Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Murder of Countess Sancha Muñiz
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This illustration depicts the murder of Countess Doña Sancha Muñiz of León. The countess cowers to the right of the image with her back turned to the figure who prepares to deliver the death blow. Doña Sancha half turns with a concerned expression but does not directly engage with the killer. She holds a scroll bearing the Latin inscription "Ego sancia comitissa conf. [confirmo]" ("I, Countess Sancha, confirm") with a gold seal attached. To her left, her nephew – most likely Nuño Pérez, whose assets Sancha had managed since his youth– grips her shoulder. He holds a sword threateningly above his head, his expression contorted in rage. The sword, the edge of his green robes, and both his and Sancha’s feet extend beyond the borders of the illustration. This is in contrast to the seven other representations in the manuscript in which kings' scepters rise above the image borders.

    Sancha Muñiz (d. 1045) was a member of a powerful Leonese family of northwestern Iberia. Married multiple times, she acquired and managed a substantial amount of property during her life. In 1040, she donated a monastery she and her second husband had founded, the Monastery of San Antolín del Esla, to the Cathedral of León. In 1045, she was murdered by her nephew, possibly out of anger that he had not inherited this property and other sources of familial wealth.

    The illustration is found in the Libro de las Estampas, an illustrated cartulary created and held in the León Cathedral. Dating from around 1200, the cartulary depicts donations that seven Leonese kings (Ordoño II, Ordoño III, Ramiro III, Bermudo II, Fernando I, Alfonso V and Alfonso VI), as well as Sancha, made to the Cathedral of León. Medieval cartularies transcribed and compiled records, with ecclesiastical cartularies like the Libro de las Estampas focusing on donations to the religious institutions that created them. Beyond simply reproducing original documents, cartularies often expressed a particular ideological or political purpose. Ecclesiastical cartularies might intend to highlight the relationship between the church and the crown. While illuminated cartularies such as this one were rare, in the 12th and 13th centuries the Iberian Peninsula produced a comparatively high number of them. In the Libro de las Estampas, the representations of the seven kings follow a specific pattern. All of them sit on a throne, holding not only scrolls with seals but also golden scepters that extend beyond the illustration’s colored boundaries. However, as the only woman, the only non-royal figure, and the only donor depicted in the moment of her death, Sancha breaks this pattern. Instead, the image of Doña Sancha, particularly her turned-away face and the raised sword, follows an iconographic model of martyred saints, especially virgin martyrs. This framing emphasizes the piety of her donation and the religious sacrifice presumably prompted by it.

    During the 10th and 11th centuries in northwestern Iberia, it was common for aristocratic lay families to found monasteries, the construction of which helped strengthen the political structures of the region. By the latter half of the 10th century these monasteries functioned to consolidate family wealth, and monastery foundation often expanded throughout the generations. For example, Doña Sancha’s father, the count Munio Fernández, himself founded the monastery of San Juan Bautista de León in 1011, and Doña Sancha herself most likely received some of the land on the Río Esla, where the monastery of San Antolín was founded, from her father. It was also common for property, including these monasteries, to be donated to religious institutions, a practice that could be carried out for pious purposes, for the commemoration of a family member, as obligated by court rulings, or to secure support from these institutions. Men and women alike were capable of inheriting, acquiring through purchase, gift, or legal ruling, and donating land. It was not unheard of for parents to disinherit their children: "free disposition," or the ability to bypass the interests of children and family members, was found in written records by the end of the 10th century, though not extremely widespread. By the middle of the 11th century, in fact, it was more common for these properties to be transferred to ecclesiastical institutions than kept within the family.

    While the foundation and donation of monasteries during this period in northern Iberia was widespread, the violence of the act depicted in this image seems to stand out. In the Middle Ages, violence within the family was mainly wielded by masculine authority figures as a form of coercion to maintain order. Religious and legal precedent allowed fathers and husbands to use violent means to punish or prevent the wrongdoing of their wives and children. In fact, crimes of assault and killing were overwhelmingly associated with male perpetrators in northern Iberia. Beyond the family, cases of homicide and murder often led to the perpetrator fleeing the country or to acquittal. In the case of this illustration, revenge killings– which Nuño Pérez’s act is implied to be both by the composition of the image and by Doña Sancha’s obituary in the Necrologio Legionense– were, if not legally acceptable, considered a natural response to offense against family honor.

    On the other hand, by the time of Alfonso X’s Siete Partidas (an extensive legislative document compiled throughout the mid to late 13th century laying out a code of law for Castile and León), murder within the family was considered a grave offense. Doña Sancha’s tomb, located in the Cathedral of León and dated by Quiñones and Freile to the 14th century with some later 15th century additions, also depicts her murder and its aftermath. The carvings present a narrative, depicting Sancha's donation to the Virgin and child, her killing, the assailant riding away, and then, having fallen, being dragged by the galloping horse. Quiñones and Freile suggest that the final scene represents the nephew's death sentence, carried out in a way that marks his dishonorable conduct. These centuries-later representations in the manuscript and tomb suggest that people viewed Doña Sancha's donations positively and held her nephew responsible for her death as a martyr.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Family Murder Nephews Noble Women Patronage, Ecclesiastical Politics Violence
  • Geographic Area: Iberia
  • Century: 13
  • Date: ca. 1200
  • Related Work:
  • Current Location: León, Archivo de la Catedral de León, Ms 25, fol. 41v
  • Original Location:
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique):
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): //
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources:

    Butler, Sara M. "Violence and murder in Europe." Cambridge World History of Violence, 2: AD 500 – AD 1500. Edited by Harriet T. Zurndorfer, Matthew S. Gordon and Richard W. Kaeuper. Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pages 330-346.

    Davies, Wendy. Acts of Giving: Individual, Community, and Church in Tenth-Century Christian Spain. Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Risco, Manuel. España sagrada. Theatro geographico-historico de la iglesia de España. Origen, divisiones, y terminos de todas sus provincias. Antiguedad, traslaciones, y estado antiguo y presente de sus sillas, en todos los dominios de España, y Portugal. Con varias dissertaciones criticas, para ilustrar la historia eclesiastica de España. Vol. 35. Pedro Marin, 1786. Pages 56-57.

    Maxwell, Robert A. "The 'Literate' Lay Donor: Textuality and the Romanesque Patron." Romanesque Patrons and Processes: Design and Instrumentality in the Art and Architecture of Romanesque Europe. Edited ByJordi Camps, Manuel Castiñeiras, John McNeill and Richard Plant. Routledge, 2018. Pages 259-277.

    Núñez, Manuel. Casa, calle, convento: iconografía de la mujer bajomedieval. Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, 1997.

    Pérez, Mariel. "El control de lo sagrado como instrumento de poder: los monasterios particulares de la aristocracia altomedieval leonesa." Anuario de Estudios Medievales 42, 2 (2012): 799–822. Available open access from the journal website.

    Ruiz Maldonado, Margarita. "La condesa doña Sancha en la Catedral de León." Archivos Leoneses: revista de estudios y documentación de los Reinos Hispano-Occidentales 62 (1977): 279-284.

    Sánchez-Pardo, José Carlos and Marcos Fernández Ferreiro. " Monastic Foundations as Aristocratic Strategies during the 10th Century in the North-west Iberian Peninsula: The Case of the Eriz Family." The 10th Century in Western Europe: Change and Continuity. Edited by Igor Santos Salazar and Catarina Tente. Archaeopress, 2023. Pages 77-89.

    Scarborough, Connie L. "Women as Victims and Criminals in the Siete Partidas." Crime and Punishment in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age: Mental-Historical Investigations of Basic Human Problems and Social Responses. Edited by Albrecht Classen and Connie L. Scarborough. Walter de Gruyter, 2012. Pages 225-246.

    Torre Sevilla Quiñones de León, Margarita and Fernando Galván Freile. "La condesa doña Sancha: una nueva aproximación a su figura." Medievalismo 5 (1995): 9-29. Available open access.

    Wearing, Shannon L. "Holy Donors, Mighty Queens: Imaging Women in the Spanish Cathedral Cartularies of the Long Twelfth Century." Journal of Medieval History 42, 1 (2016): 76-106.