18.09.29, Nash, Empress Adelheid and Countess Matilda

Main Article Content

David S. Bachrach

The Medieval Review 18.09.29

Nash, Penelope. Empress Adelheid and Countess Matilda. Queenship and Power. New York, New York: Palgrave, 2017. pp. xxxi, 292. ISBN: 978-1-137-59088-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
David Bachrach
University of New Hampshire
David.Bachrach@unh.edu

The women of the Ottonian dynasty in Germany (919-1024) have received enormous attention from scholars both because of the central role that they played in royal and imperial politics and governance, and also because of the considerable volume of source material, including both documentary and visual texts, that sheds light on their activities. Adelheid (931-999), the daughter of King Rudolf II of Burgundy (912-937), the wife of King Lothair II of Italy (948-950), and subsequently the wife of Otto I of Germany (936-973) is emblematic of the highly engaged Ottonian royal woman. She not only played an active part in royal politics during the lifetime of Otto I, but also held a significant role in the governments of both her son Otto II (973-983) and grandson Otto III (983-1002). Matilda of Tuscany (1046-1115) similarly played a central role, albeit on a much smaller scale, in the government of large stretches of northern Italy, particularly in the valley of the Po River, and southwards into the mountainous region of the contemporary Italian province of Reggio Emilia. As a consequence, Matilda, like Adelheid, has received considerable scholarly attention, much of which has been focused on her role in the political struggle between the papacy and King Henry IV of Germany (1056-1106), including Matilda's military conflicts with the German ruler.

The considerable historiographical traditions dealing with these two ruling women provide an important background for Penelope Nash's comparative study of Adelheid and Matilda. However, far more important is Nash's effort to use her investigation of these rulers to test a now half-century-old theory, suggested by among others Richard Southern, that increasing specialization in governmental practices and a turn away from a putative relationship-based governance over the course of the eleventh century established new rules that excluded women from positions of power.

The text is comprised of four chapters, the first of which serves as an introduction. Nash begins this brief chapter with two vignettes that are meant to set the stage for the eventful lives of the two protagonists of the study. The first of these recounts Adelheid's escape from captivity at the hands of Margrave Berengar II of Ivrea, the future king of Italy (951-961), who sought to compel the young widow of King Lothair to marry his own son. The second vignette concerns Matilda's role in negotiating the rapprochement between Henry IV of Germany and Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) at her fortress of Canossa in January 1077. Nash follows these vignettes with a highly compressed account of the careers of both Adelheid and Matilda, followed by brief historiographical discussion of the theories of scholars including Richard Southern, Georges Duby, David Herlihy, and Karl Leyser about the ostensibly transformative period of the eleventh century.

The second chapter, "Kin and Kith: Keeping Friends and Placating Enemies," begins, as seems to be de rigeur in a certain type of early medieval history writing, with injection of an anthropological model based on a non-literate, non-Christian society that had no connection with the Roman Empire. In this case, Nash points to the Arrernte people, indigenous to Australia, whose understanding of property and familial relationships are supposed to illuminate the ways in which royal and noble families understood these matters in the tenth and eleventh century. Nash provides no basis for linking the Arrernte to medieval Europe, and fortunately, after raising the anthropological model, does not discuss them again in the remainder of the text.

Nash then turns to a brief and insufficient discussion of some elements of the enormous scholarly tradition dealing with the problem of kin structure in early medieval Europe, as well as the nature of social and political relationships beyond the family. Of fundamental importance to Nash's discussion is the role played by both family and friends in the resolution of disputes. Here, she relies most heavily on the works of Karl Leyser and Gerd Althoff, and follows the latter in completely ignoring the role of government in the resolving of legal conflicts. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to illuminating the various familial and extra-familial relationships of both Adelheid and Matilda, devoting far more attention to Matilda.

Although much of the information provided in this chapter is interesting in itself, there does not appear to be any over-riding argument tying the various sections and sub-sections together. Nash also makes a number of questionable claims in the chapter that likely will not be accepted by most readers. For example, Nash's effort to assert the "feudal" model for the tenth and eleventh century on the basis of vassalage could have been written some time before Susan Reynold's Fiefs and Vassals and the literature produced in the wake of this seminal work, but certainly fits poorly with the contemporary scholarly consensus. In a different vein, Nash's argument (24) that Adelheid was the person who brought about a reconciliation between Otto I and younger brother Henry simply is not tenable in light of Henry's appointment by Otto as duke of Bavaria in 948, three years before the German king's intervention in Italy and marriage to Adelheid.

Chapter Three, entitled "Land: Building and Maintaining a Property Portfolio," begins with a discussion of the putative changes in land holding over the course of the eleventh century with the ostensible rise of primogeniture, the development of a more restrictive understanding of marriage, and the concomitant limitations on the ability of women to maintain their property. However, Nash's treatment of this subject matter is insufficiently robust to support these broad-gauged models. Indeed, Nash appears to contradict herself when pointing out that limitations on the freedom of women to dispose of property were the norm in the Carolingian Empire of the eighth and ninth centuries, with the exception of Italy.

Rather more interestingly, Nash then turns to a discussion of the landed holdings by both Adelheid and Matilda, which clearly provided both women with an important basis for exercising political authority. However, this section is far too short and limited to make clear the specific mechanisms by which Adelheid and Mathilda actually maintained control of their property. This is particularly true of Adelheid, whose material assets were located on both sides of the Alps. Nash's brief discussion of The Significance of the Law, in the last sub-section of this chapter, is a case in point. A mere three pages on the ways in which both women utilized the different provisions of particular law codes to sustain their territorial possessions was far from sufficient to make the case that they did actually do this. The citations in this section also do not give the reader confidence that Nash controls the historiography dealing with early medieval land law.

The final chapter, entitled "Rule: Models of Rulership and the Tools of Justice," is intended to reconstruct the ways in which Adelheid and Matilda operated as ruling women. Once again, Nash provides a considerable amount of interesting information in this chapter, but lacks a central thesis. In the first and shorter part of the chapter dealing with Adelheid, Nash addresses the idea of there having been models of queenship, including the discussion by Hincmar of Rheims in his revision of the De ordine palatii. However, rather than following up on her observation that both Ottonian Germany and eleventh-century Italy were structured fundamentally on a Carolingian basis (160), Nash's discussion of Adelheid's role in the government of the German kingdom focuses entirely on the itinerant court. Nash completely ignores the crucial roles played by the fisc, counts, dukes, and ecclesiastical officials as agents of royal authority. An assessment of the ways in which Adelheid managed these officials during the period of Otto III's regency would have been of extraordinary value, as this topic has not been treated in any other scholarly work. Unfortunately, Nash did not consider this question. In addition, although "tools of justice" appears in the sub-title of this chapter, there is no discussion of the actual provision of justice in the German kingdom either during Adelheid's time as the queen consort or during the period when she served as regent for her grandson Otto III.

When turning to Matilda, Nash devotes considerable attention to the countess's military activities, and attempts to draw parallels between her means of government and those employed by the counts of Anjou in the late tenth and eleventh centuries. However, once more the lack of depth makes the point of the comparison unclear. There follow a series of brief sections on the need to control road networks, charters, and the seats of Matilda's control in fortifications. But, following a theme in the book overall, none of these topics is considered in sufficient depth to gain a clear understanding of their purpose in the book.

In the brief epilogue, Nash tries to bring together the disparate elements of the text, offering a series of comparisons between the personal lives and political careers of Adelheid and Matilda. Ultimately, however, Nash concludes that a comparison between these two women, who lived and ruled in such different circumstances, cannot provide an answer to the question that she posed as thefundamental starting point for the text, that is, whether the eleventh century actually experienced the type of change posited so long ago by Richard Southern.

Taken as a whole, this book provides a considerable amount of useful information, including a detailed discussion of the sources of information that are available for the lives and careers of Matilda and Adelheid. These include more than 100 surviving charters for the countess, very large numbers of royal charters in which Adelheid either intervened or took the lead role, numerous letters, a considerable body of narrative works, including a biography of Matilda by the monk Donizo, and material sources of information including coins and works of art. The volume also includes a number of helpful chronologies, genealogies, and maps. Ultimately, however, this is a book in search of a thesis. A political biography of either Adelheid or Matilda, that examined in depth the range of questions only touched upon by Nash in this text, certainly would be welcome. However, a comparison between two women operating in different places and times, and under very different circumstances, ultimately fails to capture the challenges, failures, and successes of either one.

Article Details

Section
Reviews