Whoosh! Issue 53 - February 2001


By Paul Olson
Content copyright (c) 2001 held by author
WHOOSH! Edition copyright (c) 2001 held by WHOOSH!
7124 words

Introduction (01-02)
A Land in Turmoil (03-04)
Warlords and Kings (05-09)
Crying out for a Hero (10-12)
Forged in the heat of battle (13-15)
The Power (16-19)
The Passion (20-21)
The Danger (22-34)
Her Courage (35-51)
A Good Day (52-54)
A Mighty Princess (55-62)
Epilogue (63-65)

Xena on Rome's side : the Warrior Princess and la Gran Contessa


"In a time of ancient gods, warlords, and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero."

[1] With these evocative lines, the opening credits of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS connect the viewer with the show's mythological setting. Things have not changed much since Xena's supposed time. In fact, what time or place in history would not consider itself 'in turmoil', wracked by rulers, power-players, and unseen forces? Given such a 'parallel' world, it is natural to look for parallel heroes. Xena has been compared to numerous female adventurers in history and fiction. The XENA magazine ran a series comparing her to Joan of Arc, Boudiccea, and Zenobia of Palmyra, and fandom has considered several more.

[2] However, a lesser known figure, a knight of the Middle Ages, is probably more comparable to Xena than any of the other proposed precursors. Countess Matilda of Tuscany, 1046-1115, emerged in 11th century Europe as a hero and champion who brought a respite of peace to a troubled and violent time. In her own lifetime she was famous across Europe for her bravery and skill, and she has been esteemed by successive Popes from that time to this. She is known in Italy as simply La Gran Contessa. She had a profound effect on her own times and on ours, so it is worth comparing her to Xena, for her exploits and her character.

Matilda, waltzing?

Drawing by George Sullivan (ca. 1906)
conjecturing what Matilda of Tuscany
may have looked like in life.
Click on graphic to see a larger reproduction

A Land in Turmoil

[3] XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS is set loosely during the Heroic Age of Greece, which encompassed the Trojan War, just before the Dark Ages. War is rampant, the social order is breaking down, pirates and bandits prey on villagers, and even the gods are headed for imminent downfall.

[4] Matilda of Tuscany was born on the Italian peninsula in the 11th century, just as Europe was beginning to emerge from the collapse of Charlemagne's empire. Nation-states as we understand them did not exist. William the Conqueror was decades away from taking over England. Barons fought with each other over land, borders shifted constantly, pirates and bandits prowled as usual, but the chief struggle in Matilda's world, the one that would dominate her life, was the Guelf/Ghibelline conflict.

Warlords and Kings

[5] The Ghibellines were a party of mostly Italian aristocrats who supported the authority of the German Emperors, Charlemagne's successors, to rule over Italy. The Guelfs were a popular party who favored home rule and whose acknowledged leader was the Pope. This was not a nationalistic struggle, but a mixture of political, cultural, and religious conflicts. Modern day historians often portray the struggle as Church versus State with dominion over Europe as the prize. In fact, it was only the Emperors who wanted to rule Europe, or 'Christendom' as they would have called it. They and their supporters saw themselves as reuniting Charlemagne's domains, which in turn had seen itself as re-unifying the fallen Roman Empire. Hence, a German feudal king styled himself the Holy Roman Emperor.

[6] The Italian people saw the German/French forces of the Empire as foreigners, while the Pope was seen as the real heir of Caesar, at least in Italy. The Popes wanted secular power only as a means to an end: Papal control of the appointment of Bishops and Abbots. At the time, kings and princes appointed Bishops to their sees, the so-called 'ring and crosier' privilege. At first this was common-sense: any ruler wants control of the territories in his domain, so lands deeded to the Church were given on condition that the local ruler appoint the prelate in charge of them.

[7] In practice, however, this produced corruption as "good-old-boy" networks arose, and Bishops and Popes took office based on their loyalty to the local ruler or their heredity, not for their pastoral ability. Even worse, rulers unabashedly sold bishoprics and monasteries to the highest bidder, who promptly extorted all they could from the land and tenants to make back their 'investment'. This, to the Church, was the sin of Simony, so-called after Simon Magus who tried to buy the Holy Spirit from Saint Paul. As late as 1045, Gregory VI became Pope by purchase from the Emperor.

[8] The Church was in danger of becoming and staying a mere Imperial office of state. In later centuries the arrangement would leave the Russian Orthodox Church with a less-than-stellar record of opposing the corruption of the Czars and the Soviets. The struggle against the Emperor was therefore a struggle to preserve the integrity of the institutional Church and, more importantly, its moral witness.

[9] The corruption of simony and other vices prompted the 11th century reform movement spearheaded by the monastery of Cluny, which unlike others answered to the Pope alone, not to any secular prince. The simonistic clerics and aristocrats who profited from them, naturally, opposed the reform.

Crying out for a Hero

[10] Xena was born the child of Atrius, a Greek warlord, and Cyrene, a peaceful woman of property. She was one of three children. Her father was a despotic warlord given to raiding and looting villages. He was killed when she was a child of six or seven. Although Xena later had training from Amazons, women warriors were not common in her homeland. She took up the sword only in defense of her home village Amphipolis, when no one else was willing to stand before Cortese. When her brother was killed in the struggle, she took up piracy and war to preserve Amphipolis, for which the boy had died. Matilda likewise would normally have become either a nun or a court lady and wife to some other nobleman, and she would have watched her brother rule Tuscany. Instead, she became a warrior for the same reason Xena did: a succession of personal tragedies.

[11] Matilda was born in 1046 to Count Boniface of Canossa, one of three children. Boniface was a brash and violent man who swindled Churches, ran his cavalry over peasant's crops, and once had the noses and ears of a rebel garrison cut off and piled on a shield for a trophy. [Note 01] He was assassinated in 1052 when Matilda was only six. He had supported a claimant to the Papacy, who was opposed by the Emperor, Henry III, and it has been said that Henry arranged his death. Before he was buried, Matilda's brother and sister also died of disease, leaving her the sole heir to Canossa.

[12] In contrast to Xena's village of Amphipolis, Canossa was a huge land holding, comprising all of Tuscany, parts of Liguria and Umbria, and the cities Ferrara, Verona, Mantua, Reggio, Parma, Lucca, Pisa, Florence, Pistoia, Modena, Spoleto, and Camerino. It was also between the Emperor in Germany and the Pope in Rome, so it was only a matter of time before she would have to defend her inheritance. Her mother gave her a classical education suitable for a noble lady. From her retainer/general Arduino Della Palude, she learned horsemanship and sword, battle-axe, and lance proficiency. [Note 02] "Disdaining with a virile spirit the art of Arachne, she seized the spear of Pallas" wrote a later biographer with mythological flair. [Note 03] Like Xena, Matilda was forced by circumstance to take up the sword in defense of her homeland.

Forged in the heat of battle

[13] At some unspecified time, Cyrene appears to have remarried, a normal course for women of property in most ages. Xena says only that she did not get on well with her stepfather. After the business with Cortese, Xena might have been content to stay in or near Amphipolis after polishing off the local threats. Instead she met, loved, and was betrayed by Caesar. After this, she blazed across the Known World, becoming, among other things, an enemy of all things Roman. Had he been less arrogant, Caesar might have felt a twinge of regret for his ill treatment.

[14] While Matilda was still young, her mother, Beatrice, tried to strengthen their position by marrying Godfrey, Duke of Upper Lorraine and an enemy of the Emperors. However, Henry III trumped up charges that Godfrey had forced Beatrice to marry him and marched troops across the Alps to 'rescue' her. Beatrice went to meet him to try to settle the issue peacefully. She assured him her marriage was lawful and gently asserted that who she married was not under his control.

[15] Henry retaliated by imprisoning both Beatrice and Matilda for almost two years. It was a heavy-handed move he and his son would have cause to regret. Matilda and her mother were eventually freed by the diplomacy of the monk, Hildebrand, a Cluniac who acted as emissary from Rome to the Emperor, and the Pope. Hildebrand became her close friend and visited often on his shuttles to and from Rome. Her father's suspicious death, her own imprisonment, and her own piety led her to decide for the Church's reformers. [Note 04] Like the other Caesar, the German Emperor made a move for short-term gain and found himself with a resourceful and implacable enemy.

The Power

[16] Xena's baptism by fire was of course the defense of Amphipolis. Details are sketchy. We know only that it repelled Cortese but cost her brother's life and left Cortese himself unharmed. Matilda had a much bigger homeland to cover, but she had a similar experience.

[17] In 1061, the new, underage Emperor's family was busy with the rebellion of their Saxon subjects. The Papacy took the opportunity to elect Alexander II as Pope by council vote, without asking or getting imperial approval nor paying any fee, the first Pope in centuries to do so. [Note 05] Offended by the innovation, Henry IV's mother put forward Bishop Cadalous of Parma as Pope and sent him toward Rome with an army of knights and levies.

[18] Beatrice and Godfrey raised their own army in response, with Matilda, age 17, leading the vanguard. She attacked as he crossed into Tuscany and repulsed him, but the pretender regrouped and went around her territory. He penetrated into Rome itself before the Pope's forces were ready to meet them. Ghibelline Romans meanwhile had occupied Castel St Angelo, the main fortification in Rome. Fighting erupted around the castle and in the Trasteverine quarter, and quickly spread. Matilda and her forces, 800 archers and pikemen and a group of horsemen, were cut off from Godfrey. She led a charge herself against the anti-pope's men, driving part of them out of the city and capturing a large number of others. Cadalous was forced to retreat to Parma, effectively clinching Alexander's election. [Note 06] Although the usual practice was to execute those not able to be ransomed, Matilda magnanimously spared her prisoners except for the ones who had plundered the Roman suburbs.

The Passion

[19] It has been frequently noted that Xena has had better luck commanding men than living with them, and sadly the same was true of Matilda. In 1069 Godfrey died, obliging Matilda to reconnect with the house of Lorraine. She married Godfrey's son and heir, known as Godfrey the Hunchback. She lived in Lorraine for some years and gave birth to a child, which died in infancy. This was not uncommon but still a heavy blow to her. She also found that her husband did not share her sense of piety. When his father died, he had left a large bequest to Abbot Dietrich of St Hubert, who was reluctant to take it because he believed the younger Godfrey would dispute it. He was right, and Matilda sided with Dietrich. It was the first in a string of disagreements between them. [Note 07] She and Godfrey grew estranged and by 1072, she returned to her mother in Italy. Rumor tied Godfrey to an assassination attempt on the Pope, and she refused to see him again. In 1076, Godfrey was assassinated. For a good part of her life, Matilda was beset by men eager to marry her for her money.

[20] Like Xena, therefore, Matilda was much closer to friends and confidants than to lovers and husbands. She was always close to Beatrice and to Hildebrand. The monk/Cardinal became a surrogate father figure to her. Numbers of his letters to her survive, and it is notable that with Matilda he drops the formal 'we' in favor of the familiar 'I', and his letters have a warm and intimate tone. "I have more confidence in your good judgment than you yourself could possibly express..." he wrote when consulting her about his plans. [Note 08] In another, he called her "best beloved daughter of St Peter". No one could have been happier than she when he was elected Pope in 1073, taking the name Gregory VII.

[21] Gregory was also elected without imperial consent, but this time they did not object, as they were still busy with Saxon revolts. They must have known, however, that he was a staunch anti-simony reformer. He had schooled with the Cluniacs. He had already deposed numerous simonistic Bishops. He once had an anti-pope stripped of his regalia in front of his weeping relatives while reading a record of his crimes. [Note 09] He was not a man much given to compromise. Matilda's friendship with him was about to be severely tested.

Matilda, thinking

Countess Matilda of Tuscany, from the Vita Mathildis,
her biography by the monk Donizo, her personal aide

The Danger

[22] A constant of Xena's life and character has always been her unswerving devotion and loyalty to her friends. Repeatedly she has crossed continents and braved gods, monsters, and armies to aid friends, even brief and stormy friendships like the one with Lao Ma. Matilda, like Xena, showed heroic loyalty to those close to her.

[23] In the year Beatrice died, the Emperor Henry IV came of age. He took the throne promising to support Gregory's reforms and show Christian morals, and he immediately began appointing Bishops throughout Germany and Italy. He also helped himself to Church funds and took several mistresses. He was naturally displeased at Gregory's public calls to reform him. He was even less pleased when in 1074 Gregory called a Lateran council that outlawed priestly marriage, ordination of married men, simony, and gave the Church alone the right of investiture. He promised to support it, but only bided his time until he had put down the Saxons.

[24] In 1076 the Emperor and his simonistic Bishops accused the Pope publicly of "malediction instead of benediction", of taking the papal seat by bribery and force, of inciting rebellion, and filling "the entire Church with the stench of the gravest of scandals, rising from your intimacy and cohabitation with another's wife ... [so that] the general complaint is sounded that all judgements and all decrees are enacted by women in the Apostolic See, and ultimately ... the Church is administered by this new senate of women".

[25] By this, they meant Matilda. [Note 10] Like Xena, Matilda found that her private life was other people's business, and that they saw what they wanted to see. There is no evidence to support any salaciousness between Matilda and Gregory. However, this would probably have been more acceptable than the truth: that the Pope was taking a woman's advice on Church matters instead of the Emperor and Bishops.'

[26] Henry called on the "discontented" Italians to depose the Pope. This had no effect, and the Pope sent him notice of excommunication. Henry's baseless accusations and defiance of Church teaching had put him outside the community of believers. He was no longer considered a Christian, and his vassals were free of fealty to him. No Pope had ever done such a thing, and all Europe was shocked. Henry's vassals once again rebelled.

[27] Gregory called for a Diet, an assembly of the Empire's nobles rather like a Parliament, and he set out for Germany. Henry knew he was unpopular with the nobles and that such an assembly would vote him out. As Gregory moved toward Germany, Henry crossed the Alps to try to mend fences without an assembly. Matilda feared he would try to ambush the Pope and arranged to have them meet at her family seat and birthplace, the mighty mountain fortress of Canossa. The castle sat on a 1500 feet precipice in the Apennines. It had only one approach that was bounded by walls on three sides. It was well garrisoned and well supplied, and it had a view for miles down the Lombard plain. It was nearly impossible to take or to surprise.

[28] There followed one of the most famous episodes in European history. The Emperor arrived at Canossa to beg the Pope's forgiveness, barefoot in a coarse wool shirt, prostrate on the ground in the snow for three days, crying "Spare me blessed father, have mercy I beseech you!" Gregory knew he should wait for the Diet (as events would prove him right), but he could hardly refuse such spectacular groveling, and Matilda herself interceded for Henry. On January 28, he released Henry's excommunication on condition that the Diet be held anyway, and that the Pope receive safe passage to Germany. It marked one of the highest points of Papal prestige: Bismarck in the 19th century would use the term "go to Canossa" to mean deferring to the Roman Catholic Church. The event would later be carved on Matilda's tomb.

[29] The meeting made history, but it did not make peace. Henry reneged on his promises, and the Diet was never held. Gregory was nearly ambushed on his way to Germany. Just three years later Henry had a firm hold on Germany and 'elected' a new pope, Bishop Guibert of Ravenna, who had long opposed Gregory. The Pope excommunicated him again, but the shock value was gone, and Henry now had the support of northern Italian clergy in Lombardy, whose leader was Guibert. Pro-imperial forces rose up against Matilda at the Battle of Volta, and Matilda's forces were defeated and scattered.

[30] One by one, her towns and cities went over to the Emperor. A puppet synod of simonistic Bishops excommunicated Gregory, and Matilda was declared a traitor against Henry and all her lands forfeit. Matilda retreated to Canossa to regroup, but in 1081, Henry invaded Italy swearing to install Guibert in St. Peter's. For three years he spent spring and fall laying siege to Rome, and, in the summer, because of the heat, retreated to Lucca while his troops plundered her lands. Matilda could spare no troops to help Rome. Gregory had to write in desperation to various allies pleading for help for Matilda lest she be forced to give in or lose all her lands. More Italian cities joined the Emperor. In 1084, Henry bribed his way into Rome. Gregory and his supporters were left holding out in Castel St Angelo. Henry had Guibert crowned Clement III, and then had himself and his wife crowned by his anti-pope. [Note 11]

[31] All might have been lost but for the Norman warlord Robert Guiscard in southern Italy. He decided he did not want the Emperor for a neighbor and marched to the Pope's relief. The Normans were famous for their ferocity. A Byzantine writer would later say that a Norman charge would "go through the walls of Babylon". Though he outnumbered the Normans, Henry had no desire to face them. Claiming he had important business in Germany, Henry hastily called off the siege and headed north.

[32] Tragically, Robert's troops were angered when they found the Roman gates closed and went on a rampage. They sacked churches and burned the city, raped nuns, sold citizens into slavery, and Gregory was helpless to stop any of it. When the Normans left, Gregory was forced to go too, for the Romans had all turned against him. [Note 12]

[33] Henry's army carried the war back to Tuscany. After plundering the countryside for some days, a portion of his army with two of his schismatic Bishops made camp near Sorbara, one of Matilda's castles in Modena. Just after sundown, cavalry and soldiers with Matilda in the lead burst from cover and fell on the camp screaming "St Peter!", catching all of them by surprise. She and her troops had left Canossa earlier that day and moved on the camp undetected. "The soldiers...were buried in sleep, when they were suddenly struck in the ears by the formidable sound of the name of the Apostolic Vicar of Christ, and at the same moment in the vitals by the sword..." wrote the historian Fiorentini in the 17th century. [Note 13] Matilda captured both Bishops, six high-ranking noblemen, 100 knights, and 500 horses.

[34] Warriors by nature tend to be loyal to their fellows (no one will go into battle with you if you are not loyal to them), and feudal cultures like Middle Ages Europe exalt loyalty to a fanatical degree, as in pre-modern Japan. Even in this environment, however, Matilda stands out for her loyalty. With most of northern Italy throwing in with the Emperor, and her lands suffering years of predatory raids, she never wavered in her support of Gregory's cause. At one point, when in need of money herself, she melted down 700 pounds of silver and nine pounds of gold from her own church in Canossa and sent it to him. True to her principles, she promised to restore it all when able, and she delivered. Few warriors and fewer rulers in history have equaled that kind of steadfastness.

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