season zero

Episode 2: From the Grand Countess to the Revolt of the Communes

Matilda of Tuscany, also known as “The Grand Countess”, helped weaken the Holy Roman Empire’s grip on northern Italy even further. However, it would be the plucky, self-governing cities of northern Italy who would ultimately give a bloody nose to one of the greatest emperors western Europe ever saw and inaugurate the age of the Italian city-states. We delve into how a European economic boom helped make all this possible, plus some juicy gossip on Matilda’s unlucky love life. 

The theme music is “La Disperata”, composed by Vincenzo Ruffo (ca. 1510-1587) and performed by Jon Sayles.

Canossa Castle, the hereditary estate of Matilda of Tuscany where Emperor Heinrich IV entreated Matilda and Pope Gregory VII.
Emperor Heinrich IV pleading with Matilda of Tuscany. From Donizo’s Life of Matilda (early 12th century).
A map detailing the members of the Lombard Leagues. From Wikipedia.
An artist’s portrayal of the Battle of Legnano (May 29, 1176). Amos Cassioli, Battaglia di Legnano (1860).
Map of northern Italy. Source unknown.

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In 1052, at the age of only nine, Matilda of Canossa became Margravine of Tuscany, a title referring to the ruler of an imperial borderland. This was what Tuscany had become. You can see it in the map if you go to the site’s main page, but just to explain here, to the northeast was another imperial fiefdom, the  March of Verona and Aquiela, and to the northwest was Lombardy. Named for the now long extinct kingdom of the Lombards, it was technically under the direct control of the Holy Roman Emperors, who had claimed the Iron Crown of the Lombards (By the way, the Iron Crown wasn’t just some hardcore name; according to legend, one part of the crown was an iron band said to be forged from an iron nail used to crucify Jesus). Anyway, Lombardy was run by imperial representatives, who we’ll talk about more later.

Matilda’s father, Boniface III, had been killed in a supposed hunting accident, although it was also reported that he had been struck down by a poison arrow. Shortly afterward, her elder brother, who inherited Tuscany as Boniface IV, had died from illness. Matilda found herself in control of a vast and wealthy territory her ancestors had cobbled together between their own large inheritance and the lands granted to them by the emperor. Not only that, but Tuscany had, under the influence of her stepfather and regent Duke Godfrey of Upper and Lower Lorraine, become a linchpin of anti-imperial defiance. Luckily, when Matilda came of age and managed to take control of Tuscany for herself, she proved more than up for the job.

Matilda of Tuscany is not well-known compared to other celebrated female monarchs from European history like Elizabeth I of England and Isabel of Spain. In fact, I suspect even a lot of history buffs just learned of her as one of the easier and more fun characters to play as in the strategy game “Crusader Kings.” It’s kind of a shame because she probably is the closest to a real-life Xena you’ll get this side of Boudicca. She was extremely well-educated and reportedly hated embroidery, preferring instead to learn how to ride like a lancer with a spear in hand. She also  knew how to wield a sword and an axe and would inspect her soldiers while wearing full battle armor. I really like how Matilda’s biographer Nora Duff puts it, in a way only someone who lived before World War I could do phrase it: “Disdaining with a virile spirit the art of Arachne, she seized the spear of Pallas.”

While Matilda managed to assert herself more than a lot of noble and royal women from her time, she didn’t escape that other plight of medieval women: the awful arranged marriage. Her stepfather had her marry his heir and her stepbrother, remembered by history as Godfrey the Hunchback. In the words of another, more recent biographer of Matilda, Michele Spike, Matilda “loathed Godfrey’s very existence.” After their only child Beatrice died in infancy, Godfrey decided to leave Tuscany and stay indefinitely in Lorraine. Even when Pope Gregory III, who corresponded with Matilda more like a close friend than just a political ally, tried to do some marriage counseling, Matilda refused to ever leave Tuscany and join her husband.

But at least she did get on well with the aforementioned Pope. In their surviving correspondence, you can still get a small but significant impression of their sincere friendship from the fact that the Pope writes to her as “I”, not with the royal “we”. Her estranged husband, as you might expect an estranged spouse to do, spread rumors that she and the Pope were lovers. Unlike some of the rumors about Pope John XII that we talked about last year, these are extremely unlikely.

What she did do was volunteer to be the Pope’s general. The reigning Holy Roman Emperor, Heinrich IV, had started an outright war with Pope Gregory VII after he challenged the right of the emperors to appoint bishops and even the Pope himself. It’s known to history as the Investiture Controversy, which makes it sound like a bunch of bearded old men arguing in a dusty, dark chamber rather than the civil war across Germany and Italy it actually became once the nobles across the Holy Roman Empire seized on the Pope’s condemnation of the emperor as an excuse to finally get rid of him. Matilda led her army against imperial forces herself, becoming known among her papal allies as “God’s Virago.”  

But both Matilda and Heinrich ran into the same problems as the old kings of Italy when it came to securing the support of those fickle and selfish cities, always looking out for their economic interest over the military needs of their sovereign. Over the course of the Investiture Controversy, Heinrich and Matilda entered a kind of bizarre war where instead of swords they fought by giving away powers and lands. For example, in 1081, Emperor Heinrich went to the Tuscan city of Lucca, which happened to be the city Matilda’s dynasty came from, and to get their support he abolished Lucca’s obligation to provide food and lodging to the emperor or his representatives, cancelled the planned construction of a fortress just outside the city laws, and eliminated most of the highway tolls on roads out of the city, and forbade imperial judges to preside over trials without him, his son, or an imperial chancellor being present. He made similar concessions elsewhere. Meanwhile Matilda got Mantua to back her by giving the city land her family had claimed in the past, relinquished her claims to the city’s tax revenues, and gave Mantua’s citizens some tax exemptions. Then there was Pisa, which cleverly went behind both their backs and got Matilda and Heinrich to give concessions to both of them. As you can probably guess, this was not a good or sustainable long-term strategy.

But for the time being, it paid off for Matilda and Pope Gregory. In one of the most iconic moments in medieval history, Heinrich IV, emperor, King of Germany, Italy, and Burgundy, heir to Charlemagne and Otto the Great, was in 1077 forced to wait at the gates of Matilda’s ancestral castle of Canossa in the middle of a January snowstorm while barefoot and wearing a hairshirt. It was Matilda who convinced the Pope to let him inside. Also, Heinrich had to beg Matilda on his knees to intercede on his behalf wit the Pope. Incidentally, the previous year, Matilda’s odious husband Godfrey had been assassinated while he was supposedly in the middle of “answering the call of nature.”

 Despite Henry degrading himself, the war flared up again and continued, even after Pope Gregory in 1085. Eventually, to protect herself from Henry, Matilda had to marry again for a political alliance that would help protect her from being deposed by the emperor. This time, at the age of 43, she married the 18-year-old Duke Welf V. I’ll let the chronicler Cosmas of Prague, who is writing a couple of decades after Matilda’s death, take it from here:

“Since this mention of Matilda occurs to us, I will report one thing this woman did manfully – briefly, so that I will not produce disgust in the reader. The aforesaid girl, always the victor in many wars, led an unmarried life after her father’s death and ruled alone the very large kingdom of Lombardy. It therefore seemed to the princes, counts, and bishops of the land that they should persuade her to take a husband, so that the royal dignity, lacking an heir, might not perish at the same time as offspring. According to their counsel, she sent letters to the Duke of Swabia, named Welf containing much in these few words: ‘Not from feminine fickleness or brazenness but for the advantage of my entire kingdom, I direct these letters to you. When you receive them, receive me and the kingdom of all Lombardy. I will give you so many burgs, so many castles, so many famous palaces, and quite unlimited gold and silver. Above all this you will have a famous name, if you make yourself deer to me. Nevertheless, do not judge me by this boldness of speech, because now I approach you first with this address. For it is permissible for both the masculine and the feminine sex to seek after legitimate marriage…Night came, they entered her chamber, they placed themselves together on a deep coverlet, and Duke Welf lay with the virgin Matilda without Venus [without having sex, the implication is that he was impotent.]…Duke Welf said: ‘O Lady, what did you want of me? Why did you summon me? In order to make a laughingstock of me and subject me to the hissing of the people and shaking of the head? You confound yourself more if you wish to confound more. Surely either by your order or through the handmaids something evil hides either in your clothes or in your sheets. Believe me, if I was of a frigid nature, I would never have responded to your will.” Since on the first and second the duke had been exposed to the lady, on the third day she led him alone in the bedchamber, placed a three-legged stool in the middle and a dining table above, and showed herself naked as she came from her mother’s womb. ‘Behold!’ she said. ‘Whatever has been hidden I lay it all before you. Nor is there any place where some evil might hide.’ Then he stood with his ears drooping like an ass with a nasty disposition or like a butcher who stands in the meat market sharpening his knife over a skinned fat cow, desiring to disembowel it. Next, the woman sat a long time upon the table like a goose when it makes itself a nest, turning its tail here and there, but in vain. Finally the nude woman, indignant, arose and took the collar of the half-alive man in her left hand and, spitting in her right hand, gave him a great slap. Then she threw him outside saying ‘Go far from here, monster, so that you might not pollute our kingdom. You are viler than a worm, viler than discarded seaweed. If you appear before me tomorrow, you will die a bad death.” Thus disgraced, Duke Welf fled and told all of his men of his disgrace into eternity. It suffices to have said these things briefly, which I rather ought not to have said!”

Now if you’ve been paying attention, there are some problems with Cosmas’ account. First off, Welf was definitely not her first husband. Second, Welf wasn’t the Duke of Swabia, but the Duke of Bavaria. And finally, they didn’t separate until 1095, and we have no idea if Welf’s alleged impotence had anything to do with it. But still, it is interesting to see this story after Cosmas praises Matilda for her military prowess and her support of the Church. To people like Cosmas, even when you’re a great female ruler, there has to be something…scandalous about you. But nonetheless she was celebrated, especially among Florentines since she made Florence her capital. Florence’s native son, Dante, even likely gave her a cameo in his Purgatorio.

In any case, after Matilda did die without any heirs in 1115, the reigning emperor Heinrich V, Heinrich IV’s son, learned from his father’s problems. Even before Matilda came along, the Holy Roman Emperors kept struggling to keep northern Italy in line. While there was a succession crisis and a civil war in Germany, in 1002 the Italian nobles even elected one of their own, Arduin of Ivrea, as King of Italy. It took twelve years before the emperor of the time, Otto III, was finally able to defeat Arduin for good. The emperors tried to prevent things like this from happening by shifting political power away from the local nobles to bishops, who came in from Germany. By the end of the tenth century, one fourth of all the bishops in northern Italy were Germans.

Similarly, Heinrich V didn’t let control of Tuscany go to another native dynasty. Instead he sent in Rabodo, a German noble who wouldn’t have any land or power base in the region he was sent to administer. He was attacked and killed by a force sent from Florence. The emperor was powerless to do anything but send someone else. Things didn’t go better for imperial authority elsewhere. In 983, the citizens of Milan drove Archbishop Landulf out of the city and he could only return after he gave up much of his political power to the urban aristocracy. The bishop of Asti, Alric, was attacked and killed by his own people while he was wearing full battle armor. Cremona rebelled against their bishop sometime around 1030 with similar revolts in Parma and Ravenna. But none matched what happened in 1024 when in Pavia, the de facto capital of Lombardy, a mob burned down the imperial palace there.

It probably seemed like a good idea to have bishops do double time as administrators since bishops don’t technically own their own land and can’t have legitimate heirs, making it harder for them to build power bases against the emperor. Unfortunately, the problem was, on top of them not actually being from the region most of the time, they couldn’t help but flaunt their wealth and their sex lives. Take, for instance, Archbishop Hildebrand of Florence, who would preside over council meetings and other political functions with his mistress at his side. And all this was in the middle of an aggressive Catholic Church-wide campaign to reform the clergy and crack down on priests who had wives or mistresses.

But there was more going on than just bad feelings toward foreign, worldly bishops and German emperors. The economic and political landscape of northern Italy was rapidly changing in ways strengthened by circumstances that were already there under the old kings of Italy. In the eleventh century, Europe experienced a demographic and economic boom. Last time I talked about how northern Italy weathered the so-called Dark Ages better than much of the rest of Europe with cities. So the eleventh century boom completely changed the rules for the region. Cities became even larger, with new cities that were obscure villages or didn’t even exist in antiquity appearing on the map like Pisa, Verona, Padua, and Florence (yes, we’ll get to Florence specifically soon, I promise). One particularly dramatic example was Genoa, which went from being a fishing village by a crumbling Roman road to a major metropolis with overseas territories from the island of Corsica to the Black Sea. One negative side effect was that, with more agricultural demand, the price of land rose rapidly, increasing as much as four times in some areas. This drove migration out of the countryside and into the cities, increasing the urban population even more, and forced people into trying to make their living through trade, which was admittedly not that horrible a prospect since the new and growing towns and cities had more specialized economies that could actually produce manufactured goods worth trading.

All this meant that northern Italy experienced the growth of a prosperous and politically vocal middle class, a development that was virtually unknown in the rest of Europe at the time except the Netherlands, which was also heavily urbanized and fat on trade. Meanwhile urbanization and the expense of land weakened the feudal lords of the countryside, who were already in worse shape than their counterparts over the Alps, and the system of feudalism. Eager for more workers and soldiers, the cities helped this process along by passing laws that gave peasants the right to leave their lord’s lands and look for work and heavily regulated the legal obligations vassals had to their laws. Often the cities even flat-out went to war with the rural nobility, snatching up their land. Now in this era plenty of nobles managed to cling to their rural fiefdoms and stayed in the country, but many other nobles saw the sign of the times and relocated to the cities, at least for part of the year, got involved in urban politics, and intermarried with the urban nobility. At the same time, these nobles, who were not about to pass up a good economic expansion, did not stick their noses up at the chance to start businesses while the cities were eager to get their top citizens invested by promoting them into the nobility. None of this meant that medieval class snobbery ceased to exist in the northern Italian cities. Some people still frowned upon the nobles getting involved in commerce or finance and on the newly ennobled or, to use one bizarre term used to legally categorize the ascendant upper-middle class, “commoner-nobles.” That said, northern Italy at this time really did enjoy a degree of social mobility that was rare in the rest of Europe, if comments like this Bishop Otto of Freising are any indication:  

“That they may not lack the means of subduing their neighbors, they do not disdain to give the girdle of knighthood or the grades of distinction to young men of inferior station and even some workers of the low mechanical crafts, whom other people bar like the plague from the more respected and honorable pursuits.”

Finally, it was during this era that we see Italian populations start to assert themselves. As you probably might have guessed from the appearance of so many people in our narrative with names like Arduin and Matilda, early medieval Italy since the fall of the Western Roman Empire had seen native Italians living under an overclass of German origin that kept itself largely separate. In fact, as late as the tenth century, this class still followed their own laws derived from the law code of the Lombard kingdom while the general population still lived under a system based on old Roman laws. But in this era we start to see this legal segregation break down and the elites giving their children names that sound more Italian to modern ears like Lucrezia and Giovanni.

All these seismic social and economic shifts were what broke the ties between the Holy Roman Empire and northern Italy, which were already fragile to begin with. As the cities grabbed more of their reigns from the bishops and other imperial administrators, they started to develop their own governments, which we call the communes. This wasn’t a relatively overnight process, like the American Revolution, but one that unfolded gradually over decades. In fact, the oldest of these cities likely had unbroken traditions of local self-government that went all the way back to the glory days of the Roman Empire, when it was the local elites, not the emperors in Rome, who really made the empire work. At any rate, we don’t really know how or when it started, but the cities, apparently in Pisa sometime between the years 1080 and 1085, began electing officials who were titled consuls. The name came from the chief executive officers of the ancient Roman Republic.

The numbers of consuls even changed from year to year. Consuls declared war and negotiated peace, led armies, decided issues involving taxation, proposed laws, and served as the supreme court. There could be anywhere from four to even twenty consuls and a term of office was for one year, although, rather than a strict, written constitution, things like the number of consuls allowed changed over time. The consuls started out by working with another institution that was certainly far, far older, the general assembly, where the citizens the town or city would gather and vocally give their assent or disapproval to any proposals. Just imagine a modern-day music competition show or something like that and you wouldn’t be too far off. As the cities grew and got richer and as a result their governments had to get more complex, smaller assemblies and councils started to appear and vote on new laws and taxes, making elections necessary.

Now, again, none of these cities had a bunch of people actually sit down and decide how their governments should work, so elections were complicated ad hoc affairs that usually changed over time. But, for the purposes of this podcast, I’ll just say there were three general election systems among the consuls. One was indirect election, where the members of the assembly would elect a group among their own number who would themselves vote for candidates among their own ranks. Another one had the members of the council or assembly vote for a candidate directly. The third method, and the one that, as we’ll see, got used a lot in Florence was election in lot where the names of qualified citizens were collected and randomly selected. Whoever ended up getting picked had to serve in office unless there were mitigating circumstances. What about “one person, one vote” you might ask? I mean, try convincing a medieval patrician that the poor shoemaker who can’t even afford a silk robe down the street should get to pick the next consuls. But we will see later on that people weren’t entirely content with this status quo.

However, for the time being, the system the communes pieced together was hardly democratic by modern standards. The consuls and of the members of the councils were recruited from the city’s leading noble families…although I don’t think that’s all that different from the United States presidency and Senate when I think about it. In any case, though, the general assembles did seem to still exist, although mainly in smaller towns. In larger cities, it appears from the evidence that the general assemblies would only be called in times of crisis, if that.

So did the emperors since Heinrich IV sit back and let all this happen? Well…kind of, at first. But then, an ambitious, clever man with blonde hair and a stylish red beard named Frederick Hohenstauffen, a.k.a. Frederick Barbarossa, was elected as King of Germany in 1153. When he came down to Italy to be coronated as the Holy Roman Emperor as the Pope, he decided that, while in town, he would run some errands, specifically crush these upstart communes. He started by demanding that the city of Milan the nearby towns of Lodi and Como to imperial authority. When Milan refused, Frederick crushed the Milanese army and invaded the city. In 1158, he also called a general council or diet where he had Italian and German lawyers essentially lay out a case that, as the rightful heir to the emperors of Rome, Frederick had absolute authority over northern Italy. Immediately he used this right to justify replacing the elected officials of the communes with his own appointees. This might have been a bit of overreach since, as historian Lauro Martines points out, “Barbarossa aroused the deepest suspicions and fears, not by acting outside the law but by working within it.”

In 1162, Milan revolted again, and Frederick responded savagely, leaving much of the city in ruins. I couldn’t conclusively verify it, but this might have been what led Venice to establish a military alliance against Frederick with the blessing of the Pope, who was also trying to keep Frederick out of Italian affairs. By 1167, most of the cities in northern Italy took the drastic step of expanding this alliance into the Lombard League. The conflict culminated in a battle fought outside the town of Legnano near Milan. Although the commune forces outnumbered the imperial army four to one, Frederick’s forces were seasoned cavalry. Still, numerical superiority won the day, as did the passion of the troops fighting for the communes. It was even said, according to one report, that they deliberately placed themselves in front of a steep slope so it would be harder for their own forces to escape. The Battle of Legnano was a disaster for the emperor, and by June 25, 1183, after a six-year truce, the emperor felt obliged to give a number of concessions to the cities of the Lombard League, listed as the Peace of Constance. While Frederick would never acknowledge the communes as sovereign governments, the cities could elect their own officials, govern surrounding small towns and rural areas, and make their own laws. All the communes had to give in return was a number of symbolic gestures. Citizens had to swear loyalty to the emperor, consuls had to be invested by imperial authority before taking office, citizens had the right of appeal to the imperial courts in legal cases involving more than 25 pounds of gold, and the cities had to pay a special tax to help pay for the new emperor’s journey to be crowned in Rome. Even with these gestures in return, though, the communes were now effectively independent.

Of course, as you might expect, now the communes no longer had the emperor breathing down their necks, it was time to look inward for new enemies. The urban noble families had to constantly compete with each other for power and money, the middle classes of merchants and bankers were getting sick of all the political offices going to the nobility, and what about the great underclass of artisans, shopkeepers, and laborers?

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