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Essays in Medieval Studies 19 (2002) 1-13

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Reading Matilda:
The Self-Fashioning of a Duchess

Rosalind Jaeger Reynolds
University of California, Berkeley

On February 11, 1078, in the town of Poggibonsi in northern Italy, Matilda of Canossa, Duchess of Tuscany, confirmed in a court of law the property rights of the bishopric of Volterra. She then set quill to parchment and formed the subscription that was to become her trademark: Matilda dei gratia, si quid est—"Matilda, by the grace of God, if she is anything." 1 Much has been made of this subscription, as it was nearly unheard-of in the eleventh century. 2 It is probably a reference to a passage in First Corinthians, 3 which would be consistent with the well-known piety of the woman whose military might proved invaluable to the papal cause in its struggle against the imperial party during the Investiture Controversy. At the same time, the formula may be a reference to the uncertainty of Matilda's official rank, as her cousin the emperor never recognized her as a vassal. 4 By that same token, her signature may be an assertion that whatever she was—which was in reality considerable—she was by the grace of God, and not the emperor.

If Matilda's signature does indicate some sort of crisis of identity, it should not much surprise us. Aside from her difficulties with the emperor, she was also a woman in a position usually reserved for men.

Matilda controlled a vast swath of land in northern Italy from 1076 until her death in 1115. She ruled, therefore, only two generations after the supposed feudal shift, the fundamental restructuring of medieval society which took place around the year 1000, spurred by such diverse factors as church reform, centralization of power, and the growing poverty of the nobility. One result of this restructuring, many scholars argue, was a marked decrease in the ability of women to control lands in their own right. Two of the earliest proponents of this theory, Jo Ann McNamara and Suzanne Wemple, point to the large number of women inheriting allodial lands, controlling wealth and exercising political power in the early Middle [End Page 1] Ages, compared to their relative scarcity beginning in the eleventh century. New inheritance practices, they argue, made it more difficult for women to inherit lands and wealth, while the rise of centralized power and a new class of university-educated administrators shut them increasingly out of politics. 5 Much of the subsequent work on women in the central and later Middle Ages has therefore focused on the "informal" power of women, assuming their official authority to have been minimal or non-existent. Recently, however, scholars have begun to call these assumptions into question, pointing at a number of powerful duchesses and countesses of the central Middle Ages. The activities of such women, they argue, suggest that the dwindling power of women after the early Middle Ages has been highly exaggerated. 6

Matilda of Tuscany is a helpful figure to examine in the context of this debate, for she lived two generations after the supposed feudal shift, yet she inherited her father's lands and ruled, uncontested within her domain, for nearly forty years. That she wielded considerable power in her own right, there seems little doubt. She oversaw legal disputes, rendered judgments, led armies, quarreled with the emperor, and in every way functioned like any other powerful duke. 7 She was, in fact, one of the most powerful rulers in the empire, and it was largely thanks to her military support that Gregory VII was able to stand up to Henry IV.

How, then, should we understand Matilda—is she further evidence that the feudal shift did not in fact have such a dampening effect on aristocratic women? Or was she simply an anachronism, a last gasp of the pre-shift order? If so, however, she was in good company; for example, her rough contemporary, Urraca of Castile-Léon, ruled those kingdoms successfully in her own right for many years. 8 A...