Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A medieval queen who wore a hair shirt.

Today's research snippet comes from Chronicler William of Malmsbury. It's about Edith/Matlilda, mother of Empress Matilda and grandmother of Henry II. Malmsbury's assessment is interesting in that while songsters and hangers on are assumed by historians and biographers to be rife at the English court of Eleanor of Aquitaine (but are actually not mentioned), here's a different English queen encouraging them to the point of detriment. Not secular, but religious it's true, but 'novelty' songs nevertheless.

Henry’s queen, Matilda, descended from an ancient and illustrious race of Kings, daughter of the King of Scotland, as I have said before, had also given her attention to literature being educated from her infancy among the nuns at Wilton and Romsey. Wherefore, in order to have a cover for refusing an ignoble alliance, which was more than once offered by her father, she wore the garb indicative of the holy profession. This, when the King was about to advance her to his bed, became a matter of controversy; nor could the Archbishop be induced to consent to a marriage but by the production of lawful witnesses, who swore that she had worn the veil on account of the suitors, but had never made her vow.
Satisfied with a child of either sex, she ceased having issue and enduring with complacency, when the King was elsewhere employed, the absence of the court, she continued many years at Westminster: yet was no part of royal magnificence wanting to her; but at all times crowds of visitants and news bearers were, in endless multitudes, entering and departing from her superb dwelling: for this the King’s liberality commanded; this her own kindness and affability attracted. She was singularly holy; by no means a despicable in point of beauty; a rival of her mother’s piety; never committing any impropriety, as far as herself was concerned; and, with the exception of the King’s bed, completely chaste and uncontaminated even by suspicion. Clad in hair cloth beneath her royal habit, she
 was accustomed, in Lent, to visit the churches barefoot: nor was she disgusted at washing the feet of the diseased; handling their ulcers dripping with corruption, and finally pressing their hands for a long time together to her lips, and decking their table.

She had a singular pleasure in hearing the service of God; and on this account was thoughtlessly prodigal towards clerks of melodious voice; addressed them kindly, gave to them liberally, and promised still more abundantly. Her generosity becoming universally known, crowds of scholars, equally famed for verse and for singing, came over; and happy did he account himself who could attract the queen’s notice by the novelty of his song. Nor on those only did she lavish money, but on all sorts of men, especially foreigners; that through her presents they might proclaim her celebrity abroad: for the desire of fame is so rooted in the human mind, that scarcely is anyone contented with the precious fruits of a good conscience, but is fondly anxious, if he does anything laudable to have it generally known. Hence it was justly observed, the disposition crept upon the queen to reward all the foreigners she could while the others were kept in suspense, sometimes with effectual, but oftener with empty promises. Hence too, it arose that she fell into the error of prodigal givers; bringing many claims on her tenantry, if exposing them to injuries, and TAKING away their property: but obtaining the credit of a liberal benefactress, she little regarded the sarcasms of her own people. But a correct judgement will impute this to the designs of her servants; who, harpy- like, conveyed everything they could gripe into their purses, or wasted it in riotous living; her ears being infected with the base insinuations of these people, she induced this stain on her noble mind; holy and meritorious in every other respect. 
Amid these concerns, she was snatched away from her country to the great loss of the people but to her own advantage (May 1, 1118): for her funeral being splendidly celebrated at Westminster, she entered into rest; and her spirit manifested by no trivial indications, that she was a resident in heaven. She died, willingly leaving the throne, after a reign of 

seventeen years and six months; experiencing the fate of her family, to depart in the flower of their age. To her bed, but not immediately succeeded (AD 1121) Adala (Adeliza), daughter of the duke of Louvain, which is the principal town of Lorraine.

Today's photo.  The hair shirt of St Louis of France. 1214-1270

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