Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Mad Matilda of Cologne
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This stained glass window is located at Canterbury Cathedral. It features depictions of several miracles which took place between 1171-1173 and were recorded in two different prose accounts of archbishop Thomas Becket’s death, one by a monk and the other by the Prior of the Cathedral Priory. The design of the Miracle windows specifically addressed pilgrims; the narratives within the framework of the stained glass validated the power of St. Thomas by serving as visual proof of his ability to perform miracles. The scene located to the left of the central square depicts Mad Matilda of Cologne being forcibly brought to the tomb of St. Thomas. Her eyes stare wildly, her hair is unkempt, her clothes are ragged and torn, and her limbs are contorted. On either side of her, men wielding clubs beat her into submission.

    Matilda went mad after she heard that her brother had killed the man she dearly loved. In a fit of fever and rage-induced madness, she killed her infant, born illegitimate, with a single strike of her hand. According to a story recounted in the twelfth-century by Benedict, one of the two monks appointed to compile Becket’s canonization dossier, Matilda was so dangerous that “she would have strangled the young boy, who ran up to her, had he not been snatched out of her way by those standing near her. Bound hand and foot, she raved for some four or five hours before the tomb of the Martyr until he offered her healing. The evil spirit was indeed driven out of her but it left behind foul traces.”

    Simple objects of correction, such as whips, clubs, and ropes, could become instruments of faith once they were used in rituals of corporeal correction with a healing connotation, and when they were brought into a sacred space. In her article on everyday objects in the Canterbury miracle windows, Dana Vasiliu quotes Dawn Marie Hayes who observes that “the sacred charge of a place (or person or object) could transfer to an ordinary object and render it more than it was.” Thus, when exposed to the supernatural force of the sacred, even an ordinary thing could acquire properties or characteristics that could alter its nature. In this window pane, the clubs being used to beat Matilda are transformed into divine agents that mediated the transfer of the sacred from the holy source – here the tomb of the martyred archbishop – to the beneficiary in need – Matilda of Cologne.

    Although this window depicts a violent scene, the insane were not necessarily treated so brutally in 13th century English society, when this work was created. While the causes of mental illness were not understood at this time, medieval English society embraced the idea that the insane were not people to be feared, but were touched by God, and therefore should be pitied or held up as examples. Society did not exile the insane or prevent them from getting married; they were allowed to participate in society to the best of their abilities. Medical and legal professionals were more interested in caring for the afflicted than condemning them, thus official guardians were typically appointed for those who were mentally ill and possessed property and status. Even though the men beating Matilda act harshly, it is likely that they were her guardians and were entrusted with her care. In the third and final window Matilda is cured, and she prays while her two attendants offer thanks to God.

  • Source: Flickr; Photographer: Slices of Light https://www.flickr.com/photos/justaslice/
  • Rights: Open access
  • Subject (See Also): Healers and Healing Mental Illness Miracles Pilgrimage Spiritual Care Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury Violence
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 13
  • Date: 1213-1220
  • Related Work: 1st Panel: Matilda is beaten by her guardians. 2nd Panel: Matilda and her attendants arrive at the tomb of St Thomas. 3rd Panel: Matilda and her attendants offer thanks.
  • Current Location: Canterbury, Canterbury Cathedral
  • Original Location: Canterbury, Canterbury Cathedral
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Stained glass windows
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Pot-metal glass; Vitreous paint
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): //
  • Inscription: Panel 1: "ALTERNATG| ESTVM| NVNC| VM N| SA|..|CQ'| MOI| ES| TVM" (Rackham suggested that some of the words had been transposed (proposing a reading of alternat gestum nunc sa[n]um n[un]cque molestum) Translation: She alternates her bearing, now sane, now troublesome.) Panel 2: "STAT MODO IOCVNDA MODO LAPSA IACET MORIBVNDA" (Translation: Now she stands gleefully, now she collapses and lies as if dying.) Panel 3: "AMEN CLAMAT AREDIT. ADSVASA" (Translation: "Amen" is the cry, [she] returns [sane or safe] to her own affairs.) Inscriptions and translations come from Madeline Harrison Caviness, The Windows of Christ Church Cathedral Canterbury. Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi Great Britain Volume II. Oxford University Press, 1981. Pages 196-197.
  • Related Resources: Lamberg, Marko. "Anger as a Spiritual, Social, and Mental Disorder in Late Medieval Swedish Exempla." In Mental (Dis)Order in Later Medieval Europe. Edited by Sari Katajala-Peltomaa and Susanna Niiranen, eds. Brill, 2014. Pages 82-84;
    Todd, Mary Lewise Barry. "The Quest of the Individual: Interpreting the Narrative Structure of the Miracle Windows at Canterbury Cathedral." Electronic Theses, Treatises, and Dissertations. Paper 1290 (2007). 6-12.;
    Turner, Wendy. 'Afflicted with Insanity' : The Care and Custody of the Feeble Minded in Late Medieval England. Los Angeles: University of California. Thesis (2000). 38-75.;
    Turner, Wendy J. Care and Custody of the Mentally Ill, Incompetent, and Disabled in Medieval England. Brepols, 2013.
    Turner, Wendy. Later Medieval Europe, Volume 6: Madness in Medieval Law and Custom. Leiden, Netherlands: Boston: Brill (2010). Pages 23-24.;
    Vasiliu, Dana. "The Thingness of the Thing: The Role of the Everyday Object in Becket Miracle Windows." Romanian Journal of English Studies. Volume 11, Issue 1. 152-157.;