In all ages and in all countries
WOMEN OF THE ROMANCE COUNTRIES
JOHN R. EFFINGER, Ph.D. Of the University of Michigan
THE RITTENHOUSE PRESS PHILADELPHIA
_Copyrighted at Washington and entered at Stationers' Hall, London
and printed by arrangement with George Barrie's Sons._
PRINTED IN U. S. A.
No one can deny the influence of woman, which has been a potent factor in society, directly or indirectly, ever since the days of Mother Eve. Whether living in Oriental seclusion, or enjoying the freer life of the Western world, she has always played an important part in the onward march of events, and exercised a subtle power in all things, great and small. To appreciate this power properly, and give it a worthy narrative, is ever a difficult and well-nigh impossible task, at least for mortal man. Under the most favorable circumstances, the subject is elusive and difficult of approach, lacking in sequence, and often shrouded in mystery.
What, then, must have been the task of the author of the present volume, in essaying to write of the women of Italy and Spain! In neither of these countries are the people all of the same race, nor do they afford the development of a constant type for observation or study. Italy, with its mediaeval chaos, its free cities, and its fast-and-loose allegiance to the temporal power of the Eternal City, has ever been the despair of the orderly historian; and Spain, overrun by Goth, by Roman, and by Moslem host, presents strange contrasts and rare complexities.
Such being the case, this account of the women of the Romance countries does not attempt to trace in detail their gradual evolution, but rather to present, in the proper setting, the most conspicuous examples of their good or evil influence, their bravery or their cowardice, their loyalty or their infidelity, their learning or their illiteracy, their intelligence or their ignorance, throughout the succeeding years.
Chroniclers and historians, poets and romancers, have all given valuable aid in the undertaking, and to them grateful acknowledgment is hereby made.
JOHN R. EFFINGER.
University of Michigan.
The Age of the Countess Matilda of Tuscany
The eleventh century, which culminated in the religious fervor of the First Crusade, must not on that account be considered as an age of unexampled piety and devotion. Good men there were and true, and women of great intellectual and moral force, but it cannot be said that the time was characterized by any deep and sincere religious feeling which showed itself in the general conduct of society. Europe was just emerging from that gloom which had settled down so closely upon the older civilizations after the downfall of the glory that was Rome, and the light of the new day sifted but fitfully through the dark curtains of that restless time. Liberty had not as yet become the shibboleth of the people, superstition was in the very air, the knowledge of the wisest scholars was as naught, compared with what we know to-day; everywhere, might made right.
In a time like this, in spite of the illustrious example of the Countess Matilda, it cannot be supposed that women were in a very exalted position. It is even recorded that in several instances, men, as superior beings, debated as to whether or not women were possessed of souls. While this momentous question was never settled in a conclusive fashion, it may be remarked that in the heat of the discussion there were some who called women angels of light, while there were others who had no hesitation in declaring that they were devils incarnate, though in neither case were they willing to grant them the same rights and privileges which they themselves possessed. Though many other facts of the same kind might be adduced, the mere existence of such discussion is enough to prove to the most undiscerning that woman's place in society was not clearly recognized, and that there were many difficulties to be overcome before she could consider herself free from her primitive state of bondage.
In the eye of the feudal law, women were not considered as persons of any importance whatever. The rights of husbands were practically absolute, and led to much abuse, as they had a perfectly legal right to punish wives for their misdeeds, to control their conduct in such a way as to interfere with their personal liberty, and in general to treat them as slaves and inferior beings. The whipping-post had not then been invented as a fitting punishment for the wife beater, as it was perfectly understood, according to the feudal practices as collected by Beaumanoir, "that every husband had the right to beat his wife when she was unwilling to obey his commands, or when she cursed him, or when she gave him the lie, providing that it was done moderately, and that death did not ensue." If a wife left a husband who had beaten her, she was compelled by law to return at his first word of regret, or to lose all right to their common possessions, even for purposes of her own support.
The daughters of a feudal household had even fewer rights than the wife. All who are willing to make a candid acknowledgment of the facts must admit that even to-day, a girl-baby is often looked upon with disfavor. This has been true in all times, and there are numerous examples to show that this aversion existed in ancient India, in Greece and Sparta, and at Rome. The feudal practices of mediaeval Europe were certainly based upon it, and the Breton peasant of to-day expresses the same idea somewhat bluntly when he says by way of explanation, after the birth of a daughter: Ma femme a fait une fausse couche. Conscious as all must be of this widespread sentiment at the present time, it will not be difficult to imagine what its consequences must have been in so rude a time as the eleventh century, when education could do so little in the way of restraining human passion and prejudice. As the whole feudal system, so far as the succession of power was concerned, was based upon the principle of primogeniture, it was the oldest son who succeeded to all his father's lands and wealth, the daughter or daughters being left under his absolute control. Naturally, such a system worked hardship for the younger brothers, but then as now it was easier for men to find a place for themselves in the world than for women, and the army or the Church rarely failed to furnish some sort of career for all those who were denied the rights and privileges of the firstborn. The lot of the sister, however, was pitiful in the extreme (unless it happened that the older brother was kind and considerate), for if she were in the way she could be bundled off to a cloister, there to spend her days in solitude, or she could be married against her will, being given as the price of some alliance.
The conditions of marriage, however, were somewhat complicated, as it was always necessary to secure the consent of three persons before a girl of the higher class could go to the altar in nuptial array. These three persons were her father or her guardian, her lord and the king. It was Hugo who likened the feudal system to a continually ascending pyramid with the king at the very summit, and that interminable chain of interdependence is well illustrated in the present case. Suppose the father, brother, or other guardian had decided upon a suitable husband for the daughter of the house, it was necessary that he should first gain the consent of that feudal lord to whom he gave allegiance, and when this had been obtained, the king himself must give his royal sanction to the match. Nor was this all, for a feudal law said that any lord can compel any woman among his dependants to marry a man of his own choosing after she has reached the age of twelve. Furthermore, there was in existence a most cruel, barbarous, and repulsive practice which gave any feudal lord a right to the first enjoyment of the person of the bride of one of his vassals. As Legouve has so aptly expressed it: Les jeunes gens payaient de leur corps en allant a la guerre, les jeunes filles en allant a l'autel.
Divorce was a very simple matter at this time so far as the husband was concerned, for he it was who could repudiate his wife, disown her, and send her from his door for almost any reason, real or false. In earlier times, at the epoch when the liberty of the citizen was the pride of Rome, marriage almost languished there on account of the misuse of divorce, and both men and women were allowed to profit by the laxity of the laws on this subject. Seneca said, in one instance: "That Roman woman counts her years, not by the number of consuls, but by the number of her husbands." Juvenal reports a Roman freedman as saying to his wife: "Leave the house at once and forever! You blow your nose too frequently. I desire a wife with a dry nose." When Christianity appeared, then, the marriage tie was held in slight consideration, and it was only after many centuries and by slow degrees that its sanctity was recognized, and its rights respected. While, under the Roman law, both men and women had been able to get a divorce with the same ease, the feudal idea, which gave all power into the hands of the men, made divorce an easy thing for the men alone, but this was hardly an improvement, as the marriage relation still lacked stability.
It must not be supposed that all the mediaeval ideas respecting marriage and divorce and the condition of women in general, which have just been explained, had to do with any except those who belonged in some way to the privileged classes, for such was not the case. At that time, the great mass of the people in Europe—men and women—were ignorant to the last degree, possessing little if any sense of delicacy or refinement, and were utterly uncouth. For the most part, they lived in miserable hovels, were clothed in a most meagre and scanty way, and were little better than those beasts of burden which are compelled to do their master's bidding. Among these people, rights depended quite largely upon physical strength, and women were generally misused. To the lord of the manor it was a matter of little importance whether or not the serfs upon his domain were married in due form or not; marriage as a sacrament had little to do with these hewers of wood and drawers of water, and they were allowed to follow their own impulses quite generally, so far as their relations with each other were concerned. The loose moral practices of the time among the more enlightened could be but a bad example for the benighted people of the soil; consequently, throughout all classes of society there was a degree of corruption and immorality which is hardly conceivable to-day.
So far as education was concerned, there were but a few who could enjoy its blessings, and these were, for the most part, men. Women, in their inferior and unimportant position, rarely desired an education, and more rarely received one. Of course, there were conspicuous exceptions to this rule; here and there, a woman working under unusually favorable circumstances was really able to become a learned person. Such cases were extremely rare, however, for the true position of woman in society was far from being understood. Schools for women were unknown; indeed, there were few schools of any kind, and it was only in the monasteries that men were supposed to know how to read and write. Even kings and queens were often without these polite accomplishments, and the right of the sword had not yet been questioned. Then, it must be taken into consideration that current ideas regarding education in Italy in this early time were quite different from what they are to-day. As there were no books, book learning was impossible, and the old and yellowed parchments stored away in the libraries of the monasteries were certainly not calculated to arouse much public enthusiasm. Education at this time was merely some sort of preparation for the general duties of life, and the nature of this preparation depended upon a number of circumstances.
To make the broadest and most general classification possible, the women of that time might be divided into ladies of high degree and women of the people. The former were naturally fitted by their training to take their part in the spectacle of feudal life with proper dignity; more than that, they were often skilled in all the arts of the housewife, and many times they showed themselves the careful stewards of their husbands' fortunes. The women of the people, on the other hand, were not shown any special consideration on account of their sex, and were quite generally expected to work in the fields with the men. Their homes were so unworthy of the name that they required little care or thought, and their food was so coarse that little time was given to its preparation. Simple-minded, credulous, superstitious in the extreme, with absolutely no intellectual uplift of any kind, and nothing but the sordid drudgery of life with which to fill the slow-passing hours, it is no wonder that the great mass of both the men and the women of this time were hopelessly swallowed up in a many-colored sea of ignorance, from which, with the march of the centuries, they have been making slow efforts to rise. So the lady sat in the great hall in the castle, clad in some gorgeous gown of silk which had been brought by the patient caravans, through devious ways, from the far and mysterious East; surrounded by her privileged maidens, she spun demurely and in peace and quiet, while out in the fields the back of the peasant woman was bent in ceaseless toil. Or again, the lady of the manor would ride forth with her lord when he went to the hunt, she upon her white palfrey, and he upon his black charger, and each with hooded falcon on wrist; for the gentle art of falconry was almost as much in vogue among the women as among the men of the time. Often it happened that during the course of the hunt it would be necessary to cross a newly planted field, or one heavy with the ripened grain, and this they did gaily and with never a thought for the hardship that they might cause; and as they swept along, hot after the quarry, the poor, mistreated peasant, whether man or woman, dared utter no word of protest or make moan, nor did he or she dare to look boldly and unabashed upon this hunting scene, but rather from the cover of some protecting thicket. Scenes of this kind will serve to show the great gulf which there was between the great and the lowly; and as there was an almost total lack of any sort of education in the formal sense of the word, it will be readily understood that all that education could mean for anybody was that training which was incident to the daily round of life, whatever it happened to be. So the poor and dependent learned to fear and sometimes to hate their masters, and the proud and haughty learned to consider themselves as superior and exceptional beings.
With society in such a state as this, the question will naturally arise: What did the Church do under these circumstances to ameliorate the condition of the people and to advance the cause of woman? The only answer to this question is a sorry negative, as it soon becomes apparent, after an investigation of the facts, that in many cases the members of the clergy themselves were largely responsible for the wide prevalence of vice and immorality. It must be remembered that absolution from sin and crime in those days was but a matter of money price and that pardons could be easily bought for any offence, as the venality of the clergy was astounding. The corruption of the time was great, and the priests themselves were steeped in crime and debauchery. In former generations, the Church at Rome had many times issued strict orders against the marriage of the clergy, and, doubtless as one of the consequences of this regulation, it had become the custom for many of the priests to have one or more concubines with whom they, in most cases, lived openly and without shame. The monasteries became, under these conditions, dens of iniquity, and the nunneries were no better. The nunnery of Saint Fara in the eleventh century, according to a contemporary description, was no longer the residence of holy virgins, but a brothel of demoniac females who gave themselves up to all sorts of shameless conduct; and there are many other accounts of the same general tenor. Pope Gregory VII. tried again to do something for the cause of public morality, in 1074, when he issued edicts against both concubinage and simony—or the then prevalent custom of buying or selling ecclesiastical preferment; but the edict was too harsh and unreasonable with regard to the first, inasmuch as it provided that no priest should marry in the future, and that those who already possessed wives or concubines were to give them up or relinquish their sacred offices. This order caused great consternation, especially in Milan, where the clergy were honestly married, each man to one wife, and it was found impossible to exact implicit obedience to its requirements.
So far as the general influence of women upon the feudal society of Italy in the eleventh century is concerned, it is not discoverable to have been manifest in the ways which were common in other countries. It will be understood, of course, that, in speaking of woman's influence here, reference is made to the women of the upper classes, as those of the peasant class cannot be said to have formed a part of social Europe at this time. It is most common to read in all accounts of this feudal period, which was the beginning of the golden age of the older chivalry, that women exerted a most gentle influence upon the men about them and that the honor and respect in which they were held did much to elevate the general tone of life. In Italy, however, chivalry did not flourish as it did in other countries. Since the time of the great Emperor Charlemagne all Italy had been nominally a part of the imperial domain, but owing to its geographical position, which made it difficult of access and hard to control, this overlordship was not always administered with strictness, and from time to time the larger cities of Italy were granted special rights and privileges. The absence of an administrative capital made impossible any centralization of national life, and it was entirely natural, then, that the various Italian communities should assert their right to some sort of local government and some measure of freedom. This spirit of citizenship in the free towns overcame the spirit of disciplined dependence which was common to those parts of the empire which were governed according to the usual feudal customs, and, as a result, Italy lacks many of those characteristics which are common to the more integral parts of the vast feudal system.
The most conspicuous offspring of feudalism was chivalry, with its various orders of knighthood; but chivalry and the orders of knighthood gained little foothold in Italy, where the conditions necessary for the growth and development of such a social and military order were far from propitious. Knights, it is true, came and went in Italy, and performed their deeds of valor; fair maidens were rescued, and women and children were given succor; but the knights were foreign knights, and they owed allegiance to a foreign lord. So far, then, Italy was without the institution of chivalry, and, to a great degree, insensible to those high ideals of fealty and honor which were the cardinal virtues of the knightly order. Owing to the absence of these fine qualities of mind and soul, the Italian in war was too often of fierce and relentless temper, showing neither pity nor mercy and having no compassion for a fallen foe. Warriors never admitted prisoners to ransom, and the annals of their contests are destitute of those graceful courtesies which shed such a beautiful lustre over the contests of England and France. Stratagems were as common as open and glorious battle, and private injuries were revenged by assassination and not by the fair and manly joust a l'outrance. However, when a man pledged his word for the performance of any act and wished his sincerity to be believed, he always swore by the parola di cavaliere, and not by the parola di cortigiano, so general was the acknowledgment of the moral superiority of chivalry.
It was in the midst of this age of ignorance that Matilda, the great Countess of Tuscany, by means of her wisdom and intelligence and her many graces of mind and body, made such a great and lasting reputation for herself that her name has come down in history as the worthy companion of William the Conqueror and the great monk Hildebrand, later Pope Gregory VII., her most distinguished contemporaries. Matilda's father, Boniface, was the richest and most powerful nobleman of his time in all Italy, and as Margrave and Duke of Tuscany, Duke of Lucca, Marquis of Modena, and Count of Reggio, Mantua, and Ferrara, he exerted a very powerful feudal influence. Though at first unfriendly to the interests of the papal party in Italy, he was just about ready to espouse its cause when he fell under the hand of an assassin; and then it was that Matilda, by special dispensation of the emperor, was allowed to inherit directly her father's vast estate, which she shared at first with her brother Frederick and her sister Beatrice. Generally, fiefs reverted to the emperor and remained within his custody for five years—were held in probate, as it were—before the lawful heirs were allowed to enter into possession of their property. Frederick and Beatrice were short-lived, however, and it was not many years before Matilda was left as sole heir to this great domain; she was not entirely alone, as she had the watchful care and guidance of her mother, who assisted her in every emergency.
As the result of this condition of affairs, both mother and daughter were soon sought in marriage by many ardent and ambitious suitors, each presenting his claims for preferment and doing all in his power to bring about an alliance which meant so much for the future. Godfrey of Lorraine, who was not friendly to the party of the Emperor Henry III., while on a raid in Italy, pressed his suit with such insistency that the widowed Beatrice promised to marry him and at the same time gave her consent to a betrothal between Matilda and Godfrey's hunchback son, who also bore the name of Godfrey. This marriage with an unfriendly prince, after so many years of imperial favor, and this attempt at a consolidation of power for both present and future, so angered Henry that he insisted that Beatrice must have yielded to violence in this disposition of her affairs. Finally, in spite of her repeated denials, she was made a prisoner for her so-called insubordination, while Matilda was compelled to find safety in the great fortress at Canossa. In the meantime, Godfrey had gone back to Lorraine, more powerful than ever, to stir up trouble in the empire.
In this same year, 1054, Henry III. died, and his son, Henry IV., won over by the prayers of Pope Victor II., made peace with Godfrey and restored Beatrice to liberty. They, being more than grateful to Victor for this kindly intervention, invited him to come to their stately palace in Florence and tarry with them for a while. From this time on, in the period when Matilda was growing into womanhood, the real seat of the papal power was not in Rome, but in Florence, and Godfrey's palace became an acknowledged centre of ecclesiastical activity.
Matilda was a girl of a mystic temperament, credulous, it is true, and somewhat superstitious like all the other people of her time, and yet filled with a deep yearning for a greater knowledge of the secrets of the universe. Her ideal of authority was formed by intercourse with the various members of her own circle, who were all devoted heart and soul to the cause of the Holy See, and it was but natural that, when she became old enough to think and act for herself, all her inclinations should lead her to embrace the cause of the pope. While it is beyond the province of the present volume to describe in detail the exact political and religious situation in Italy at this time, it should be said that the pope was anxious to reassert the temporal power of his office, which had for a long time been subservient to the will of the emperors. He desired the supremacy of the papacy within the Church, and the supremacy of the Church over the state. Early filled with a holy zeal for this cause, Matilda tried to inform herself regarding the real state of affairs, so that she might be able to act intelligently when the time for action came. Through skilful diplomacy, it came to pass that Matilda's uncle—Frederick—became Pope Stephen X.; and then, of course, the house of Lorraine came to look upon the papal interests as its own, and the daughter of the house strengthened the deep attachment for the Church which was to die only when she died. Nor must it be thought that the priestly advisers of the house were blind to the fact that in Matilda they had one who might become a pillar of support for the fortunes of the papacy. The monk Hildebrand, for a long time the power behind the pope until he himself became pope in 1073, was a constant visitor at Matilda's home, and he it was who finally took her education in hand and gave it its fullest development. She had many teachers, of course, and under Hildebrand's guiding genius, the work was not stopped until the young countess could speak French, German, and Latin with the same ease as she did her mother tongue.
Finally, in 1076, when she was thirty years of age, her mother—Beatrice—died, and also her husband, Godfrey le Bossu. The great countess, acting for the first time entirely upon her own responsibility, now began that career of activity and warfare which was unflagging to the end. No other woman of her time had her vast power and wealth, no other woman of her time had her well-stored mind, and no other, whether man or woman, was so well equipped to become the great protector of the Holy Church at Rome. People were amazed at her ability—they called her God-given and Heaven-sent, and they felt a touch of mystery in this woman's life. Surely she was not as the others of her time, for she could hold her head high in the councils of the most learned, and she the only woman of the number! Nor was she one-sided in her activity and indifferent to all interests save those of the papal party, as her many public benefactions show her to have been a woman filled with that larger zeal for humanity which far transcends the narrow zeal for sect or creed. For, in addition to the many temples, convents, and sepulchres, which she caused to be scattered over the northern part of Italy, she built the beautiful public baths at Casciano, and the great hospital of Altapascio.
Never strong physically, Matilda was possessed of remarkable vitality and an iron will, and she showed great powers of execution and administration, never shirking the gravest responsibilities. A part of her life was spent in the rough camps of her devoted feudal soldiery, and—weak woman though she was—she led them on to battle more than once, when they seemed to need the inspiration of her presence. Women warriors there have been in every day and generation in some part of the world perhaps, but never one like this. Clad in her suit of mail, and urging on her battle horse at the head of her followers, her pale face filled with the light of a holy zeal, it is small wonder that her arms triumphed, and that before her death she came to be acknowledged openly as by far the most important person in all Italy.
It happened at one time that the emperor—Henry IV.—deserted by his friends in Germany, and excommunicated by the pope, found that his only hope for restoration to popular favor lay in a pardon from his enemy and the lifting of the ban of excommunication. He set out, therefore, alone and without an army, to meet the pope and sue for peace. Gregory, uninformed as to Henry's intended visit (for news did not travel quickly in those early days), was at the time on his way to Germany, where an important diet was to be held, and with him was his faithful ally Matilda. When they learned of the emperor's approach, however, the papal train turned aside to the nearby fortress of Canossa, one of Matilda's possessions, there to await the royal suppliant. In the immense hall of that great castle, all hung with armor, shining shields and breastplates, and all the varied accoutrements of war, the frowning turrets without and the dark corridors within swarming with the pope's defenders, Henry, the great emperor, who had once tried to depose Gregory, was now forced to his greatest earthly humiliation and was compelled to bend the knee and sue for pardon. Matilda it was who sat beside the pope at this most solemn moment, and she alone could share with Gregory the glory of this triumph, for she it was who had supplied the sinews of war and made it possible for the pope to impose his will.
On their return to Rome, to insure a continuance of papal success and give stability to the ecclesiastical organization, she made over by formal donation to the Holy See all her worldly possessions. This was not only an act of great liberality, but it was a very bold assertion of independence, as it was not customary to make disposition of feudal possessions without first gaining the emperor's consent. As it was a foregone conclusion that he would never give his consent to this arrangement, Matilda thought best to dispense with that formality.
Henry's submission was the distinct recognition of papal supremacy for which Matilda had been battling, but Gregory, in his exactions, had overstepped the bounds of prudent policy, as he had shown himself too arrogant and dictatorial. In consequence, all Lombardy rose against him, Tuscany soon followed suit, and, in 1080, Matilda herself was forced to take refuge in the mountains of Modena. Henry, who had regained in part his power and his influence at home, descended upon Rome in 1083, and in revenge for his former disgrace, expelled Gregory, who retired to Salerno, where he died soon after. Now comes a period of conflict between popes and anti-popes, Matilda sustaining the regular successors of Gregory, and Henry nominating men of his own choice. The long period of warfare was beginning to weigh heavily upon the land, however, and in a solemn assembly at Carpinetto, the friends and barons of Matilda implored her to cease her struggles, but she refused to listen to their entreaties because a monk of Canossa had promised her the aid of heaven if she should persevere in this holy war. Before long, Lombardy, which had long been restless, revolted against the emperor, and Matilda, by great skill and a display of much tact, was enabled to arrange matters in such a way that she broke Henry's power. This victory made Matilda, to all intents and purposes, the real Queen of Italy, though in title she was but the Countess of Tuscany. Then it was that she confirmed her grant of 1077, giving unconditionally to the pope all her fiefs and holdings. While the validity of this donation was seriously questioned, and while it was claimed that she had really intended to convey her personal property only, so ambiguous was the wording of the document that the pope's claims were in the main allowed, and many of her lands were given over to his temporal sway.
After the death of Henry IV. (1106), she continued to rule without opposition in Italy, though recognizing the suzerainty of his successor, Henry V. In 1110, this emperor came to visit her at Bibbianello, where he was filled with admiration for her attainments, her great wisdom, and her many virtues. During this visit, Henry treated her with the greatest respect, addressing her as mother; before his departure, he made her regent of Italy. She was then old and feeble, physically, but her mind and will were still vigorous. A few years later, during the Lenten season in 1115, she caught cold while attempting to follow out the exacting requirements of Holy Week, and it soon became apparent that her end was near. Realizing this fact herself she directed that her serfs should be freed, confirmed her general donation to the pope, made a few small bequests to the neighboring churches, and then died as she had lived, calmly and bravely. Her death occurred at Bendano, and her body was interred at Saint Benoit de Ponderone. Five centuries later, under the pontificate of Urban VIII., it was taken to Rome and buried with great ceremony in the Vatican.
As to Matilda's character, some few historians have cast reflections upon the nature of her relations with Pope Gregory, their stay together at Canossa, at the time of Henry's humiliation, being particularly mentioned as an instance of their too great intimacy. Such aspersions have still to be proved, and there is nothing in all contemporary writings to show that there was anything reprehensible in all the course of this firm friendship. Gregory was twice the age of the great countess, and was more her father than her lover. During her whole lifetime, she had been of a mystic temperament, and it is too much to ask us to believe that her great and holy ardor for the Church was tainted by anything like vice or sensuality. By reason of her great sagacity and worldly wisdom she was the most powerful and most able personage in Italy at the time of her death. If her broad domains could have been kept together by some able successor, Italian unity might not have been deferred for so many centuries; but there was no one to take up her work and Italy was soon divided again, and this time the real partition was made rather by the growing republics than by the feudal lords.
A consideration of the life of the Countess Matilda points to the fact that there was but this one woman in all Italy at this time who knew enough to take advantage of her opportunities and play a great role upon the active stage of life. Many years were to pass before it could enter the popular conception that all women were to be given their chance at a fuller life, and even yet in sunny Italy, there is much to do for womankind. Then, as now, the skies were blue, and the sun was bright and warm; then, as now, did the peasants dance and sing all the way from water-ribbed Venice to fair and squalid Naples, but with a difference. Now, there is a measure of freedom to each and all—then, justice was not only blind but went on crutches, and women were made to suffer because they were women and because they could not defend, by force, their own. Still, there is comfort in the fact that from this dead level of mediocrity and impotence, one woman, the great Countess of Tuscany, was able to rise up and show herself possessed of a great heart, a great mind, and a great soul; and in her fullness of achievement, there was rich promise for the future.
The Neapolitan Court in the Time of Queen Joanna
If you drive along the beautiful shore of the Mergellina to-day, beneath the high promontory of Pausilipo, to the southwest of Naples, you will see there in ruins the tumbling rocks and stones of an unfinished palace, with the blue sea breaking over its foundations; and that is still called the palace of Queen Joanna. In the church of Saint Chiara at Naples, this Queen Joanna was buried, and there her tomb may be seen to-day. Still is she held in memory dear, and still is her name familiar to the lips of the people. On every hand are to be seen the monuments of her munificence, and if you ask a Neapolitan in the street who built this palace or that church, the answer is almost always the same—"Our Queen Joanna."
Who was this well-beloved queen, when did she live, and why is she still held in this affectionate regard by the present residents of sunny Naples? To answer all these questions it will be necessary to go back to a much earlier day in the history of this southern part of the Italian peninsula—a day when Naples was the centre of a royal government of no little importance in the eyes of the mediaeval world.
Some three hundred years before Joanna's birth, in the early part of the eleventh century, a band of knightly pilgrims was on its way to the Holy Land to battle for the Cross. They had ridden through the fair provinces of France, in brave array upon their mighty chargers, all the way from Normandy to Marseilles, and there they had taken ship for the East. The ships were small, the accommodations and supplies were not of the best, and it was not possible to make the journey with any great speed. Stopping, as it happened, for fresh stores in the south of Italy, they were at once invited by the Prince of Salerno to aid him in his fight against the Mohammedans, who were every day encroaching more upon the Greek possessions there. Being men of warlike nature, already somewhat wearied by the sea voyage to which they were not accustomed, and considering this fighting with the Saracens of Italy as a good preparation for later conflicts with the heathens and the infidels who were swarming about the gates of Jerusalem, they were not slow to accept the invitation. While victory perched upon the banners of the Normans, it was evident at once that for the future safety of the country a strong and stable guard would be necessary, and so the Normans were now asked to stay permanently. This the majority did with immense satisfaction, for the soft and gentle climate of the country had filled their souls with a sweet contentment, and the charms and graces of the southern women had more than conquered the proud conquerors. Just as Charles VIII. and his army, some hundreds of years later, were ensnared by the soft glances of soft eyes when they went to Italy to conquer, so the Normans were held in silken chains in this earlier time. But there was this difference—the Normans did not forget their own interests. Willing victims to the wondrous beauty of the belles of Naples, they were strong enough to think of their own position at the same time; and as the French colony grew to fair size and much importance, they took advantage of certain controversies which arose, and boldly seized Apulia, which they divided among twelve of their counts. This all happened in the year 1042.
It may well be imagined that Naples at this time presented a most picturesque appearance, for there was a Babel of tongues and a mixture of nationalities which was quite unusual. After the native Neapolitans, dark-eyed and swarthy, there were countless Greeks and Saracens of somewhat fairer hue, and over them all were the fierce Normans, strangers from a northern clime, who were lording it in most masterful fashion. The effect of this overlordship, which they held from the pope as their feudal head, was to give to this portion of Italy certain characteristics which are almost entirely lacking in the other parts of Italy. Here there was no free city, here there was no republic, but, instead, a feudal court which followed the best models of the continent and in its time became famed for its brilliancy and elegance. Without dallying by the way to explain when battles were fought and kings were crowned, suffice it to say that, early in the fourteenth century, Robert of Taranto, an Angevine prince, ascended the throne of Naples, and by his wisdom and goodness and by his great interest in art and literature made his capital the centre of a culture and refinement which were rare at that time. This was a day of almost constant warfare, when the din of battle and the clash of armor were silencing the sound of the harp and the music of the poet, but Robert—Il buon Re Roberto, as he was called—loved peace and hated war and ever strove to make his court a place of brightness and joy, wherein the arts and sciences might flourish without let or hindrance.
These centuries of feudal rule had, perhaps, given the people of Naples a somewhat different temper from that possessed by the people in other parts of Italy. There had been a firm centre of authority, and, in spite of the troubles which had rent the kingdom, the people in the main had been little concerned with them. They had been taught to obey, and generally their rights had been respected. Now, under King Robert, the populace was enjoying one long holiday, the like of which could have been seen in no other part of Italy at that time. The natural languor of the climate and their intuitive appreciation of the lazy man's proverb, Dolce far niente, made it easy for them to give themselves up to the pleasures of the moment. All was splendor and feasting at the court, and the castle Nuovo, where the king resided, was ever filled with a goodly company. So the people took life easily; there was much dancing and playing of guitars upon the Mole, by the side of the waters of that glorious bay all shimmering in the moonlight, and the night was filled with music and laughter. The beauty of the women was exceptional, and the blood of the men was hot; passion was ill restrained, and the green-eyed monster of jealousy hovered over all. Quick to love and quick to anger, resentful in the extreme, suspicious and often treacherous, Dan Cupid wrought havoc among them at times most innocently, and many a colpo di coltello [dagger thrust] was given under the influence of love's frenzy. But the dance continued, the dresses were still of the gayest colors, the bursts of laughter were unsubdued.
The fair fame of the court of Naples had gone far afield, and not to know of it and of its magnificence, even in those days of difficult communication, was so damaging a confession among gentlefolk, that all were loath to make it. Here, it was known, the arts of peace were encouraged, while war raged on all sides, and here it was that many noble lords and ladies had congregated from all Europe to form part of that gallant company and shine with its reflected splendor. King Robert likewise held as feudal appanage the fair state of Provence in southern France, rich in brilliant cities and enjoying much prosperity, until the time of the ill-advised Albigensian Crusade, and communication between the two parts of Robert's realm was constant. Naples was the centre, however, and such was the elegance and courtesy of its court that it was famed far and wide as a school of manners; and here it was that pages, both highborn and of low estate, were sent by their patrons that they might perfect themselves in courtly behavior. The open encouragement which was accorded to the few men of letters of the time made Naples a favorite resort for the wandering troubadours, and there they sang, to rapturous applause, their songs of love and chivalry. Here in this corner of Italy, where the dominant influences were those which came from France, and where, in reality, French knights were the lords in control, the order of chivalry existed as in the other parts of Europe, but as it did not exist elsewhere in Italy. Transplanted to this southern soil, however, knighthood failed to develop, to any marked degree, those deeper qualities of loyalty, courtesy, and liberality which shed so much lustre upon its institution elsewhere. Here, unfortunately, mere gallantry seemed its essential attribute, and the gallantry of this period, at its best, would show but little regard for the moral standards of to-day. No one who has read the history of this time can fail to be struck with the fact that on every hand there are references to acts of immorality which seem to pass without censure. As Hallam has said, many of the ladies of this epoch, in their desire for the spiritual treasures of Rome, seem to have been neglectful of another treasure which was in their keeping. Whether the gay gallant was knight or squire, page or courtier, the feminine heart seems to have been unable to withstand his wiles, and from Boccaccio to Rabelais the deceived and injured husband was ever a butt of ridicule. Of course, there was reason for all this; the ideals of wedded life were much further from realization than they are to-day, and the sanctity of the marriage relation was but at the beginning of its slow evolution, in this part of the Western world.
But within the walls of the huge castle Nuovo, which combined the strength of a fortress with the elegance of a palace, it must not be supposed that there was naught but gross sensuality. Court intrigue and scandal there were in plenty, and there were many fair ladies in the royal household who were somewhat free in the bestowal of their favors, sumptuous banquets were spread, tournaments for trials of knightly skill were held with open lists for all who might appear, but in the centre of it all was the king, pleasure-loving, it is true, but still far more than that. He it was who said: "For me, I swear that letters are dearer to me than my crown; and were I obliged to renounce the one or the other, I should quickly take the diadem from my brow." It was his constant endeavor to show himself a generous and intelligent patron of the arts. The interior of his palace had been decorated by the brush of Giotto, one of the first great painters of Italy, and here in this home of luxury and refinement he had gathered together the largest and most valuable library then existing in Europe.
When Petrarch was at the age of thirty-six he received a letter from the Roman Senate, asking him to come to Rome that they might bestow upon him the poet's crown of laurel. Before presenting himself for this honor, however, to use his own words, he "decided first to visit Naples and that celebrated king and philosopher, Robert, who was not more distinguished as a ruler than as a man of learning. He was indeed the only monarch of our age who was, at the same time, the friend of learning and of virtue, and I trusted that he might correct such things as he found to criticise in my work." Having learned the reason of the great poet's visit, King Robert fixed a day for the consideration of Petrarch's work; but, after a discussion which lasted from noon until evening, it was found that more time would be necessary on account of the many matters which came up, and so the two following days were passed in the same manner. Then, at last, Petrarch was pronounced worthy of the honor which had been offered him, and there was much feasting at the palace that night, and much song, and much music, and much wine was spilled.
Not the least attentive listener in those three days of discussion and argument was the Princess Joanna, the granddaughter of the king, his ward and future heir. For in the midst of his life of agreeable employment, Il buon Re Roberto had been suddenly called upon to mourn the loss of his only son, Robert, Duke of Calabria, who had been as remarkable for his accomplishments—according to the writers of chronicles—as for his goodness and love of justice. Two daughters survived him, Joanna and Maria, and they were left to the care of the grandfather, who transferred to them all the affection he had felt for the son. In 1331, when Joanna was about four years old, the king declared her the heiress of his crown; and at a solemn feudal gathering in the great audience room of the castle Nuovo, he called upon his nobles and barons to take oaths of allegiance to her as the Duchess of Calabria; and this they did, solemnly and in turn, each bending the knee in token of submission. With the title of Duchess of Calabria, she was to inherit all her father's right to the thrones of Naples and Provence.
As soon as she came under his guardianship, the education of the small Joanna became the constant preoccupation of her kindly grandfather, for he was filled with enthusiasm for the manifold advantages of learning, and spared no pains to surround the little duchess with the best preceptors in art and in literature that Italy afforded. All contemporary writers agree that the young girl gave quick and ready response to these influences, and she soon proved her possession of most unusual talents, combined with a great love for literary study; it is said that, at the age of twelve, she was not only distinguished by her superior endowments, but already surpassed in understanding not only every other child of her own age, but many women of mature years. To these mental accomplishments, we are told that there were added a gentle and engaging temper, a graceful person, a beautiful countenance, and the most captivating manners. And so things went along, and the old king did all in his power to shield her from the corrupting influences which were at work all about her. In that he seems to have been successful, for there is every reason to believe that she grew up to womanhood untainted by her surroundings.
Various forces were at work, however, which were soon to undermine the peace and tranquillity of the gay court, and plunge it into deepest woe. It should be known that by a former division of the possessions of the royal house of Naples, which had been dictated by the whim of a partial father, the elder branch of that house had been allotted the kingdom of Hungary, which had been acquired originally as the dowry of a princess, while to the younger branch of the house Naples and Provence had been given. Such a division of the royal domain had never satisfied those of the elder branch of the family, and for many years the rulers of Hungary had cast longing eyes upon the fair states to the south. The good King Robert, desiring in his heart to atone for the slight which had been put upon them, decided to marry Joanna to his grand-nephew Andreas, the second son of Carobert, King of Hungary, thus restoring to the elder branch of the family the possession of the throne of Naples without endangering the rights of his granddaughter, and at the same time extinguishing all the feuds and jealousies which had existed for so long a time between the two kingdoms. So the young Hungarian prince was brought to the Neapolitan court at once, and the two children were married. Joanna was but five years old and Andreas but seven when this ill-fated union was celebrated, with all possible splendor and in the midst of great rejoicing. The children were henceforth brought up together with the idea that they were destined for each other, but as the years grew on apace they displayed the most conflicting qualities of mind and soul.
A careful analysis of the court life during these youthful days will reveal the fact that its essential characteristics may be summed up in the three phrases—love of literary study, love of gallantry, and love of intrigue; it so happens that each of these phases is typified by a woman, Joanna representing the first, Maria,—the natural daughter of Robert,—the second, and Philippa the Catanese, the third. Much has been said already of Joanna's love for study and of her unusual attainments, but a word or two more will be necessary to complete the picture. Her wonderful gifts and her evident delight in studious pursuits were no mere show of childish precocity which would disappear with her maturer growth, for they ever remained with her and made her one of the very exceptional women of her day and generation. Imagine her there in the court of her grandfather, where no woman before her had ever shown the least real and intelligent interest in his intellectual occupations. It was a great thing, of course, for all the ladies of the court to have some famous poet come and tarry with them for a while; but they thought only of a possible affaire d'amour, and odes and sonnets descriptive of their charms. There was little appreciative understanding of literature or poetry among them, and they were quite content to sip their pleasures from a cup which was not of the Pierian spring. Joanna, however, seemed to enter earnestly into the literary diversions of the king, and many an hour did they spend together in the great library of the palace, unfolding now one and now another of the many parchment rolls and poring over their contents. Three learned languages there were at this time in this part of the world, the Greek, the Latin, and the Arabic, and the day had just begun to dawn when the common idioms of daily speech were beginning to assert their literary value. So it is but natural to assume that the majority of these manuscripts were in these three languages, and that it required no small amount of learning on Joanna's part to be able to decipher them.
Far different from this little princess was Maria of Sicily, a woman of many charms, but vain and inconstant, and satisfied with the frivolities of life. Indeed, it must be said that it is solely on account of her love for the poet Boccaccio, after her marriage to the Count of Artois, that she is known to-day. Boccaccio had journeyed to the south from Florence, as the fame of King Robert's court had reached him, and he was anxious to bask in its sunlight and splendor, and to bring to some fruition his literary impulses, which were fast welling up within him. And to Naples he came as the spring was retouching the hills with green in 1333, and there he remained until late in the year 1341, when he was forced to return to his home in the north. His stay in Naples had done much for him, though perhaps less for him personally than for his literary muse, as he plunged headlong into the mad whirlpool of social pleasures and enjoyed to the utmost the life of this gay court, which was enlivened and adorned by the wit of men and the beauty of women. Not until the Easter eve before his departure, however, did he chance to see the lady who was to influence to such a great degree his later career. It was in the church of San Lorenzo that Boccaccio saw Maria of Sicily, and it was a case of love at first sight, the coup de foudre that Mlle. de Scudery has talked about; and if the man's word may be worthy of belief under such circumstances, the lady returned his passion with an equal ardor. It was not until after much delay, however, that she was willing to yield to the amorous demands of the poet, and then she did so in spite of her honor and her duty as the wife of another. But this delay but opened the way for an endless succession of gallant words and acts, wherein the art of coquetry was called upon to play no unimportant part. Between these two people there was no sincere friendship such as existed later between Boccaccio and Joanna, and they were but playing with the dangerous fire of passion, which they ever fanned to a greater heat.
Philippa the Catanese, as she is called in history, stands for the spirit of intrigue in this history; and well she may, as she has a most wonderful and tragic history. The daughter of a humble fisherman of Catania in Sicily, she had been employed by Queen Violante, the first wife of Robert, in the care of her infant son, the Duke of Calabria. Of wonderful intelligence for one in her station, gifted beyond her years, and beautiful and ambitious, she won the favor of the queen to such a degree that she soon became her chief attendant. Her foster-child, the Duke of Calabria, who tenderly loved her, married her to the seneschal of his palace and appointed her first lady in waiting to his wife; and thus it happened that she was present at the birth of Joanna, and was the first to receive her in her arms. Naturally enough, then, King Robert made her the governess and custodian of the small duchess after her father's death. This appointment of a woman of low origin to so high a position in the court gave offence to many of the highborn ladies there, and none could understand the reason for it all. Many dark rumors were afloat, and, although the matter was discussed in undertones, it was the general opinion that she had been aided by magic or sorcery, and the bolder spirits said that she was in daily communication with the Evil One. However that may be, she was faithful to her trust, and it was only through her too zealous scheming in behalf of her young mistress that she was brought to her tragic end.
As the two children, Andreas and Joanna, grew up to maturity, it became more and more apparent that there was no bond of sympathy between them. Andreas had as his preceptor a monk named Fra Roberto, who was the open enemy of Philippa, and her competitor in power. It was his constant aim to keep Andreas in ignorance and to inspire him with a dislike for the people of Naples, whom he was destined to govern, and to this end he made him retain his Hungarian dress and customs. Petrarch, who made a second visit to Naples as envoy from the pope, has this to say of Fra Roberto: "May Heaven rid the soil of Italy of such a pest! A horrible animal with bald head and bare feet, short in stature, swollen in person, with worn-out rags torn studiously to show his naked skin, who not only despises the supplications of the citizens, but, from the vantage ground of his feigned sanctity, treats with scorn the embassy of the pope." King Robert saw too late the mistake he had committed, as the sorrow and trouble in store for the young wife were only too apparent. To remedy, so far as was in his power, this unhappy condition of affairs, he called again a meeting of his feudal lords; and this time he had them swear allegiance to Joanna alone in her own right, formally excluding the Hungarians from any share in the sovereign power. While gratifying to the Neapolitans, this act could but excite the enmity of the Hungarian faction under Fra Roberto, and it paved the way for much intrigue and much treachery in the future.
When King Robert died in 1343, Joanna became Queen of Naples and Provence at the age of fifteen; but on account of her youth and inexperience, and because of the machinations of the hateful monk, she was kept in virtual bondage, and the once peaceful court was rent by the bitterest dissensions. Through it all, however, Joanna seems to have shown no special dislike to Andreas, who, indeed, was probably innocent of any participation in the scheming of his followers; Petrarch compares the young queen and her consort to two lambs in the midst of wolves. The time for Joanna's formal coronation was fixed for September 20, 1345, and some weeks before, while the palace was being decorated and prepared for this great event, the young couple had retired to the Celestine monastery at Aversa, some fifteen miles away. Joanna, who was soon to become a mother, was much benefited by this change of scene, and all was peace and happiness about them, with nothing to indicate the awful tragedy which the future held in store. On the night of September 18th, two days before the coronation was to take place, Andreas was called from the queen's apartment by the information that a courier from Naples was waiting to see him upon urgent business. In the dark corridor without, he was at once seized by some person or persons whose identity has never been made clear, who stopped his mouth with their gloves and then strangled him and suspended his body from a balcony. The cord, however, was not strong enough to stand the strain, and broke, and the body fell into the garden below. There the assassins would have buried it upon the spot, if they had not been put to flight by a servant of the palace, who gave the alarm.
This deed of violence gave rise to much suspicion, and the assertion is often made that Joanna had at least connived at her husband's unhappy end. Indeed, there is a story—which is without foundation, however—to the effect that Andreas found her one day twisting a silken rope with which it was her intention to have him strangled; and when he asked her what she was doing, she replied, with a smile: "Twisting a rope with which to hang you!" But it is difficult to believe the truth of any of these imputations. If she were cruel enough to desire her husband's death, and bold enough to plan for it, she was also intelligent enough to execute her purpose in a manner less foolish and less perilous to herself. Never, up to this time, had she given the slightest indication of such cruelty in her character, and never after that time was the slightest suspicion cast upon her for any other evil act. How, then, could it be possible that Andreas had been murdered by her order? Whatever the cause of this ferocious outbreak, the Hungarian faction, struck with consternation, fled in all directions, not knowing what to expect. The next morning Joanna returned to the castle Nuovo, where she remained until after the birth of her son. During this period of confinement, she wrote a letter to the King of Hungary, her father-in-law, telling him what had taken place. In this epistle she makes use of the expression:
"My good husband, with whom I have ever associated without strife;" and she declares regarding her own sorrow: "I have suffered so much anguish for the death of my beloved husband that, stunned by grief, I had well-nigh died of the same wounds!"
As soon as her strength would permit, Joanna summoned a council of her advisers and signed a commission giving Hugh de Balzo full authority to seek out the murderers and punish them. Suspicion at once fell upon Philippa the Catanese, and upon other members of her family, as her hatred of the Hungarians was well known, and her past reputation for intrigue and mystery only added strength to the accusation. Philippa, who, since the death of King Robert, had been created Countess of Montoni, was now more powerful than ever at the court, and seemed to invite the danger which was hanging over her, in the belief that no harm could touch her head. But her calculations went astray, as Balzo appeared one morning at the palace gate, produced evidence incriminating her and her intimates, and dragged them off to prison, where they were put to death in the most approved Neapolitan fashion—with lingering torments and tortures. From that day the character of the young queen underwent a most decided change. Hitherto she had been gay, frank, and confiding, now she became serious and reserved. She had always been gracious and compassionate, and rather the equal than the queen of those about her,—according to Boccaccio's description,—but treachery had come so near to her, and her trusted Philippa had proved so vile a character, that she never after gave her entire confidence to any person, man or woman.
Some two years after the death of Andreas, for reasons of state, she married her second cousin, Louis of Taranto, a brave and handsome prince of whom she had long been fond. But she was not to be allowed to enjoy her newly found happiness in peace, as her domains were soon invaded by Louis, the elder brother of Andreas, who had recently ascended his father's throne as King of Hungary, and who now came to avenge his brother's death and seize Naples by way of indemnity. Joanna, deserted by many of her nobles in these dire straits, and not knowing what to do,—as her husband seems to have played no part in this emergency,—decided upon flight as the only means of safety, and, embarking with her entire household in three galleys, she set sail for Provence, where loyal hearts awaited her coming. There she went at once to Avignon, where Pope Clement VI. was holding his court with the utmost splendor; and in the presence of the pope and all the cardinals, she made answer in her own behalf to the charges which had been made against her by the Hungarian king. Her address, which she had previously composed in Latin, has been called the "most powerful specimen of female oratory" ever recorded in history; and the Hungarian ambassadors, who had been sent to plead against her, were so confounded by her eloquence that they attempted no reply to her defence.
In the meantime, Naples, in the hands of the invaders, had been stained with blood, and then ravaged by the great plague of which Boccaccio has given us a picture. Revolting at length under the harsh measures of the Hungarian governor who had been left in charge by Louis, the Neapolitans expelled him and his followers from the city, and sent an urgent invitation to Joanna to return to her former home. Right gladly was the summons answered, and with a goodly retinue of brave knights who had sworn to die in her service she returned to her people, who welcomed her homecoming with unbounded enthusiasm. Now the court resumed its gayety and animation, and again it became, as in the days of King Robert, a far-famed school of courtesy. Alphonse Daudet gives us a hint of all this in his exquisite short story entitled La Mule du Pape, where he tells of the young page Tistet Vedene, qui descendait le Rhone en chantant sur une galere papale et s'en allait a la cour de Naples avec la troupe de jeunes nobles que la ville envoyait tous les ans pres de la reine Jeanne pour s'exercer a la diplomatie et aux belles manieres [who descended the Rhone, singing, upon a papal galley, and went away to the court of Naples with the company of young nobles whom the city (of Avignon) sent every year to Queen Joanna for training in diplomacy and fine manners]. There was further war with the Hungarians, it is true, but peace was established, Sicily was added to Joanna's domain, and there was general tranquillity.
Twice again did Joanna marry, urged to this course by her ministers, but death removed her consort each time, and in the end she was put into captivity by her relative and adopted child, Charles of Durazzo, who had forsaken her to follow the fortunes of the King of Hungary, and who had invaded Naples and put forth a claim to the throne, basing it upon some scheming papal grant which was without legality. Charles had her taken to the castle of Muro, a lonely fortress in the Apennines, some sixty miles from Naples, and there, her spirit of defiance unsubdued, she was murdered by four common soldiers in the latter part of May, 1382, after a reign of thirty-nine years. So came to an end this brilliant queen, the most accomplished woman of her generation, and with her downfall the lamp of learning was dimmed for a time in southern Italy, where the din of arms and the discord of civic strife gave no tranquillity to those who loved the arts of peace.
Women and the Church
Near the close of the first half of the fourteenth century, after the terrible ravages of the great plague had abated, the people were prostrate with fear and terrorized by the merciless words of the priests, who had not been slow to declare the pestilence as a mark of the wrath of God and who were utilizing the peculiar possibilities of this psychological moment for the advancement of the interests of the Church. In the churches—the wondrous mediaeval structures which were newly built at that time—songs of spasmodic grief like the Stabat Mater, or of tragic terror such as the Dies irae, were echoing under the high-vaulted arches, and the fear of God was upon the people. In a great movement of this kind it is but to be expected that women played no little part; their more sensitive natures caused them to be more easily affected than were the men by the threats of everlasting torment which were constantly being made by the priests for the benefit of all those who refused to renounce worldly things and come within the priestly fold. There was a most remarkable show of contrition and penitence at this time, and thousands of persons, men and women of all classes, were so deeply moved that they went about in companies, beating themselves and each other for the glory of God, and singing vociferously their melancholy dirges. These were the Flagellants, and there were crowds of them all over Europe, the number in France alone at this time being estimated at eight hundred thousand. One of the direct results of this state of religious excitement was an increased interest, on the part of women, in religious service, and a renewed desire to devote themselves to a religious life.
The conditions of conjugal life had been such throughout the feudal period that for many years there had been a slowly growing sentiment that marriage was but a manner of self-abandonment to the world, the flesh, and the devil, and many women from time to time were influenced to put away worldly things and seek peace in the protection of some religious order. Tertullian had long before condemned marriage, and Saint Jerome was most bitter against it. The various abuses of the marriage relation were such that those of pure hearts and minds could but pause and ask themselves whether or not this was an ideal arrangement of human life; and, all in all, there was still much to be done by means of educational processes before men and women could lead a life together which might be of mutual advantage to all parties concerned. Still, it must not be supposed that this tendency on the part of women to affiliate themselves with conventual orders was a movement of recent origin.
Since the earliest days of Christianity women had been especially active in the work of the Church, and there were countless martyrs among them even as far back as the time of the Roman persecutions. In the old days of pagan worship they had been allowed their part in religious ceremonies, and with the development of the religious institutions of Christendom this active participation had steadily increased. But, more than this, when it became necessary to withdraw from the corrupt atmosphere of everyday affairs in order to lead a good life, it came to pass that near the dwellings of the first monks and hermits who had sought the desert and solitude for their lives of meditation were to be found shelters for their wives and sisters and daughters who had followed them to their retreats to share in their holy lives.
Slowly, as in the case of the men, the conventual orders for women were formed in these communities and regulated by such rules as seemed best suited to their needs. At the outset it may be stated that celibacy as a prerequisite to admission to such orders was required of women before it was of men; and so in one way the profession of a nun antedates the corresponding profession of a monk, as the idea of an unmarried life had already made much progress in the Christian Church among women before it came into vogue among the men. It may be that the women of that time were inclined to take literally that chapter in Paul's first Epistle to the Corinthians wherein it is said: "There is this difference, also, between a wife and a virgin: the unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit; but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband;" but, however that may be, these orders of unmarried women soon became numerous, and severe were the penalties imposed upon all those who broke the vow of chastity when once it had been made. The consecration of a nun was a most solemn occasion, and the rites had to be administered by a bishop, or by one acting under episcopal authority. The favorite times for the celebration of this ceremony were the great Church festival days in honor of the Apostles, and at Epiphany and Easter. When the nuns were consecrated, a fillet was placed in their hair—a purple ribbon or a slender band of gold—to represent a crown of victory, and the tresses, which were gathered up and tied together, showed the difference between this bride of Christ and a bride of earth, with her hair falling loose about her shoulders after the Roman fashion. Then over all was placed the long, flowing veil, as a sign that the nun belonged to Christ alone.
The ordinary rules of conduct which were prescribed for the inmates of the nunneries resemble in many ways those which were laid down for the men; and those first followed are ascribed to Scholastica, a sister of the great Saint Benedict, who established the order of Benedictines at Monte Cassino about 529; according to popular tradition, this holy woman was esteemed as the foundress of nunneries in Europe. For the regulation of the women's orders Saint Augustine formulated twenty-four rules, which he prescribed should be read every week, and later Saint Benedict revised them and extended them so that there were finally seventy-two rules in addition to the Ten Commandments. The nuns were to obey their superior implicitly, silence and humility were enjoined upon them, head and eyes were to be kept lowered at all times, the hours for going to bed and for rising were fixed, and there were minute regulations regarding prayers, watches, and devotions. Furthermore, they were rarely allowed to go out of their convents, they were to possess nothing of their own, mirrors were not tolerated, being conducive to personal vanity, and the luxury of a bath was granted only in case of sickness.
As with the ordinary rules of conduct, so the ordinary routine of daily life in a nunnery corresponded to that of a monastery. Hour by hour, there was the same periodical rotation of work and religious service, with short intervals at fixed times for rest or food. The usual occupation in the earliest times had to do with the carding and spinning of wool, and Saint Jerome, with his characteristic earnestness, advises the nuns to have the wool ever in their hands. Saint Augustine gives us the picture of a party of nuns standing at the door of their convent and handing out the woollen garments which they have made for the old monks who are standing there waiting to receive them, with food to give to the nuns in exchange. The simplicity of this scene recalls the epitaph which is said to have been written in honor of a Roman housewife who lived in the simple days of the Republic: "She stayed at home and spun wool!" Somewhat later the nuns were called upon to furnish the elegantly embroidered altar cloths which were used in the churches, and, still later, in some places girls' schools were established in the convents.
In the eleventh century, the successful struggle which had been made by Gregory VII., with the aid of the Countess Matilda, for the principle of papal supremacy exerted a marked influence upon the religious life of the time and gave an undoubted impetus to the idea of conventual life for women, as during this period many new cloisters were established. It will be readily understood that the deeds of the illustrious Tuscan countess had been held up more than once to the gaze of the people of Italy as worthy of their emulation, and many women were unquestionably induced in this way to give their lives to the Church. In the Cistercian order alone there were more than six thousand cloisters for women by the middle of the twelfth century.
It was during this same eleventh century, when a woman had helped to strengthen the power of the Church, that the influence of the Madonna—of Mary, the mother of Christ—began to make a profound impression upon the form of worship. A multitude of Latin hymns may be found which were written in honor of the Virgin as far back as the fifth century, and in the mediaeval romances of chivalry, which were so often tinged with religious mysticism, she often appears as the Empress and Queen of Heaven. All through the mediaeval period, in fact, there was a constant endeavor to prove that the Old Testament contained allusions to Mary, and, with this in view, Albertus Magnus put together a Marienbibel in the twelfth century, and Bonaventura edited a Marienpsalter. Therein, the gates of Paradise, Noah's ark, Jacob's ladder, the ark of the Covenant, Aaron's rod, Solomon's throne, and many other things, were held up as examples and foreshadowings of the coming of the Blessed Virgin; and in the sermons, commentaries, and homilies of the time the same ideas were continually emphasized. A collection of the Latin appellations which were bestowed upon the Madonna during this time contains the following terms, which reveal the fervor and temper of the age: Dei genitrix, virgo virginum, mater Christi, mater divinae gratiae, mater potens, speculum justitiae, vas spirituale, rosa mystica, turris davidica, domus aurea, janua coeli, regina peccatorum, regina apostolorum, consolatrix afflictorum, and regina sanctorum omnium.
The Benedictines had consecrated themselves to the service of Mary since the time of the Crusades, and, beginning with the eleventh century, many religious orders and brotherhoods were organized in honor of Mary. The Order of the Knights of the Star was founded in 1022, and the Knights of the Lily were organized in 1048. About the middle of the twelfth century the Order of the Holy Maid of Evora and that of the Knights of Alcantara were established, and others followed. In 1149 Pope Celestine III. chartered the Order of the Holy Virgin, for the service of a hospital in Siena; in 1218, after a revelation from on high, the Order of the Holy Mary of Mercy was founded by Peter Nolascus—Raymond von Pennaforte—for the express purpose of giving aid and freedom to captives. In 1233 seven noble Florentines founded the Order of the Servants of Mercy, adopting Saint Augustine's rules of conduct, and they dwelt in the convent of the Annunziata, in Florence. In 1285 Philip Benizio founded a similar order for women, and, soon after, the pious Juliana Falconeri instituted for women a second order of the same kind. There was a constant multiplication of these orders vowed to the service of the Madonna as the centuries passed, and the idea of Madonna worship became more firmly fixed.
No account of Madonna worship can be considered complete, however, without some reference to the influence which it exerted upon the art of the time. Madonna pictures first appeared in the East, where the worship of such images had gained a firm foothold as early as the ninth century, but long before that time pictures of the Mother of God were known and many of them had become quite famous. Saint Luke the Evangelist is generally considered as the first of the religious painters, and the Vladimir Church at Moscow is in possession of a Madonna which is supposed to be the work of his hand. The Eastern Church was the first to feel the effect of this outburst of religious art, and it is but natural to find some of its earliest examples in various other Russian cities, such as Kieff, Kazan, and Novgorod. Bronze reliefs of the Virgin were also common, and in many a crude form and fashion this newly aroused sentiment of Christian art sought to find adequate expression. The Western Church soon followed this movement in every detail, and then by slow degrees upon Italian soil began that evolution in artistic conception and artistic technique which was to culminate in the effulgent glory of Raphael's Sistine Madonna. It was the Emperor Justinian's conquest of Italy which "sowed the new art seed in a fertile field," to use Miss Hurl's expression; but inasmuch as artistic endeavor shows that same lack of originality which was characteristic of all other forms of intellectual activity at this time, the germ took root but slowly, and for a number of centuries servile imitations of the highly decorated and decidedly soulless Byzantine Virgins were very common. One of these paintings may be found in almost every church throughout the length and breadth of Italy; but when you have seen one you have seen them all, for they all have the same expression. The eyes are generally large and ill shaped, the nose is long, the face is wan and meagre, and there is a peevish and almost saturnine expression in the wooden features which shows but slight affection for the Christ-child, and which could have afforded but scant comfort to any who sought to find there a gleam of tender pity. These pictures were generally half-length, against a background of gold leaf, which was at first laid on solidly, but which at a later period was adorned with tiny cherub figures. The folds of the drapery were stiff and heavy, and the whole effect was dull and lifeless. But no matter how inadequate such a picture may seem to us to-day, and no matter how much it seems to lack the depth and sincerity of reality, it possessed for the people of the Middle Ages a mystic charm which had its influence. These pictures were often supposed to have miraculous power, and there are many legends and wonderful tales concerning them.
The first really great master among Italian painters, however, was Giovanni Cimabue, who lived in Florence during the last part of the thirteenth century; he infused into his work a certain vigor and animation which were even more than a portent of the revival which was to come. Other Italian painters there had been before him, it is true, and particularly Guido of Siena and Giunta of Pisa, but they fail to show in their work that spirit of originality and that breadth of conception which were so characteristic of their successors. Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries there is an evident effort after an artistic expression of the deeper things of life which shall in some way correspond to the spiritual realities. The yearning human heart which was being solaced by the beautiful story of Christ and the mother Mary, and which was filled with religious enthusiasm at the thought of this Virgin enthroned in the heavens, was growing weary of the set features and stolid look of the Madonna of Byzantine art, and dreaming mystic dreams of the beauty of the Christ mother as she must have been in real life. She became the centre of thought and speculation, prayers and supplications were addressed to her, and more than once did she appear in beatific vision to some illumined worshipper. It was in the midst of this glow of feeling that Cimabue painted his colossal and wondrous Madonna and Child with the Angels, the largest altar piece which had been produced up to that time. Cimabue was then living in the Borgo Allegri, one of the suburbs of Florence, and there in his studio this great painting slowly came into existence. As soon as it assumed some definite shape its fame was noised abroad, and many were the curious ones who came to watch the master at his task. The mere fact that this painting was upon a larger scale than any other picture of the kind which had before been attempted in Italy was enough to arrest the attention of the most indifferent; and as the figure warmed into life and the face of the Madonna became as that of a holy woman, human and yet divine in its pity, and with a tender and melancholy expression, the popular acclaim with which the picture was hailed was unprecedented, and Cimabue became at once the acknowledged master of his time. So great was the joy and appreciation with which this Madonna was received, that a beautiful story is told to the effect that it was only after its completion that the name Allegri [joyous] was given to the locality in which the work was done; but, unfortunately, the facts do not bear out the tale—Baedeker and other eminent authorities to the contrary notwithstanding. Before this picture was taken to the beautiful chapel of the Rucellai in the Chiesa Santa Maria Novella in Florence, where it can be seen to-day, the French nobleman Charles of Anjou went to inspect it, and with him went a stately company of lords and ladies. Later, when it was removed to the church, a solemn religious procession was organized for the occasion. Preceded by trumpeters, under a rain of flowers, and followed by the whole populace, it went from the Borgo Allegri to the church, and there it was installed with proper ceremony.
The list of holy women who, by means of their good lives and their deeds, helped on the cause of the Church during this early time is a long one; in almost every community there was a local saint of great renown and wonderful powers. Ignorance, superstition, and credulity had, perhaps, much to do with the miraculous power which these saints possessed, but there can be no doubt that most, if not all, of the legends which concern them had some good foundation in fact. The holy Rosalia of Palermo is one of the best known of these mediaeval saints, and even to-day there is a yearly festival in her honor. For many years she had lived in a grotto near the city; there, by her godly life and many kind deeds, she had inspired the love and reverence of the whole community. When the pest came in 1150—that awful black death which killed the people by hundreds—they turned to her in their despair and begged her to intercede with them and take away this curse of God, as it was believed to be. Through an entire night, within her grotto, the good Rosalia prayed that the plague might be taken away and the people forgiven, and the story has it that her prayers were answered at once. At her death she was made the patron saint of Palermo, and the lonely grotto became a sacred spot which was carefully preserved, and which may be seen to-day by all who go to visit it on Monte Pellegrino.