Matilda of Canossa (as the Countess Matilda of Tuscany is known in Italy) was born in 1046, and was the last member of the great House of Canossa, margraves of Tuscany. In less than fifty years, she came to rule a domain in Italy of strategic and decisive significance in the struggle for power between the emperor and the pope.
Some documents wrongly relegate Matilda to a marginal role in European history. That is why Donizo’s “Life of Matilda of Canossa” has come to have extraordinary significance for our present-day view of the relevant events and individuals.
She devoted her life to high politics, which was characterized in her day by the ongoing struggle for power between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1056 Matilda and her mother were taken captive by the German Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III, but they were released when he died a year later. (He was succeeded by his six-year-old son, Henry IV.) Since her two siblings (an older brother and sister) had died, Matilda was the sole heir to her family’s patrimony and vast territorial lordship.
To support the reforming papacy, she eventually transferred all her personal property to the papal state, waiving all her rights over it. She was widowed at the age of 29. She remarried at the age of 43 for political reasons (to strengthen a coalition formed against Henry IV). The groom was the future Duke of Bavaria, a seventeen-year-old boy named Welf.
At that time, Matilda’s future biographer, Donizo (also known as Donizone), was a Benedectine monk of the monastery of St. Apollonius in Canossa. He later became the abbot of that monastery, and, during the last years of her life, Matilda’s friend and confessor. On the dedication page, the first of the full-page miniatures included in the manuscript shows Donizo handing it to Matilda as she sits on her throne. This scene is imaginary, because Matilda did not live to see the manuscript completed. She died in 1115, at the age of 69, in Bondeno di Roncore.