The countess Matilda of Canossa (1046/1047–1115), the last in a powerful noble line, was the ruler of a complex and extended dominion in the Kingdom of Italy (see Fig 1) in politically tense decades during the so-called investiture controversy (1076–1122). In this context, the relationship between the countess and the cities has often been interpreted according to an idealist dialectic as being between ancient feudalism and modern city communes. Such an interpretation is still more or less widespread, despite recent research on the genesis of the communes which has modified the predominant teleological model. Consequently a new model of interpretation seems necessary. This is the aim of this short article, which tries to suggest a more complex way of imagining the relationship between Matilda’s domus and the groups and institutions active in the urban contexts
During a prestigious series of lectures on Matilda, presented in Bologna in 2015 to mark the 900-year anniversary of the death of the countess, Professor Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli of the University of Bologna once again addressed the problem of the relationship between Matilda and the cities, which, she maintained, had often been represented simplistically as a «misunderstanding» or an «incompatibility». The basis of this «misunderstanding», in her view, was the idea that Matilda and the cities belonged to two different «worlds» or «cultures», the «feudal» and the (pre)-«communal» respectively, which, in an implicit idealist vision of history, were opposed and consecutive. This view is also expressed, for example, in the representation of Matilda by Vito Fumagalli, who published fundamental studies about the power wielded by the countess and her ancestors. He could affirm: «Era nella logica delle cose si direbbe oggi; certo tutto questo obbediva al movimento di emancipazione delle città dal dominio del ceto feudale tradizionale».
Although repeatedly questioned and elaborated on [Romagnoli, Ricci 2008, 153-155], this view has never been superseded by another model. The time now seems ripe to explicitly propose a new interpretative pattern of the specific relationship between Matilda and the cities. This model aims to deconstruct both “actors”, Matilda and the cities, in order to avoid them becoming, more or less unwittingly, the protagonists in a “plot” of the Italian Middle Ages: that of the rise of the city communes.
Deconstructing means first of all recognising the contradictions within the established pattern of Matilda being “feudal” and the cities “(pre-)communal”. These contradictions have been pointed out and overcome time and again by historians in their concrete analysis of case studies which took advantage of the new description of the communal society. Indeed, the relations between Matilda and the urban societies are characterised not only by conflicts but also by types of collaboration and even sharing, i.e. by having connections with the same goods, the same institutions and the same individuals or groups. As has been established, cities such as Pisa, Florence and Mantua can in some ways even be considered dynastic residences.
The last of the three, Mantua is usually described with good reason as being a source of conflict, although this presupposes that largely conflict-free coexistence and lasting collaboration between the power of the dynasty and some of the urban actors was possible. This was true of the cities that fell under her delegated and lordly powers as well as those that did not. The restitution of the castle of Sambuca to the cathedral chapter of Pistoia (1104) and the restoration of the road to Copermio for the benefit of the church of Parma (1106) are acts on Matilda’s part that demonstrate the possibility of an agreement between the many urban and non-urban actors – a complex figuration in both cases – involved.
In order to better understand such situations in general, we must go one step further and replace the previous framework with a more complex model, in which both Matilda and the cities are no longer hypostatizations; not “individual” actors, but structured social formations, constituted by many individuals, groups and even institutions. This model can be conceived through a “figurational” approach, which has previously been used to investigate pre-modern and specifically medieval societies, too, with the aim of conceptualising complex and dynamic interdependencies in power relations. The figurations, as mobile and processual social structures, are made up of multiple actors in mutual dependence, which cannot simply be absorbed under general labels following idealist plots. This meets the current need for complexity in historical explanation and interpretation.
Thus at that time the “city” was only one of the identifiable actors in the social and political processes, at first not a frequent one, but gradually becoming more visible. In other words, we should not always assume the “city” as a collective actor with which individuals, groups and institutions could primarily identify themselves. We should instead imagine an urban “stage” or “context” for the actions of these various institutions, groups and individuals who do not necessarily act for the political autonomy of their city, but rather to defend and improve their individual positions. To be clear, this does not mean denying the rise of the communes between the eleventh and twelfth centuries; it actually acknowledges once again the gradual and complex nature of the development. None of Matilda’s “counterparts” could be identified as a city commune.
The same might also be said for the other partner in the relationship: the countess herself. There is a risk of reducing “Matilda”, too, to an individual actor, even though it is evident that we are looking at a domus, i.e. a complex, vertical and at the same time multicentric structure – which is also in turn made up out of many individuals, groups, and institutions. Moreover, applying a Marxist or idealist label such as “feudal” is not adequate for this plural formation, which was defined as a “diverse conglomeration” (coacervo) and aptly described more than twenty years ago as «the powers of the Canossa».
In a similar vein, it is not adequate to use the label “reform” in an abstract Gregorian sense in this context to describe the politics of Matilda’s domus: it, too, is a simple but misleading concept. This last consideration is significant because it plays a part in the representation of the relationship between Matilda and the cities. One only has to read the first chapters of the Historia Mediolanensis by Landulf of St Paul for this chronicler’s polemical and ironical narrative to explain the complexity of the religious field and its institutional structures at the dawn of the twelfth century in Milan and Lombardy.
One consequence of this first attempt at deconstruction is that, when describing the relationship between Matilda’s domus and the urban societies, other cities than those within her delegated powers also come to the foreground – for example Milan, whose political collaboration with the domus of the countess through some urban and non-urban actors has mostly remained in the shadows so far.
Finally it should be added that, for the theoretical purposes of this article, an internal chronology of events and actors is left aside here. An inquiry into a possible “evolution” of the relationship between Matilda and the cities over approximately forty years would require a deeper and broader description of the contexts than is possible here.
The highest-ranking actor on the urban stage is certainly the bishop. In this case the unravelling is quite easy, even if the historiographical pattern of the sintesi between the bishop and the (pre-) communal cities remains at the same time, and with good reason, a valid interpretation model. However, the bishop lends himself well to being reformulated conceptually in terms of a “figurational” approach, which is to say in a web of dynamic interdependencies involving not only “Matilda” and the urban actors, but also the king, the pope, other bishops and regional powers. The diocesan schisms caused by the investiture controversy show this quite clearly: the case of Lucca, and especially that of Anselm II and his imperial opponent Peter, is significant in illustrating the bishops’ complex network of interdependencies, which obviously require more than a “city” storyline as an adequate explanation.
With regard to these urban actors, who were of primary importance in, and at the same time fundamental pivots of, the kingdom, Matilda and her domus advanced a claim based on the dynastic influence she inherited from her ancestors: obviously, this entailed more than simply grants and donations. The hyperbolic image of the chronicler Cosmas of Prague, who composed his work before 1125, according to which the countess had a hold over more than 120 bishops, is a significant perception a posteriori of the relationship between them and the dynasty’s power. This perception may well correspond to the actual position held by the bishops in Matilda’s entourage during the investiture contest – a figurational (inter-)dependency –, although they could in turn play the role of influential advisers and even, in the case of Anselm II, assume some functions of the “male” head of the domus according to the representation of the anonymous author of the Vita Anselmi.
Bernold of Constance’s chronicle, written at the time of the events, confirms this: he relates how, thanks to Matilda’s intervention, the bishops of Modena, Reggio and Pistoia were ordained in 1085. Bernold also refers to a significant failure: a few years later, the catholici of Piacenza who appointed Bonizo of Sutri – a former member of Matilda’s entourage – as bishop probably received no support from the countess, and the famous reformer paid the consequences of this isolation.
One case in which Matilda and her domus intervened to support a new bishop, and one for which far better records are available, is certainly that concerning Parma, a city on the border of her delegated and seigneurial powers. Here, in the urban society, loyalty to the king had lived on among the elite for a long time. Even so, as a consequence of the mounting political crisis during the reign of Henry IV, some of the elite invited the legate for Northern Italy, Cardinal Bernard, abbot-general of Vallombrosa and Matilda’s close collaborator, to Parma in 1104. Bernard – and his great wealth – were used as a “picklock” to gain control of this strategic bishop’s seat. However, this did not happen without conflict (1104-1106), which was a prelude to a long but probably turbulent episcopate (1106-1133). The difficulties encountered by Bernard show not so much the sintesi as the dialectic discrepancy between urban society and the bishop, whose position was determined by the complex interdependencies of clusters of groups – and above all Rome –, which cannot be easily reconstructed.
Milan offers another prime example of Matilda’s intervention with regard to bishops and urban contexts. Indeed, according to the previously mentioned chronicle by Landulf of St. Paul, the countess played a major role in the election of two archbishops, Anselm IV of Bovisio (1098) and Grossolano (1102). She was able to influence the decision thanks to the support of certain members of the elite, such as the capitaneus Arialdo of Melegnano, who was very close to the countess, and her collaboration with the legate Arimann, bishop-elect of Brescia. More so, in the case of Anselm IV, the chronicler noted that the archbishop obtained the pastoral staff from Matilda, presumably not as a simple gift, but more probably as a symbolic present that replaced the investiture.
The latter is one of the clues that suggest that Matilda and her husband Welf V of Bavaria, as lord of the domus, assumed the role of the higher lay authority in Northern Italy during the conflict with Henry IV in the 1090s: at least for individuals as well as groups and institutions who opposed the emperor’s supporters in the different contests; something akin to Bishop Anselm II of Lucca and Cardinal Bernard’s vicariate for Lombardy. Thus they occupied a pivotal position in the figurations of the Kingdom.
Canons of the cathedral
Nothing is more difficult to unravel, on the other hand – even in this figurational approach, and in the absence of monographic studies or surveys – than the canons of the cathedral. The complexity of the institution “cathedral chapter” consists in its intricate interdependencies, which can be briefly summarised in a double aspect: on the one hand the canons could either act as an autonomous ecclesiastical institution or represent the whole urban church (with or without the bishops); on the other hand they were a body whose members belonged to different parts of the élite of the urban and non-urban society, mediating between and representing different interests regarding not only the main church and its estates in the diocese but also the cities. We mentioned above the restitution of the castle of Sambuca and the court of Pavana to the cathedral chapter of Pistoia (1104): in an impressive and complex “figuration” the recipients were the «canonici sancti Zenonis de Pistoria, venerabiles clerici Bonutus archipresbiter et Ildebrandus primicerius, cum quibusdam civibus ex melioribus civitatis».
Moreover, the cathedral chapter was a structural counterweight to the bishop, although this does not necessarily mean – in the logic of the interdependencies – that it was opposed to the bishop. The privileges granted by Henry V to the cathedral chapter of Parma in May 1111, without intervention on the part of Bishop Bernard and after the agreement of Bianello between Matilda and the emperor, are in themselves significant: they could be interpreted according to a “figurational” approach as an act of balancing power in the urban context, regardless of whether imperial intervention was achieved in agreement with Bernard or with the approval of the countess.
The direct relations between the dynastic ruler and the cathedral chapters are not as well documented as those with the bishops and other religious urban institutions. The countess made donations or other concessions: for example to the cathedral chapter of Bologna (1105); or she acted in her judicial function, i.e. for the cathedral chapter of Volterra (1075; 1107).
In the case of donations to the canons of Bologna, we can already see a significant element of interdependency between Matilda and these urban institutions: the liturgical commemoration. It’s well known that Matilda’s parents were in fact buried in the building complex of two cathedrals, in Mantua and Pisa, two cities that were in some degree dynastic residences. This shows a strong connection between the countess and these urban institutions, which are therefore reciprocally involved in significant exchanges. The case of Pisa is particularly interesting; here, the countess protected the chapter and financed the construction of the cathedral, one of the most relevant binding features in the emerging political identity of a collective urban actor. In Modena, in an urban community that was without a bishop at the time, the urban clergy, i.e. first of all probably the canons of the cathedral, engaged with the other urban groups in the project of rebuilding the cathedral and made Matilda the privileged partner.
What we cannot gauge directly is Matilda’s possible influence on the recruitment of members of the cathedral chapter. We can only infer indirect relationships with those canons who belonged to family groups close to Matilda. But these relations, which must have already existed at the time, are frequently attested only later.
Certainly, the relation between the chapter and Matilda might give rise to conflict; especially if the latter supported initiatives of “reform” which concerned the habits and property of the canons, the vita communis. In this case we have a most remarkable piece of literary evidence, that of the Vita Anselmi by Rangerius of Lucca (about 1096–1099). Rangerius gives an account of the clash that arose in the Tuscan city between the canons on the one hand and the bishop, the pope and Matilda on the other. The resulting schism shows not only the split of the local urban society, but also indicates the existence of “grey areas” in the elites of the city and the march who gave their opportunistic consensus to the leader of the canons, Peter: this illustrates the dynamic of the interdependencies between urban and non-urban groups and the city church and external actors such as Matilda and Henry IV.
The representation in Rangerius’ poem requires more in-depth analysis. However, it is important to point out a particular narrative construction: the future imperial bishop Peter, the leader of the rebels among the canons, gives two consecutive speeches. The first, addressing the smaller group of the canons, aims to justify the interests and defend the position of members of the chapter: in this way, Rangerius staged the effective interests of those parts of the urban élite that controlled the cathedral chapter. The second speech to the citizens shows a sweeping and idealistic vision seeking to create a large civic consensus supporting the interests of the smaller group of canons. Moreover, in front of an audience of citizens Peter presents a very negative view of the lordship of the Canossas in Lucca, who are depicted as seigneurial oppressors of the libertas of the cives. By defending the interests of the canons of the cathedral chapter as in a broad sense those of members of the elite, Peter interpreted the interdependency between the city and Matilda as opposition and claimed – in this fiction – a collective identification [of the canons] with the city, which was not in fact the principal reason for their actions. The figurational approach allows us to imagine that the conflict in Rangerius’ polyphonic narrative is much more complex than the dialectic contrast between feudal power and city freedom or – not without contradictions – reform and not reform.
Another pivotal aspect of the configuration of the relations between Matilda and the urban societies were the monasteries, which were able to create considerable social coherence and garner support as they were the guardians of collective remembrance, and by granting goods, incomes and lands. And here we are not only referring to the urban monasteries, but also to those in the diocese, which had significant interests in the cities, too.
The donations urban monasteries received from Matilda were certainly a form of religious devotion. But it is probable that these donations as well as favourable judgments also allowed her to establish relations or further contacts with other groups that were active in the city and linked with the monastery. This interdependency permits us to glimpse particular figurations. For example, Matilda’s collaboration with the Guidi in Florence (1100) was tied to their complex relationship with the abbey of Vallombrosa, which at the time was led by the abovementioned abbot-general Bernard. The active role of the monks of this congregation in urban contexts and especially in shaping the opinions of some groups of the local population (Teilöffentlichkeit) is well known.
Urban monasteries could also provide balancing forces to the cathedral chapters and the bishops. Matilda’s presence in the monastery of San Prospero in Reggio Emilia in 1072 and in 1080 and her further relations with this community are a case in point. This evidence could be significant, when we consider the well-known claim to incomes and goods declared simultaneously by the bishop and the canons of Reggio, which Matilda’s ancestors had usurped. Moreover, Bishop Gandolf became a supporter of Henry IV. This could be another example of the complex interdependencies between the urban institutions and the dynastic ruler warranting further investigation.
While the monastery of Reggio was benefited by Matilda in a competition between urban institutions, the important one of Sant’Andrea in Mantua, which had received the first donation from Matilda (1072), was later subjected to a significant punitive measure. In a further interesting and complex “figuration” (1101), the legate and cardinal Bernard took the control of the urban hospital founded by Matilda near the city walls away from Sant’Andrea. On this occasion the issue was not only the condemnation of the mismanagement of the hospital, but also the rejection of the claims to the urban hospital made by the canons of the cathedral, who had joined the schismatic bishop Conon. Thus, to penalize the rebelling institutions and the associated groups of the urban society, Bernard transferred control of the hospital to the dynastic (not urban) monastery of San Benedetto Polirone.
A development in the relationship between an urban monastery and Matilda – in a very interesting context of interdependencies between urban and non-urban actors – can be seen in the case of the important convent of San Sisto in Piacenza, too. Here the donations are linked to the religious life of the nuns and therefore to the community’s management of lands and goods and of the related vassal bonds, such as in the strategic court of Guastalla (1102). Their mismanagement was the reason for another intervention on the part of Matilda, who seems to have promoted the dissolution of this community in order to support a male one in an urban context. This decision, too, was endorsed by the pope.
Matilda and urban lay groups
As is widely known, much of the available evidence primarily concerns the affairs of ecclesiastical and religious institutions, and above all their assets. It is more difficult to observe the relations of Matilda and her domus with lay individuals and groups whose activities were based in the city.
First of all, it can be said that there was rarely an urban community acting as a lone entity in its dealings with Matilda and, even when this did occur, it almost never represented a unified political structure. Nonetheless, an impressive example of the relationship between an urban community – deliberately represented in an inclusive way – and Matilda is that of Modena. In the so-called Relatio aedificationis (ca. 1106–1110) the whole community of the church, with the significant exception of the bishop, became Matilda’s partner in the issue of the restoration of the cathedral and the transfer of the relics of St. Geminianus.
Clearly it is possible to find further cases in which all the institutions of a city appear to be in conflict with Matilda: for example, through a few verses of Donizo, we know of the revolt of Ferrara against the countess – a city that was part of the dynasty’s domain. We do not know precisely who led the revolt at the time of the siege (1102). According to Donizo, the countess was supported by troops from Ravenna, which participated in the repression together with those of many other cities.
Donizo’s work more than once indicates an urban provenance of the troops during the military conflicts between Matilda and Henry IV. And not only of one kind, namely armed cives against the countess and her vassals, as in the case of the battle of Sorbara. It is significant that the confrontation between Matilda and Henry IV over the castle of Nogara was supported respectively by troops from Modena and Verona: armed cives were probably able to join the countess, too, as in the case of Ravenna mentioned above. In this episode, which concerns the conflict between Matilda’s domus and Henry IV, we find a dynamic urban interdependency that foreshadows future competition between cities – and particularly between their elites – for the control of strategic territory and the readiness of the urban militias to engage in plundering.
The political significance of the military contribution of the cities is shown by the well-known reference to a league between the cities of Milan, Lodi, Piacenza and Cremona, led by Welf V of Bavaria: a league whose inception Bernold of Constance dated to 1093. The groups of the urban elite in these cities would have recognised – probably after the defeat of Henry IV in the Appennines in the winter of 1092 – the superiority of the Duke, Matilda’s husband, throughout the Kingdom, disregarding at the same time that of Henry IV. Significantly these cities did not belong to the dynastic domain, which corroborates the suggestion that Matilda’s authority might have replaced that of the king in Northern Italy during the investiture controversy.
We have assumed that the consensus was driven by the urban élite. For example, the episode of the destruction of the castle of Rivalta by the rebelling Mantua in 1114 shows how the élite, faced with the threat of military repression on the part of Matilda, imposed a more appeasing attitude towards Matilda on the iuvenes – who are probably the urban milites whose lifestyle was characterized by plunder and booty. Donizo’s account of this urban political conflict – including the “smaller group” that expressed its intention to leave the city –, of its political resolution and of the subsequent appeasement between Matilda and Mantua is without doubt the best evidence we have of a politically structured action toward the countess on the part of the many social groups in a city identifying themselves more or less as a complex whole.
In fact there is more evidence of direct relations between Matilda and members of the aristocratic urban élite, particularly those who were the most important vassals, sometimes referred to as proceres or capitanei: that was the case, for example, of the abovementioned Arialdo of Melegnano in Milan; or of the de Ermengarda group in Bologna-Ferrara. But we may also suppose that there were growing interdependencies between Matilda’s most important vassals and the cities, interdependencies that, in the next two generations after the death of the countess, became a form of influential involvement and authoritative protagonism in the urban political dynamic: for example the da Cornazzano in Parma. The previously mentioned donation to Vallombrosa during a judicial session in Florence illustrates how Matilda and this aristocratic elite were able to take the urban stage.
Unfortunately, little information is available on Matilda’s direct relationship with the “middle” strata of urban society. Nevertheless, the episode of the rebellion of Mantua tells us that the lay groups characterised by a warrior and predatory lifestyle (iuvenes) were highly significant and probably constituted the bulk of the city’s troops involved in the conflict between Matilda and Henry IV: in fact, in all likelihood they had a vested interest in prolonging it. But Benzo of Alba recalled that the king’s Italian troops would have preferred plundering Matilda’s domains to the military manoeuvres executed by Rome.
We should also briefly mention the complex group of the iudices and other legal experts, who could be either members or “coequals” of the aforementioned social strata, or belonged to the diverse group of the other cives. Consider for example the judge Flaipertus in Lucca, who was linked to Matilda’s parents. In the case of many of those who collaborated with Matilda and came from and operated in an extra-urban context, we can presume the same growing interdependencies with the other actors and institutions of the cities, relations that would become increasingly clear after Matilda’s death; one instance being their decisive role in the above-mentioned restitution of Sambuca and Pavana to the church of Pistoia.
The remainder of the cives – actually a collection of disparate and composite urban groups that could include the already mentioned lay groups – was highly diversified and played an increasingly important role in the dynamics of the urban society. However, in the sources on Matilda, this social stratum remains in the background: depicted as those farthest from establishing direct relations with the countess, they are often included in the collective identities of the urban community. For example, they are a part of the cives that were the recipients of the well-known privilege that Matilda accorded to the urban community of Mantova in 1090 on the basis of the royal models – a further foreshadowing of the king being replaced by Welf and Matilda in the 1090s.
It is difficult to say whether this broader and diverse group of cives is included in the ceteri homines of Cremona, who – in a well-known source about the relationship between the cities and Matilda – had to (militarily) serve the countess if the capitanei refused to do so: perhaps it referred to the milites. In any event, in return the countess invested three men from Cremona in 1097 with the conspicuous benefice of the insula Fulkeria: «homines Cremone, scilicet Gotefredus de Bellusco et Moricius seu Cremoxano Aldoini a parte sancte Marie Cremonensi ecclesie seu ad comunum ipsius Cremone civitatis». In this document, it seems to refer to collective identity of the urban society defined as church and as – the word occurs – comunum. Although, as is generally known, at the time the word meant “collective” and did not refer to a political regime, the document is often considered an early sign of a conscious (pre-)communal urban community. Disregarding some doubts about a possible later forgery, this is not the exception that proves the “rule”, or the “storyline” of the “misunderstanding” and the “incompatibility” between Matilda and the cities, but once more an example of the complex figurations involving the aristocratic domus as well as the diverse collection of actors that constituted the urban communities.
However, here we see again the subtle power of the storyline of the “city communes”. Such a narrative even influenced the perception of the case of Bologna, despite the excellent studies on the (pre-)communal period that revealed the complexity of this context. Even in this case, the contacts between Matilda’s domus and the urban groups and institutions encourages us to test the proposed figurational approach with its implicit comparative view.
This approach allows us to consider Matilda as the “apex” of a complex social formation, which as a whole or through its in(ter)dependent parts could have multiple forms of access to institutions, groups and individuals located in the cities, making the centre of their actions. Less frequently, the cities became Matilda’s partners as collective actors, a fact that is actually documented in a few historical accounts describing conflict situations. The latter evidence contributes to the common misconception of the “incompatibility” or “misunderstanding”, which only scholars informed of the true complexity of these contexts are able to avoid entirely. Even in these cases of conflict, as the examples of Mantua, Parma and Lucca show, there are actually signs of diverse attitudes and behaviours with which the actors on the urban “stage” respond to their aristocratic domus.
In short, the common feature of the relations between “Matilda” and Parma, Milan, Pisa, Lucca, Mantua, Modena, Reggio Emilia, Cremona, Florence, Bologna, and Ferrara is not to be found either in their opposition or in their support, but rather in the complexity and significance of the multiple interdependencies and interactions between the dynastic “domus” and the many urban institutions and groups not consciously driven by the aim of establishing a “communal city”.
This attitude has recently been described by Chris Wickham as being akin to the movement of sleepwalkers: an effective metaphor that seeks to resolutely contrast with our deep-seated teleological and idealistic images of the transformation of the political structure of the Italian Kingdom between the tenth and twelfth century. It is only by adopting a complex perspective that we can avoid the opposition between feudal/signorial and communal and better understand the emergence of new political structures in close interaction with Matilda’s inherited rule: those more horizontal civic institutions that are distant and quite unfamiliar ancestors of modern republican regimes. Pursuing a “figurational” approach to the relationship between Matilda and the cities, as proposed here, would constitute a major stride toward grasping that complexity.
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