Empress of Byzantium. Theodora and Matilda, separated by half a millennium, insisted that women who lived in self-controlled territories had the right to own and inherit property.


Matilda’s most curious ally was none other than Pope Gregory VII, the greatest of the medieval popes and author of the church’s Gregorian Reform. The idea that Matilda and Pope Gregory VII were in love with each other is briefly noted and rarely explored by church historians. He lost his papacy and died in exile, in part because the male German bishops objected to Matilda’s influence in Rome.


Because of her status as beloved ally of Pope Gregory VII, she has unfortunately been portrayed as a compliant benefactress rather than the strong and daring woman she was. As her own autobiography makes clear, the Gran Contessa was a courageous, influential and resourceful leader. However, in the nine centuries since her death, Matilda has acquired mythic status for one achievement in particular—the humbling of the German emperor Henry IV in the snows of her castle at Canossa.


The monastery of San Benedetto Po celebrates the 1,000th anniversary of its founding this year. No longer on an island, the monastery sits amidst fertile fields 15km south of Mantua, about two hours from Florence.


Even after all these centuries, the monastery remains a monument to Matilda, who chose to be buried here at her death on July 24, 1115. For five centuries, the monks gave food to the poor and celebrated a mass in her honour on the first Monday of every month. Her tomb is still here, although her bones were taken to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican in 1635, making Matilda one of only five women buried within a few yards of the Apostle Peter.


There will be a special millennium celebration of San Benedetto Po at the monastery in Mantua on Sunday, October 28, 2007 at 4:00 p.m. A Gregorian mass will be sung in honour of Matilda and her ancestors. This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate a woman who truly transformed our world.

more articles