- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 25, 2004



By Michele K. Spike

Vendome, $24.95, 264 pages


The first person who was neither a pope nor saint to be buried in St. Peter’s Basilica was female, a 12th-century Tuscan countess, Matilda of Canossa. Her grand marble tomb, carved by Gianlorenzo Bernini, bears an inscription that describes her as “a woman with a virile soul and champion of the Apostolic See, known for her piety, celebrated for her generosity.”

In 1992 Michele Spike, an art historian living in Florence, encountered Matilda in a Mantua exhibition; she learned that Matilda had generously endowed abbeys in northern Italy, had worn armor and led troops into battle and that she was close to the great reforming Pope Gregory VII.

“Tuscan Countess, the Life and Extraordinary Times of Matilda of Canossa” is the fruit of her fascination, part biography, part journal of travels to the places where Matilda lived. “It represents,” the author writes in her Prologue, “my struggle to understand what this fiercely independent, headstrong, and passionate woman had achieved to earn her place alongside the apostle Peter.”

There’s no doubt that Matilda led an interesting life. Born in Mantua in 1046, Matilda was the favorite child of a dynastic marriage between a Lombard feudal lord and a direct descendant of Charlemagne. Her father was assassinated in one of the disputes over control of northern Italy that would continue throughout Matilda’s life. When she was nine, her brother and sister also died, leaving her heir to her father’s vast estates.

When her mother remarried, this time to one of her own cousins, mother and daughter were further caught up in royal intrigue. For two years they were hostages of the German king, an enemy of Matilda’s stepfather, then returned to northern Italy when that dispute was settled. At 23 Matilda was married to her stepfather’s son from a previous marriage, a young man referred to as “Godfrey the Hunchback.” The marriage was unhappy; Matilda gave birth to a baby who died in infancy. She quickly returned to Italy where her mother was governing the family lands.

In 1073 Matilda and her mother traveled to Rome to witness the installation of the new pope, Gregory VII. A strong relationship quickly developed between the controversial, 50-year-old pontiff, and the by-all-accounts beautiful, brilliant, young countess who supported him in his intense struggle for church reform and, especially, to enforce the primacy of papal over royal authority.

Two years later there was a crisis; Gregory was seized during mass and briefly imprisoned in Rome by militiamen of the powerful Cenci family while a group of German bishops accused him of having been illegally elected, of usurping power that rightly belonged to them, and of adultery, a charge supported by Matilda’s husband. But Gregory, well-liked by a large number of Romans, faced down his accusers, impressing them with his calm and his authority. He survived the challenge and excommunicated the German king Henry IV. A month later, when Matilda’s husband was murdered, gossip suggested it had been she who planned it.

But Matilda and Gregory ignored the rumors and spent most of the following five years together. In 1077, it was at Matilda’s castle in Canossa that the Henry IV came to stand barefoot in the cold outside the walls for three days, begging for absolution and for reinstatement in the Church. Despite this triumph for papal authority, the struggle did not end there. Matilda used part of her fortune to help finance the pope’s armed resistance to German military assaults and even led her own troops into battle. Eventually, though, Gregory was deposed. He died, exiled and saddened, in 1085.

Matilda lived on for 30 more years, briefly marrying again (for political reasons, to a 17-year-old youth referred to as “the Penguin”), defending her lands and Gregory’s reforms, making large donations to monasteries and abbeys and gaining a widespread reputation for energy, generosity and goodness.

As biography, this is a frustrating work. Only with difficulty does the reader tease a narrative of the dramatic events of Matilda’s life from the dense compilation of fact, speculation, wide-ranging analysis of complex historical and religious issues, and contemporary travelogue that make up the book (in fact, if it weren’t for the chronology of Matilda’s life at the book’s end, many a reader would be quite stuck as to what actually was going on.)

The first hand information about Matilda is compelling (her confessor told his biographer that her experiences “in the marital bed ‘horrified and revolted her’”) but there is not much of it. And her progression from daring beauty, closely and perhaps illicitly allied to a dynamic pope, to widely-revered, saintly old woman is suggested but never fleshed out. The author clearly wants to give Matilda her due as a powerful figure in her own right but nonetheless, it is the relationship between the countess and the pope that is at the heart of the book.

“That they loved each other is acknowledged by everyone — even the monks who wrote his (Gregory’s) story,” Ms. Spike tells us. She quotes Gregorovius, the papal historian: “‘The personal rapport of friendship between the pope and Matilda had a profound effect on our universal history and is a unique example, never otherwise occurring, of a Pope tied so tightly and notably together with a young woman of strong desires.’”

It is clear that they supported each other politically and shared a warm and close friendship. And the modern biographer, not to mention the modern reader, can’t help wondering “Did they also sleep together?” It’s a question of more than prurient interest since one of the things Gregory VII is most remembered for is his insistence on the “Cluniac” reforms that strove not just to eliminate “simony” (the purchase of pardons and other forms of ecclesiastical influence) but also to enforce monastic and clerical chastity. “These two passionate, independent, extraordinarily intelligent, vibrant individuals imposed one thousand years of celibacy on the priests of the Roman Communion,” Ms. Spike asserts. If they did have a sexual relationship, Matilda and Gregory must have shared interesting pillow talk.

Our age is not well equipped to even think about the kind of principled self-denial that, on the other hand, may have defined the way Gregory and Matilda related to each other. “How do I write the love story of a pope and a young woman?” Ms. Spike asks. ” … How do I evoke his piercing gray eyes as they stared into the deep blue sea of her loneliness? How do I communicate the combustible combination of their physical attraction and the union of their political goals?”

That Matilda and Gregory desired each other and acted on their feelings is certainly possible, maybe even likely given the amount of time they spent together in isolated castles. But there are other, equally fascinating questions here. What really did go on in the mind of Gregory, the ambitious, brilliant grandson of a converted Jew, when he met the young intelligent and extremely well-connected countess just at the moment when, having acceded to the papacy, he renounced all worldly desires? What factors in his experience led to his commitment to this particular aspect of church discipline?

Did Matilda, in fact, mastermind the murder of her husband (a particularly brutal and humiliating one)? And if so, did she later repent of it? What role, if any, did the time she spent with Gregory have in Matilda’s later spiritual life? And, finally, what is the significance of self-denial in the life of an individual; of clerical chastity in the overall history of the Catholic church?

The interface of the public and private persona is a key area of exploration for any biographer and always a hard one to capture especially when primary sources are sketchy. Likewise, fitting a character into his or her intellectual context without overly burdening the narrative is a challenge. If Michele Spike has not quite succeeded in either area she has certainly brought to our attention an engaging and less well-known personage caught in a classic dilemma. That we will never know the answer to the question did she or didn’t she adds piquancy to the tale.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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