Post-classical history


The crusade movement was a wide-ranging phenomenon that touched the lives of people all over Europe, crossing social boundaries of wealth, politics, culture, and gender. Three main categories of women were affected by crusading: those who actually accompanied crusade armies, those who helped to maintain and protect the frontier societies that were established in Europe and the Levant, and those who remained in the West to guard the interests of absent kin.

Women and the Sources for Crusading

In the early thirteenth century, the Cistercian monk Thomas of Froidmont composed an elegy for his elder sister, Margaret of Beverley, celebrating her adventures on crusade. She reputedly fought at the siege of Jerusalem in 1187 wearing a cooking pot on her head for protection, and twice endured capture and slavery at the hands of Muslim enemies. She was ransomed, however, and returned safely to tell her brother about her experiences before entering a convent at Mon- treuil, where she died in 1215. Thomas’s work is unique for its time; it was written as if narrated by Margaret herself, a woman giving a firsthand account of her pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Its exceptional nature was doubtless influenced by the fact that Thomas wrote to emphasize the religious character of his sister’s experiences in the Levant rather than to chronicle her deeds in an historical sense.

For the most part, women seldom feature in the surviving sources for crusading. Throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the church and its male clergy dominated education and literature, and there were strong legal and social restrictions on women. This situation resulted in a shortage of written information about them, especially of material presented from a female perspective. In addition to these general conditions, those who wrote histories of the crusades had two further reasons for avoiding the subject of women. First, crusading was by definition a military activity, and warfare was traditionally a male pursuit. Second, women were actively discouraged from taking part in crusade expeditions. Papal appeals and sermons by crusade preachers often specified that women should not accompany armies to the Holy Land unless they had proper permission and guardianship. They could not be banned outright, because the crusade was a form of pilgrimage and open to all repentant Christians. Nonetheless, female crusaders often drew criticism.

Some concerns were based on the logistical problems caused by non-combatants in general: they were “useless mouths” who consumed supplies and slowed the pace of crusader armies. Other fears were more specific to the female sex, especially the fear that the presence of women would tempt crusaders into sexual sin. As pilgrims, crusaders were supposed to refrain from sexual activity, a situation at odds with the reality of life in a medieval army where camp followers abounded. Military setbacks on crusade were often seen as the result of God’s displeasure with the crusaders’ profligate behavior, and women were blamed accordingly. Despite these views, women of all social levels continued to take the cross. On rare occasions women like Margaret of Beverley even received praise for their bravery, and for their contribution to the holy war.

Women's Motivation

Most of the women mentioned in the sources for crusading are noble, following the established literary and historical traditions of the time. Noblewomen usually followed papal guidelines and accompanied male relatives, which makes it hard to assess the motives of individual women; they were often overshadowed by their male counterparts. Seven women named in the sources for the First Crusade (1096-1099) were the wives of noble crusaders, and of nine women known to have joined the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221), only two may have gone without family [Riley-Smith, The First Crusaders, p. 107; Powell, “The Role of Women on the Fifth Crusade,” p. 299]. Crusader-queens who accompanied husbands leading major expeditions include Eleanor of Aquitaine, Berengaria of Navarre, Margaret of Provence, and Eleanor of Castile (although her husband, Lord Edward of England, had not yet ascended the throne). Joanna, dowager queen of Sicily, went on the Third Crusade (1189-1192) with her brother, King Richard I of England, but may also have been fulfilling the commitment to the crusade of her dead husband, King William II of Sicily. She used the remainder of her dowry to help finance Richard’s expedition. Such important women were usually accompanied by retinues of noble ladies and maidservants, about whom less is known. Family ties and household bonds to crusaders may have influenced women to take the cross, but some managed to make the journey on their own, such as Margaret of Austria, widow of King Béla II of Hungary. Following the death of her husband, she longed to go to Jerusalem, so she sold her dowry and embarked on the German Crusade of 1197-1198 with her own retinue of knights.

Although information about women’s motivation is scant, they evidently responded to the same spiritual incentives as men. Medieval women had a pronounced role as patrons of the church, and their involvement in both monastic reform and heretical movements during this period testifies to the sincerity of their religious concerns. Spiritual rewards such as the remission of sins offered to crusaders were attractive to all Christians. Religiously motivated women on the First Crusade included a nun from Trier, and a woman who followed her goose on crusade, believing it to be imbued with the Holy Spirit, although they both attracted criticism from chroniclers for behaving inappropriately.

Pilgrimage was very popular with both men and women, and Jerusalem, the Holy City, represented the pinnacle of such penitential journeys. Hitherto pilgrims had not been supposed to carry arms, but now large numbers of unarmed pilgrims could travel to the Holy Land with an army sanctioned to fight by the pope and destined to succeed by God’s will. The advent of crusading thus actually enabled some women to realize their spiritual ambitions and visit the holy places. Sibyl, wife of the serial crusader Thierry of Alsace, count of Flanders, reputedly decided to stay at the convent of Bethany after her first visit to the East, leaving her husband to return home without her. The continued Latin presence in the Holy Land after the success of the First Crusade also made the journey there more achievable for women. Organizations such as the military orders were founded with the intention of aiding and protecting pilgrims, and the settler population provided bonds of kinship with the West. Countess Ermengarde of Brittany acted as regent for her husband, Alan IV, during the First Crusade, and helped to administer the county after he entered a monastery in 1112, despite her own wish to join a convent. She finally took the veil in 1130 at Dijon, but in 1132 her half-brother King Fulk of Jerusalem invited her to visit the Holy Land. Although in her mid-sixties, she took the opportunity to travel to the East, spending some time in Nablus and at the nunnery of St. Anne’s in Jerusalem, returning to Brittany before 1135.

Women's Activities on Crusade

Were women attracted by the military aspects of crusading? Romantic and stereotypical images of armed female warriors abound in medieval literature, but it is very unlikely that there were women on crusade who were specifically designated to fight. Medieval women were considered to be unfit to bear arms, which was one of the reasons they were discouraged from crusading. Some eyewitness Muslim sources for the Third Crusade give accounts of Frankish women wearing armor and fighting in battle; one even mentions a female archer at the siege of Acre in 1191, but representations of women warriors were sometimes used to mock the weakness or barbarity of an enemy, and thus cannot always be trusted.

The few examples of Christian women fighting in Western sources were also loaded with gendered symbolism. The chronicler Ambroise recorded how women slit the throats of prisoners taken from a captured galley at Acre in 1190. This was seen as a particularly humiliating death because the women had to use knives instead of swords, prolonging the pain of their dying enemies. During the Fifth Crusade women stood armed guard over the crusader camp and killed the Muslims who fled shamefully from a failed attack on Damietta. In the Baltic region women successfully defended the town of Elbing in 1245 when the garrison of Teutonic Knights was engaged elsewhere, but had to gird themselves with manly armor first. Both on crusade and as settlers defending newly claimed territories, women probably did fight, but only in times of extreme desperation. Chroniclers were keen to emphasize that such fighting only occurred in the absence of suitable male warriors and that women were transcending the natural weakness of their gender by fighting.

Some noblewomen who brought retinues of their own knights on crusade were considered to be feudal lords. Ida, widow of Margrave Leopold II of Austria, was counted among the leaders of the ill-fated Crusade of 1101. Nonetheless, all lords were subject to the acknowledged military leader of the host or contingent in which they traveled, and noblewomen probably had little influence over strategic decisions. Rather than taking an active role, women usually became the casualties of crusader battles: they were regarded as booty by Muslims, Christians, and pagans alike. Ida herself was either killed or captured by the forces of Qilij Arslān I, sultan of Rûm, at Herakleia. Captured women might be ransomed if they were wealthy, but even the most noble risked slavery or even death if they went on crusade.

Less is known about women from the lower classes who took the cross. A passenger list from a crusade ship in 1250 records that 42 of the 342 common people en route to the Holy Land were women, 22 of whom had no male chaperone [Kedar, “The Passenger List of a Crusader Ship, 1250,” p. 272]. Such women usually aided crusade armies by performing more mundane duties; on the First Crusade, women were praised for bringing refreshments and encouragement to crusaders at the battle of Dorylaion (1097), and they helped to undermine a tower at Arqah by carrying away rubble in their skirts. At the siege of Acre in 1191, one admirable woman who had been mortally wounded while filling a ditch reputedly begged her husband to use her corpse to continue the work. Women’s activities ranged from washing clothes and lice picking to helping provision the crusaders. During the Fifth Crusade both Christian and Muslim women were employed grinding corn, while the women of the camp maintained markets for fish and vegetables, and probably tended to the wounded and sick.

Prostitution was always associated with the presence of lower-class women, and bearing in mind the poverty and hardship that crusader armies sometimes endured, it is not surprising that trade in sex for money or food took place. It was a major concern to crusade leaders and chroniclers because of the perceived link between sin and military failure. At times we are told that crusaders expelled women from the camp to remove sexual temptation, as, for example, at the siege of Antioch in 1098, at Constantinople in 1204, and at Damietta in 1249. Sexual relations with indigenous Muslims and Jews were regarded as being particularly sinful and in some cases leading to divine retribution. Medieval historians were sometimes at pains to obscure any element of sexual crime in crusader successes, emphasizing that the crusaders purified the Holy Places through the wholesale slaughter of men, women, and children.

Sexual activity on crusade also led to an exclusively feminine health issue: pregnancy and all the risks associated with it in the medieval period. The German chronicler Albert of Aachen reported that the harsh conditions of the journey on the First Crusade had led to premature births and mothers abandoning their infants. In a recent study, Sabine Geldset- zer has listed the children known to have been born during crusades or on pilgrimage to the Levant at this time, although these were mostly noble [Geldsetzer, Frauen aufKreuzzügen, pp. 213-215]. There was some recognition that the journey was too dangerous at certain stages of pregnancy; Mabel of Roucy, wife of Hugh II of Le Puiset, went with her husband on the 1107 crusade, but stopped in Apulia to give birth to a son. As the child’s health was fragile, he remained there to be brought up by relatives, while Mabel went on to settle in the East. Marie of Champagne, the wife of Count Baldwin IX of Flanders, delayed her departure on the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) because she was close to childbirth, and afterward died en route to being reunited with her husband. However, Margaret of Provence, the wife of King Louis IX of France, gave birth three times while on her husband’s crusade to the East (1248-1254): to John-Tristan (1250), Peter (1251), and Blanche (1253). The chronicler John of Joinville went into considerable detail about her experience giving birth to John- Tristan in Damietta. It was indeed a dramatic situation: her husband had been defeated and imprisoned by the Egyptians, and she was trapped inside the city and terrified of capture. She had to break the traditional confinement of childbed in order to secure the ransom for her husband and organize the surrender of the city.

Despite the restrictions on sexual activity for crusaders, such noble women were seldom criticized for fulfilling what was seen to be their duty, the provision of heirs. Among the lower ranks, however, pregnancy attracted more criticism, as, among the unmarried, it could be evidence of illicit sexual activity. Guibert of Nogent asserted that the crusaders’ desperate situation at Antioch in 1098 led them to punish any unmarried pregnant women severely, along with their lovers (or customers).

Crusading and Intermarriage in the Latin East

Despite concerns about the presence of women on crusade expeditions, even the harshest of critics recognized that women were crucial to the establishment of a permanent Christian population on all fronts where religious war was waged. One contemporary, Ralph Niger, reluctantly admitted that relations with women were a necessary evil for repopulating conquered territories, but he asserted that women had no place in armies sent to the East and should only be sent for once the land had been pacified. Women did play an important part in the settlement of conquered lands, but it seems that most female crusaders, like their male counterparts, probably returned home after their pilgrimage vows were fulfilled. In fact, some of the early Frankish rulers of the Levant (including Baldwin I and Baldwin II of Jerusalem) married into the local Armenian Christian population in order to secure new political ties, a policy that extended to include Byzantine marriage alliances in the later twelfth century.

Once a settler society was established, marriage provided diplomatic links between East and West, encouraging new crusade expeditions. Continued warfare created a constant lack of manpower, and in the absence of male heirs, lands and titles often fell to widows and daughters. Delegations were then sent to the West to entice crusaders to the Holy Land with the promise of favorable marriages. Crusaders who married heiresses to the throne of Jerusalem included Fulk V of Anjou, William and Conrad of Monferrat, Guy and Aimery of Lusignan, Henry of Champagne, John of Brienne, and Emperor Frederick II. The more important bridegrooms usually brought with them an entourage of knights on crusade to help secure their new domain, although this could cause friction with the established baronage. Kings and nobles of the Levant also sought wives from western Europe and Byzantium to improve political ties and gain dowries to aid the defense of the Latin East. Bohemund I, prince of Antioch, came to the West on a recruitment drive for a crusade against the Byzantine Empire, a drive that included making a prestigious marriage in 1106 to Cecilia, the daughter of King Philip I of France. Yet the need for cash dowries to fund military activities could also spell the end of political alliances based on marriage. When the dowry from the marriage of King Baldwin I to an Armenian princess failed to materialize, he put her aside and controversially married Adelaide of Sicily, who brought him considerable wealth and military resources. Once he had exhausted Adelaide’s resources, he repudiated her in turn, a decision that resulted in a serious political rift with her son, King Roger II of Sicily.

The strong dynastic links between the Latin East and Western Christendom could also cause problems for crusaders. Raymond of Poitiers, prince of Antioch, was famously accused of initiating an affair with his own niece, Eleanor of Aquitaine, during the Second Crusade (11471149). This was reputedly because Raymond was bitter at his failure to convince her husband, King Louis VII of France, to provide military support on the grounds of their kinship. Rumors of the affair highlighted negative perceptions about women on crusade, and conveniently sidestepped the political issues. Some contemporaries blamed Eleanor for the failure of the entire expedition. She had encouraged other women to take the cross by her example, leading to dissolute behavior in the crusader camps and ultimately the loss of divine favor.

Women Who Remained in the West

Finally, it is impossible to discuss the impact of the crusade movement without considering those who were left behind: they were affected by the crusades in a number of ways. From the outset the church had pledged to protect the property and families of those who took the cross, but some crusaders left charters including specific provision for their female relatives and other loved ones while they were away. They often gave money or endowments to religious houses for the care of their kin. Gilbert of Aalst founded the nunnery of Merham for his sister Lietgard in 1096 before embarking on the First Crusade. At the same time, the crusader Hugh of Vermandois arranged a marriage for his daughter Elizabeth with Robert, count of Meulan. Crusaders’ wives were not kept in chastity belts during their husbands’ absence as popular myth supposes, but canonists were concerned about adultery. To avoid this problem, a wife could theoretically prevent her husband from crusading because he would be unable to fulfil his conjugal duty of sexual intercourse.

Crusade preachers often described wives as inhibiting crusaders, but there is little hard evidence to suggest that wives actually stopped their husbands from taking the cross. The chronicler Orderic Vitalis even suggested that after Stephen of Blois deserted the siege of Antioch in 1098 during the First Crusade, his wife Adela used the art of seduction to encourage him to return to the Holy Land in 1101. During both of his absences, Adela was left to continue the administration of the family estates, and there are two extant letters from her husband, in which he gave her news of the expedition and advice for the management of their lands. Female relatives did not always administer the estates of absent crusaders, but certain women were recognized to be capable regents. In particular, Blanche of Castile and Eleanor of Aquitaine filled very high-profile roles in regency governments on behalf of their crusading sons Louis IX of France and Richard I of England, acting with considerable acumen under difficult circumstances.

Women could also support the crusade movement spiritually and financially without taking the cross. Patterns of intermarriage in France have suggested that, far from inhibiting men from taking the cross, certain alliances helped to import traditions of crusading from one family to another. Women may even have encouraged the crusade idea through their participation in the early religious education of their children and by employing chaplains who supported the crusade. In the thirteenth century, Pope Innocent III asked women to pray collectively for the success of crusade expeditions. In some cases, the support of specific holy women was sought. Count Philip of Flanders is known to have written to Hildegard of Bingen, abbess of Ruperts- berg, for her advice on the eve of his departure for the Holy Land in 1177. The influential St. Birgitta of Sweden wrote polemics in favor of the Baltic Crusades in the fourteenth century.

With regard to finance, Innocent III encouraged women to donate cash or sponsor a knight instead of going on crusade themselves, in return for the same spiritual benefits as crusaders. This measure was probably designed to address the problem of noncombatants on crusade, but was also an effective way to raise money and at least recognized that women were willing to support crusading. Women could also donate money and endowments to monastic houses that helped to organize cash for crusaders, including the newly established military orders. Crusaders often relied on family relationships, both to raise money for crusade expeditions and to cover debts on their return. Some charters demonstrate that they sold or mortgaged land to female kin, or engaged in transactions where the consent of a female relative was required. At the time of the Fifth Crusade, ten out of fifteen wills in Genoa that left money to support crusading were drawn up by women [Powell, “The Role of Women on the Fifth Crusade,” p. 296].

Many men and women who went on crusade were overcome by the arduous journey and its associated dangers, and did not return to their homes at all. Sometimes it was impossible to certify whether crusaders were still alive or not, which meant that women who had remained in the West could not remarry without the risk of committing bigamy. Canonical sources varied from 5 to 100 years as to how long a crusader’s wife should wait for her husband’s return, and some considered remarriage to be out of the question. Such women lingered in the shadow of widowhood, unable to progress with the normal cycle of life, which usually entailed becoming a dowager, entering a monastery, or a new marriage. Ida of Louvain went to Jerusalem in 1106 in a desperate attempt to find her husband, Baldwin II of Mons, count of Hainaut, who had gone missing in Asia Minor during the First Crusade, but without success.

By the time of the fall of Acre to the Mamluks in 1291, crusading had become an integral part of medieval society that touched the lives of women all over Europe, whether they took the cross or not. The crusade propagandist Pierre Dubois, writing in 1306-1307, thought that women could be instrumental to the recovery of the lost Holy Land. He asserted that they could be trained in theology and logic, and given as wives to Eastern Christians and Muslims, or educated in the medical care of women’s ills, thereby influencing others to convert to Christianity. His vision may not have been realistic, but now that the possibility of a successful military operation to the East was rapidly dwindling, he recognized that women, who had traditionally been excluded from martial activities, might play an alternative role in spreading Christianity. In fact, for good or ill, women had committed themselves together with their families to the holy war throughout the crusading era, and without the network of support they provided, the boundaries of medieval Christendom could not have expanded, nor could a Latin society in the East have flourished for as long as it did.

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