The rise and fall of a medieval woman from cheese to oat: Matilda de Briouze

The study of medieval women has become quite trendy in the last decades or so. The narrative sources can tell us quite a lot about some women who have been able to escape the rigid and circumscribing expectations of most medieval authors. Perhaps there is no better example than the exceptional figure of Matilda de Briouse (1155-1210), wife of William, one of English king John’s top barons. Her misfortune was to collide with the unyielding king John, who locked her and her son up for debt, defiance and (some) caprice. Many know the story of Matilda’s rise and downfall, but perhaps few are those who have read the engaging account of the Histoire des ducs de Normandie et des Rois d’Angleterre, an Artesian verse narrative written in Old French in the first quarter of the 13th century. Praised for its precision and analytic depth, the Histoire takes an unprecedented interest in Matilda, ‘singing’ the last years of her life:

This William of Briouze had a fearless lady as his wife, born in the lands of the King of France; she was the daughter of Bernard of Saint-Valéry, the good knight; her name was Matilda. She was beautiful, very wise, very valiant and very vigorous. None of her barons ever mentioned a word against her. She kept up the war against the Welsh and conquered much from them. She had been loyal to king John, who treated her badly, although she offered him many gifts. She once made the queen a gift of 300 cows and a bull, all of them white, except the ears which were red. This lady once boasted to Baldwin count of Aumale her nephew that she owned no less than twelve thousand milk cows. And she kept bragging that she had so much cheese that if a hundred of the strongest men in England were besieged in a castle, they could defend themselves with her cheese for a whole month, so much that they would not use it up and always find more to throw down the battlements.

Cheese didn’t keep her from being captured by the king, after her husband fell out of royal favour. There have been many attempts to exhaust the possibilities of John’s volte-face against William and his family, and perhaps historians have relied too much on the prejudiced views of clerical chroniclers. For one reason or another, Matilda was locked up together with her son in 1210 and starved to death. The Histoire preserves a disturbing endnote of her and her son’s demise:

When he arrived in England, the king imprisoned Matilda and her son in the castle of Corfe and ordered that a sheaf of oat and one piece of raw bacon be given to them. He did not allow them to have any more meat. After eleven days, the mother was found dead between her son’s legs, still upright albeit leaned forward against her son’s foot, as a dead woman. Her son, who was also dead, was found sitting straight, bent against the wall as a dead man. So desperate was the mother that she had eaten her son’s cheeks.

A bit on the side lane, I should add that it is curious that the renowned chronicler Matthew Paris, writing in the 1250s, described William of Briouze’s coat of arms as containing three garbs or, that is three golden sheafs of wheat or oat or some other cereal. As far as I know, there is no other evidence of Briouze heraldry. This might be Matthew Paris’ way of honouring Matilda’s death and adding fuel to his denunciation of the king.

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