Did women support crusades? Did women go on crusades? If they did, did they fight? Did women on the ‘other side’ fight? Cultural norms in western European Christian and Muslim society in the middle ages did not expect women to take part in fighting. Yet some of the contemporary sources indicate that they did take an active part in crusade warfare. Is there any truth in these reports, or were they simply slander or propaganda?
Before going any further with this question, I would like to lay down a few basic foundations. The first question is was what was a crusade? Then, when were the crusades? Scholars don’t agree on the answers to these questions. They all agree that the crusades involved a journey, and involved religion and fighting, but disagree on almost everything else.
What were the crusades?
Recently the American historian Giles Constable divided the different opinions into four general categories. I summarise:
(i) The generalists: define a crusade as any Christian religious war fought for God, and see the modern attempts to define a crusade as artificial and misleading. They would argue that, in arguing over precise definitions of this medieval undertaking, modern scholars are trying to impose modern forms of thinking on to a society that had a very different world view.
(ii) The popularists: regard the crusade as essentially a religious undertaking for the masses and/or for warriors (not for the clergy).
(iii) The traditionalists: believe that the crusades were military-religious expeditions which set out to recover or defend Jerusalem.
(iv) The pluralists: look at how crusades were recruited and organized and argue that any military campaign which fitted that pattern of recruitment and organization was a crusade, while those that do not fit were not. All these scholars would agree that the crusades were essentially a medieval occurrence: crusading had almost disappeared by 1600. They generally agree that those who went on crusades believed that taking part in a crusade was a form of penance for sins. A common form of penance in the middle ages was to go on a pilgrimage, a journey to a particularly holy place. Jerusalem was a common goal of pilgrimages, and the crusade to Jerusalem was in fact called a pilgrimage. Scholars also generally agree that a crusade was a holy war: a religious war fought for God, to advance what the crusaders believed to be God’s plan. Typically it was a defensive war, but it could involve trying to win back territory which had once been ruled by Christians. Scholars also agree that those who took part in crusades made the vow to join the expedition and sewed a cross on to their clothing as a symbol of the vow. The terms “to be signed by the cross” or “to take the cross”(se croisier in medieval French, and crux suscepit, crux accepit or crucizo in medieval Latin) were already being used by writers during the twelfth century, but the word “crusade” did not come into use in English until the late sixteenth century, and the equivalent word croisade appeared in France in the fifteenth century. In the Middle Ages, people “took the cross,” but they called the expedition a “pilgrimage,” or a “passage” (meaning voyages or journeys) or “Christ’s business.” So you will realise that the definition of what we now call a crusade was actually quite imprecise during the Middle Ages.
When did crusades begin? Again, scholars don’t agree! Some historians argue that the first crusade was the campaign of Spanish Christians against the Muslim-ruled city of Barbastro in the Iberian Peninsula in 1064. This campaign included Christian warriors from outside the Peninsula and may have had the support of the pope. In 1087 a naval force from the Italian maritime cities of Pisa and Genoa and others attacked and plundered the North African coastal city of al-Mahdiyyah. Countess Matilda of Tuscany (d. 1115) was one of the sponsors of that naval campaign. Contemporary Christian descriptions of the campaign depicted it in similar terms to the later crusades, as a holy war led by Christ, fighting against the godless Muslims. The Pisans wore a pilgrim’s badge, whereas as the crusaders would later wear a cross. If “crusaders” must wear a cross then these campaigns were not crusades, but they certainly foreshadowed the later campaigns in their personnel and their motivation.
Most scholars agree that the crusades began in November 1095 when Pope Urban II preached a sermon at the Church Council of Clermont in south-eastern France. The result was the First Crusade, a military expedition against the Turks of Asia Minor, which recovered territory that had until recently belonged to the Byzantine emperor. The expedition went on to capture further fortresses and towns in Syria and Palestine, culminating in the capture of the city of Jerusalem in July 1099. The crusaders set up new Christian states in Syria and Palestine.
Other “crusading fronts” included the Iberian Peninsula (now Spain and Portugal), where Christian warriors fought to capture territory that had been ruled by Christians until the eighth century; the Baltic area, where Christian warriors fought in defence of Christian territory and to persuade pagan peoples, to convert to Christianity; wars between popes and their enemies in Italy; and wars against heretics, Christians who rejected the authority of the institutionalized Church. Some scholars argue that the “crusade mentality” was important in the voyages of exploration and conquest of the New World in the sixteenth century.
Contemporaries of the first crusade noted that this military undertaking allowed a way for people who were on the sidelines of religion to win God’s favour. Guibert of Nogent, one of the monks who wrote about the First Crusade after it had happened, described it as follows: In our time God has ordained holy wars, so that the knightly order and the wandering crowd--who had previously been engaged in slaughtering each other, like their ancient pagan forebears--could find a new way of earning salvation. But Guibert’s talk of slaughter seems to apply only to men.
Did women support crusades?
Women were involved in crusading in various roles from the beginning of the crusading movement. I’ve already mentioned Countess Matilda of Tuscany’s involvement in the al-Mahdiyyah campaign in 1087. But the crusades did present a 5 contradiction for women. Pious Christian women could play an important spiritual role in prayer support for the expeditions, give vital financial support (like Countess Matilda), and could encourage their menfolk to go on crusade. But Christian commentators saw them as a sexual threat to the spiritual purity of the Christian warriors. So the crusade needed women – but the Church authorities tried to discourage them from actually going on crusade.
As crusades were also pilgrimages, initially women were involved in crusading expeditions as peaceful pilgrims. Christian women joined the First Crusade (1095-1099) also as partners and family of male pilgrims. Raymond of St Gilles, count of Toulouse, brought his wife with him on the expedition (although the contemporary writers don’t tell us her name). Women performed various support tasks, such as bringing water to warriors on the battlefield, undertaking labouring tasks and hurling missiles at the enemy. They undertook basic medical and hygienic care and encouraged warriors to fight. They acted as traders, selling food to the army, or craftspeople, making arrows and bowstrings. But when the crusade was going badly they were blamed for introducing sexual temptation to the crusaders, and the religious leaders of the army sent all women out of the military camp as part of a ceremonial cleansing intended to recover God’s approval for the undertaking. I doubt that ‘all women’ included the married noblewomen. I suspect it meant only the women who did not have formal legal partners.
Crusade preachers depicted women as holding back their male relatives from going on crusade, and warned that if they did there would be dire consequences, telling stories of babies overlaid by mothers who had refused to allow their husbands to join the crusade. In fact, research by Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith has shown that women were often promoters of crusades, encouraging their male relatives to take part.
An English priest who was an eyewitness of the Third Crusade wrote about the recruitment for that crusade in 1187, in a work called the Itinerarium Peregrinorum (the Pilgrims’ journey):
"The enthusiasm for the new pilgrimage was such that already it was not a question of who had received the cross but of who had not yet done so. A great many men sent each other wool and distaff, implying that if they exempted themselves from this expedition they would only be fit for women`s work. Brides urged their husbands and mothers incited their sons to go, their only sorrow being that they were not able to set out with them because of the weakness of their sex."
Noblewomen continued to accompany their husbands on crusade. Eleanor of Aquitaine accompanied King Louis VII of France on the Second Crusade, 1147-8; Richard the Lionheart took his newly-wed wife, Berengaria of Navarre, and his sister, Joanna, dowager queen of Sicily, to the Holy Land with him in 1191 on the Third Crusade. In 1247-54, Margaret of Provence accompanied her husband, King Louis IX of France, on crusade to Egypt. In 1271 Eleanor of Castile accompanied her husband the Lord Edward, soon to be King Edward I of England, on his crusade to the Holy Land.
What did these queens do on crusade? Eleanor of Aquitaine does not seem to have taken any part in military operations. Jane Martindale has recently written in the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: ‘Statements that Eleanor raised a military company of armed and mounted ladies are based upon fanciful imaginings of the Amazons and their queen by the Byzantine writer Nicetas; it is more reliably recorded that she and the German-born Empress Bertha communicated by letter, and 7 that the Emperor Manuel I Komnenos tried to arrange a Greek marriage for one of the ladies accompanying the French army.’ So Eleanor acted as a diplomat. She also caused scandal by her friendly relations with her uncle, Prince Raymond of Antioch. Presumably the prince was hoping that Eleanor could persuade her husband King Louis to send him permanent military aid against Nūr al-Dīn of Aleppo – instead, Louis set off for Acre, and the crusade did more harm than good to the European settlers in the East.
Queens Berengaria and Joanna are hardly mentioned during the events of the Third Crusade; they arrived in the East with Richard the Lionheart; the Muslim writers mention a suggestion during negotiations between Richard and Saladin that Joanna should marry Saladin’s brother (but she refused); the queens left the east shortly before Richard left in autumn 1192. Richard’s cousins, Queens Sybil and Isabel of Jerusalem, played much more active military roles, commanding fortified cities against Sultan Saladin’s forces. But even they never fought on the battlefield. In 1259, when King Louis IX was taken prisoner by Egyptian forces during his crusade, his queen, Margaret of Provence, commanded the crusaders’ defence from her childbed. Eleanor of Castile did not play an active military role on crusade, although one source credited her with saving her husband’s life after he was stabbed by an assassin.
So these crusading queens or queens-to-be generally limited their activities to diplomacy or medical care. Only Queen Margaret of France actually played any military role, and that was in a case of emergency, when the king was a prisoner and she was acting in his place. And even she was acting purely in a defensive capacity, and did not wield any weapon herself.
Information about non-noble women on crusade is more difficult to come by. Two accounts of the Third Crusade mention a woman among the Christian forces besieging Acre in 1189-90 (it had been captured by Saladin in 1187); she was helping to fill in the defensive ditch around the city, but was killed by a missile, and asked her husband to bury her body in the ditch so that she could continued helping the siege even after her death.6 One Muslim writer mentions old women urging on the crusaders to fight;7 a Christian writer describes old women picking fleas and lice off the male soldiers.
Margaret of Beverley (born in the 1130s? died around 1210?) was present in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade and took some part in the fighting. According to the account of her life written down by her younger brother Thomas, Margaret was conceived in England, but as her parents Sibil and Hulno then set out for Jerusalem on pilgrimage, she was born in the Holy Land. Back in England the family settled in Beverley in Yorkshire, where Margaret’s brother Thomas was born, eleven years her junior. As an adult, Margaret returned to the kingdom of Jerusalem, and was in Jerusalem when it came under siege from Saladin in September 1187. Thomas depicts his sister saying: “like a fierce virago, I tried to play the role of a man,” improvising a helmet from a metal cooking pot: “a woman pretending to be a man … terrified, but I pretended not to be afraid.” She brought water to the men who were fighting on the city walls, and was hit by a fragment of a stone hurled by one of Saladin’s siege engines; the wound healed, but she carried the scar.
When the city surrendered to the Muslims she paid for her freedom and set off for Lachish (Laodicea?), where her party believed that they would be safe; but they were captured by Muslims and enslaved. At last a man from Tyre (now Sūr in Lebanon; still held by the Christians in 1187) paid their ransom. Margaret set off 9 through the desert, hungry, alone and terrified, heading for Antioch, for she had taken a vow of pilgrimage to visit the tomb of St Margaret there.
While she was in the city, it came under siege from Saladin’s army (July 1188), but the enemy was defeated. Margaret set off south, but on the road not far from Tripoli she was again arrested by Muslims and thought her end had come. In her distress she called on ‘Saint Mary’: the Turkish lord recognized the name of Jesus’s mother, and released her. She reached Acre after the forces of the kings of England and France, Richard the Lionheart and Philip II, had arrived there, and embarked for the West. She finally found her brother Thomas in a French monastery. He persuaded her to leave the secular life and enter a nunnery. She was a nun for eighteen years until her death. Thomas does not tell us exactly when she died.
Margaret was not a crusader in that she never “took the cross”: she became involved in the Third Crusade as a bystander who took part in the defence of Jerusalem and as a pilgrim, but she did not fight. Her brother presented her experiences in the East as proof of her piety, not as examples of warfare.
An account of the Fifth Crusade mentions women present during one battle outside the city of Damietta, on the banks of the river Nile, 19 August 1219. ‘By the waterside were the Romans and women who carried fresh water for the infantry to drink. The Bedouins, who were above the river, charged them and killed them.’10 Again, these women were playing an important support role; like Margaret of Beverley, they carried water to the thirsty fighters. But they did not actually fight.
Some scholars have argued that even if women were present on crusades, they were not true crusaders because they could not take the crusading vow. The Australian nun and historian Maureen Purcell admitted that women took part in crusades but denied emphatically that they were true crusaders, crucesignata, except for a brief period in the second half of the thirteenth century. When they accompanied a crusade (she wrote), they did so as pilgrims rather than as crusaders, and they certainly did not fight, However: the English royal clerk, Roger of Howden, an eyewitness of the Third Crusade, noted in his ‘Chronicle’ that when King Béla III of Hungary died (1196) his wife Margaret, sister of King Philip of France and formerly queen of England as wife of Henry the young king, took the cross for the journey to Jerusalem, accepit crucem Jerosolimitanae profectionis, and remained in the land of Jerusalem at Acre in the Lord’s service until the end of her life. So she was a crucesignata, a crusader. Yet Purcell is correct in one point: there is no evidence that she took part in warfare when she reached the Holy Land.
In medieval canon (Church) law women could go on crusade if they had their husband’s consent, or father’s consent if unmarried. A widow could go on crusade without anyone’s consent. Pietro Collivaccino, a notary of the Roman curia under Pope Innocent III who finished his work on canon law in 1209, wrote that a woman should normally redeem her crusading vow by paying a sum of money so that a man could go in her place, unless she was wealthy and would be accompanied by a retinue of soldiers.
Many noblewomen did hire and command warriors who fought on their behalf. In the Iberian peninsula in the 1120s Countess Teresa of Portugal (1097-1128) and Queen Urraca of Castile (1109-26) pursued war against their Muslim neighbours; they did not fight themselves, but raised armies and fortified and equipped fortresses. In 1288 Countess Alice of Blois travelled to the city of Acre in Palestine with a large military force and financed the construction of a tower to defend against Muslim attack. The historian Anthony Luttrell has traced a crusade plan put together by a group of Genoese women in 1301. They selected a leader, the famous Genoese admiral Benedetto Zaccaria, and planned to join the crusade themselves; Pope Boniface VIII approved the scheme, ‘noting that the women were venturing where the men had refused to go’, but like many such plans it came to nothing.
Later in the fourteenth century, Catherine of Siena, mystic and writer, promoted the concept of a crusade against the infidel, to be made up of both men and women. In 1372 a Tuscan hermit wrote that he had heard that a group of pious young men and women wished to go overseas – a euphemism for going on crusade; by 1374 Catherine of Siena had asked the pope for permission to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem with a group of holy women, and wrote of her intended journey as if she envisaged it as a crusade; in 1375 she wrote about a crusade against the Turks. But her plans came to nothing.
Did women fight on crusade?
The crusaders themselves never mentioned that their women fought in the battlefield. The medieval writers who were eyewitnesses of the Baltic crusades in the thirteenth century recorded that the pagan Prussian and Lithuanian women fought against the Christians; but their own Christian women did not fight. However, Muslim writers did record that crusading women fought against them.
The contemporary Muslim historians ‘Imād al-Dīn and Bahā’ al-Dīn ibn Shaddad agreed that women took an active role in the fighting during the Christian siege of Acre in the Third Crusade, 1189-91. ‘Imād al-Dīn recorded that a woman of high rank arrived by sea in late autumn 1189, with an escort of 500 knights with their forces, squires, pages and valets. She paid all their expenses and also led them in raids on the Muslims. He went on to say that there were many female knights among the Christians, who wore armour like the men and fought like men in battle, and could not be told apart from the men until they were killed and the armour was stripped from their bodies.
No Christian chronicler mentions this European whom ‘Imād al-Dīn does not name; nor do they mention the female knights, although ‘Imād al-Dīn claims that these women saw their participation in warfare as an act of devotion, ‘thanks to which they believe themselves assured of their salvation’. However, these rather vague anecdotes receive more substantial support in incidents recounted elsewhere in ‘Imīd al-Dīn's work, and by Bahā’ al-Dīn. On 25 July 1190, the Christian crusading army, which was besieging Acre, made an attack on Saladin's camp. Although initially successful, the attack was heavily defeated and the field of battle was left littered with Christian bodies. ‘Imād al-Dīn and Bahā’ al-Dīn rode out together to examine the dead. Bahā’ al-Dīn recorded: ‘I noticed the bodies of two women. Someone told me that he had seen four women engaged in the fight, of whom two were made prisoners’. ‘Imīd al-Dīn recorded: ‘We remarked a woman killed in the fighting, and we heard her express herself by the tears she was still shedding’.
In July 1191, both of them record the presence of a female archer among the Christian besiegers of Acre. Bahā’ al-Dīn gives the fullest description: One very intelligent old man ... was amongst those who forced their way into the enemy's trenches that day. ‘Behind their rampart’, he told me, ‘was a women, wrapped in a green mellûta, [a kind of mantle] who kept on shooting arrows from wooden bow, with which she wounded several of our men. She was at last overpowered by numbers; we killed her, and brought the bow she had been using to the Sultan, who was greatly astonished’. ‘Imād al-Dīn’s account is briefer: ‘There was a woman on one of the points of the defence holding a bow of wood, firing well and drawing blood; she did not stop fighting until she was killed’.
These are the only specific accounts of women fighting. Interestingly, Bahā’ al-Dīn also records the presence of women in the army as it marched south from Acre in late August/early September 1191, although the Christian writers specifically inform us that all women except washerwomen had been left behind at Acre. Bahā’ al-Dīn informs us that a knight, fourteen Franks and a woman, the knight's daughter, were captured by the Muslims during the march south. These were all put in prison and later executed on Saladin’s orders. After the battle of Arsūr, four Franks and a woman were captured by the Arabs and taken to Saladin, who ordered them to be kept in strict confinement.
Another Muslim historian of the Third Crusade supports the picture given by ‘Imād al-Dīn and Bahā’al-Dīn. Ibn al-Athīr was an eye witness of some of the events of the war between Saladin and the Franks, although for the siege of Acre he seems to have used second hand sources, including writings of Bahā’ al-Dīn and ‘Imād al-Dīn. In his ‘Universal History’ he explains that when the European Christians were stirred up to come to Palestine to recover Jerusalem, many women came with the men and fought alongside them in the siege of Acre. He also recounts a conversation he had with a Christian prisoner, who told him that although he was his mother's only son she had sold the family home in order to equip him for the crusade and sent him out to recover Jerusalem - a story which endorses the picture painted by the writer of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum that European Christian women were urging their menfolk to join the crusade.
Ibn al-Athīr mentions two specific instances of women's involvement in the crusade. After a description of the battle outside the city of Acre on 4 October 1189 he adds: ‘Three Frankish women who had been fighting on horseback were found among the prisoners. Their sex was recognised when they were captured and their armour was removed’. He later records that in August 1190 ‘a queen among the Franks who lived beyond the sea left her country accompanied by around a thousand combatants. She was made prisoner in the neighbourhood of Alexandria, and her companions were also captured’.
But are these accounts true?
The first of Ibn al-Athīr’s stories is reminiscent of ‘Imād al-Dīn’s general statement that European Christian women fought among the crusader cavalry and were only recognised when they were captured and their armour removed. But ‘Imād al-Dīn did not say that the women were on horseback, and didn’t specifically refer to this battle. If it was, it is odd that he did not recount the incident himself. As ‘Imād alDīn’s account of the battle of 4 October 1189 is eyewitness, while Ibn al-Athīr’s is not, it is tempting to think that the latter’s anecdote about women fighting in this battle is a fanciful assertion based on ‘Imād al-Dīn's claim that women were sometimes found among the prisoners. The bitterly fought battle of 4 October 1189 could have seemed to Ibn al-Athīr to have been a reasonable occasion for this to have occurred. In the same way, Ibn al-Athīr’s anecdote about the European queen who was captured near Alexandria seems to be a combination of half-remembered stories in ‘Imād al-Dīn’s history: his story about the European Christian noblewoman who came to the siege of Acre and led her troops into battle, and his account of the capture on 17 October 1190 outside Acre of two crusader ships with all those on board, including ‘a woman of high birth, rich and very respected’. As the capture of this European queen is not mentioned by ‘Imād al-Dīn nor by Bahā’ al-Dīn, nor by any European source, it is probably an invention.
A problem with all these Muslim accounts is that they are not supported by any of the crusaders’ own writings. Probably all these stories are untrue. In both European Christian and Muslim culture, it was expected that good, virtuous women would not normally fight, because in a civilised, godly society women should not have to fight. Conversely, women were regarded as being particularly susceptible to evil. Therefore Christian writers would not record women fighting in the crusading army, because this would discredit the crusaders – who had to appear as godfearing in all their actions. On the other hand, Muslims would gladly depict Christians as allowing their women to fight, as this would show that they were barbarous, degenerate people.
The Muslims believed that European Christians were careless in guarding the virtue of their womenfolk, and this demonstrated their essential barbarity. The Muslim nobleman Usāma ibn Munqidh, writing in the late twelfth century, described in shocked tones how a European Christian in Palestine would leave his wife alone in the street, talking with another man, or allow a male barber to shave his wife, and would not be excessively distressed to find a strange man in his wife’s bed. He described the courage of certain Muslim women in the face of attack, showing that Muslim women were prepared to fight or to assist Muslim warriors in defence of home and family; but they did not go out on campaign, and he regarded such women as exceptional.
‘Imād al-Dīn laid particular stress on the sufferings of Christian women during the Holy War, as if implying that these women’s sufferings revealed the utter failure 16 of Christianity: the Christians could not even protect their women, who fell prey to the victorious Muslims. Even Christian castles became women who would fall before the victorious Muslims. The Hospitaller’s castle of Kaukab was ‘an inviolable woman, a maid who could not be asked for in marriage’; the captured castle of ashShughr was ‘a virgin fortress taken by force’. The sultan Saladin going to besiege the city of Jerusalem was like a lover going to ask Allah for the hand of the city in marriage; going to besiege the Templars’ fortress of Baghras he was like a lover going to beg for a woman to yield to him. The mangonels of the Christian besieging force which hurled rocks at the walls of the city of Acre as ‘pregnant women’, who gave birth to ‘the worst calamities’. In using such imagery he underlined the alien culture of the European Christians, their ‘otherness’, and the threat which they presented to Muslim normality, where the public sphere was male-dominated and women’s sphere of operation was strictly within the home.
So if these Muslim authors described crusader women fighting and the presence of women in the Christian forces only to underline the perverted fanaticism of the Christians, did any crusading women actually fight?
They may have done, because Christian women did sometimes fight in Europe. There has been considerable debate over the last three decades as to whether women did actually take part in warfare during the medieval period. The question remains undecided, but at present the best summary seems to be by Carolyne Larrington: ‘there is some historical evidence for women actually taking to the field themselves’… ‘women may never have fought as a matter of course, but writers throughout the period relished the depiction of fighting women.’
The fact that ‘fighting women’ made a good story, and the fact that medieval writers were influenced by various traditions and social expectations of women’s involvement in warfare, means that the narrative sources on the subject are very difficult to interpret. Women warriors in classical literature were invariably regarded as operating outside the proper scheme of things and were firmly returned to their place in society - usually by being killed by the hero. Thus in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book IX, the warrior Camilla is killed through the intervention of the god Apollo because she is a serious military threat to her male foes. However, among the ‘Germanic’ peoples whose government superseded the Roman Empire in the West, the women of the warrior class were expected to take an active role in warfare. They should support their menfolk in battle, lend them their resources, encourage them to fight and advise them wisely, and if necessary fight in place of their husbands/ father/ brothers/ sons if the menfolk were absent, killed or defeated.
In the twelfth-century Old French translation and adaptation of the Aeneid, Camilla dies not because she is acting beyond her proper role in society but because she commits the tactical error of pausing to take booty, thus laying herself open to surprise attack. Women fighting in medieval vernacular fictional literature were usually portrayed favourably, and were often used by the author to show the failings of the male characters. So, for example, in the thirteenth-century prose romance Le Roman de Laurin, the Lady Maligne dons armour, takes up weapons and defeats her enemy herself because her menfolk are too afraid to do so.
In the “Old French Crusade Cycle,” begun in the early twelfth century and repeatedly expanded and rewritten in the following centuries, Christian women acted as supporters of their men folk on the battlefield, while Muslim women appeared as intelligent and well educated, advising their men folk on the danger presented by the Christians. Muslim princesses were depicted in fiction as potential converts to Christianity, as authors assumed that women would see what they regarded as the essential truth of Christianity more readily than men, and then converted their men folk. This fictional image was perhaps reflected in the suggestion by the French writer Pierre Dubois, made in the early fourteenth century, that noble Christian girls could be married to Muslim princes in order to bring about their conversion to Christianity.
In real life, women landowners owed military service to their lord. They were not expected to serve in person, but should provide a substitute. A noble woman was responsible for the defence of her own estates, if they were threatened. Thus in the eleventh century Countess Matilda of Tuscany commanded her army against King Henry IV of Germany, and in the fifteenth century Christine de Pisan instructed noblewomen that they must learn military skills in order to defend their own property. Nicola de la Haye, hereditary castellan of Lincoln Castle, defended her fortress in 1191 and 1216-7.41 This was also the case in the Holy Land: in 1187, Lady Eschiva of Tiberias commanded the defence of her castle of Tiberias against Saladin’s besieging forces.
The noblewoman was also deemed to be responsible for defending her husband’s lands if he were unable to do so; and as the mother of an underage son, she was responsible for the defence of his inheritance. So Æthelflæd of Wessex (d. 918), wife of Æthelred, lord of Mercia, became ruler of the Mercians after her husband’s death (and possibly before he died), and initiated and led military activity. The de Braoses were powerful and influential lords of the Welsh March in the late twelfth century and early thirteenth. According to the writer of the Histoire des ducs de Normandie et les rois d’Angleterre, Matilda de Braose was a beautiful woman, very wise and doughty and very vigorous. People said nothing about her husband compared to what they said about her. She was responsible for keeping up the war against the Welsh and conquered much from them.
This certainly implies that Matilda fought in the field in person. Presumably her husband was at the king’s court while she was carrying on the war, as he was a close friend of King John. It is interesting that this commentator, writing in the early 1220s, saw nothing wrong in the noblewoman carrying on a war. In 1341 Jeanne of Flanders, countess of Montfort, rallied support for her infant son Jean, who was heir to Montfort and claimant to the county of Brittany. She not only gathered an army to fight Charles’s forces, but also armed herself and led a daring raid on the enemy. Yet despite this, her men would have surrendered Hennebont to the enemy behind her back if English help had not arrived.45 Following the death of Charles, his widow continued to promote her cause in Brittany. Froissart described the knights of the two commanders – Jeanne of Flanders and Jeanne of Brittany – as claiming to fight ‘for love of their ladies’, in chivalric fashion; but perhaps this was a joke, simply an excuse for a fight.
For women who were not landowners, warfare was not a duty, except insofar as a mother must protect her children, and a wife support her husband. Women were inevitably present in armies as the partners of warriors, but they were seldom noticed by chroniclers, except to be dismissed as ‘loose women’. But even these lower-class women were trusted to defend a fortress when their menfolk were elsewhere.48 Married or single women would be criticised for involvement in warfare when they were acting outside or against the authority of husband or father. Yet male pride and social norms demanded that when men were present they should perform the active martial roles. There were sound reasons for this: as women’s prime social function was the production and care of children, their bodies should not be risked in the heavy physical exertion of warfare. There was also the fact that the men were likely to be distracted by having women in the front line, and spend more time trying to protect the women than fighting the enemy. In addition, the presence of women in the military camp could lead to rivalry and arguments among the men. As a result, a military commander would prefer to limit women’s presence in an army to a minimum.
I described earlier how Muslim writers depicted the European Christian women as warriors to underline the otherness of Christians. European Christian writers mentioned women fighting and defeating their enemies to emphasise the rightness of their cause. According to the author of the Chanson de la croisade albigeois, who opposed the Albigensian crusade, women brought about the death of the leader of the crusade, Simon de Montfort (25 June 1218). He was besieging the city of Toulouse when he was killed by a stone hurled by a catapult operated by ladies, girls and married women. So De Montfort’s actions were so abhorrent to God that He permitted weak and feeble women to kill him – a shameful death for such a renowned warrior.
The Catalan writer Ramon Muntaner, writing in the early fourteenth century, recorded an incident during the French crusade against Aragon in 1285 (Philip III's campaign in Aragon had been approved as a crusade by the pope because the Aragonese had helped the Sicilians rebel against their French king). Na Mercadera, a woman of Peralada in Aragon, went out of her house armed with a lance and shield so that she could defend herself if necessary against the French crusaders, who were besieging the town. She encountered a French knight, whom she captured. Again, clearly God supported the Catalans, for even their weak women could defeat the supposedly superior French knights Anthony Luttrell has noted that ‘in 1350 an English woman pilgrim was reputed, presumably with considerable exaggeration, single-handedly to have killed more than a thousand Turkish captives at Rhodes’. The event was recorded by the traveller Ludolph von Sudheim, who admitted that that story was only rumour. Still, it demonstrated the power of even weak Christian women over their Muslim enemies. A Greek woman was reported to have died as a martyr fighting at Rhodes against the Turks in the siege of 1522: she was apparently the partner of a Hospitaller officer. Neither of these women were crusaders in the modern sense, but their heroism against the Turks demonstrated God’s support for their cause.
On 14 June 1419 the people of Prague, including many women, held off a fierce attack by the army of King Sigismund, king of Hungary and heir to Bohemia. Prague had declared for the Hussite heresy; Sigismund and his army had come to enforce orthodox Roman Catholicism. A Czech contemporary takes up the story: They strongly attacked the … wooden bulwark. They succeeded in crossing the moat, and they took the old watchtower on top of the vineyards. And when they tried to scale the all erected from earth and stone, two women and one girl together with about 26 men who still held the bulwark defended themselves manfully, hurling stones and lances, for they had neither arrows nor guns. And one of the two women, though she was without armour, surpassed in spirit all men, as she did not want to yield one step. Before Antichrist, so she said, no faithful Christian must ever retreat! And thus, fighting with supreme courage, she was killed and gave up her spirit.54 A German writer mentioned the capture of 156 Hussite women, in men’s clothes and armed.
This was a crucial day in the formation of the Czech nation: it was the battle which saved Prague, and the Hussite faith, from German and Hungarian invasion. For the Czech writer, the presence of courageous women among the fighters underlined the rightness of the Czech cause. For the Germans, the presence of women dressed and armed as men among the enemy’s forces demonstrated their otherness.
Clearly women in Europe did take up arms sometimes, in certain circumstances, in cases of dire necessity. The crusade was arguably for the greatest necessity of all; the defence of Christendom and the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre from the infidel. What was more, chroniclers made approving mention of women who used weapons against bad or misguided crusaders in Europe. So is there any reason why women should not have fought on crusades in the Holy Land?
Some of the Muslim writers’ stories must be fiction. European chroniclers were happy to record the deeds of women who had fought in a crisis to defend their menfolk or to shame their menfolk into fighting. But they did not mention women on crusade fighting in the field against Muslims. Perhaps ‘Imâd al-Dîn had heard that European noblewomen did sometimes lead their troops into battle in Europe; and he inserted his story of women disguised as warriors to underline the strangeness, barbarity and ungodliness of the European Christians.
Again, when crusades failed, one of the obvious accusations against the crusading army was that women had been involved who tempted the crusaders to sin, so bringing God’s wrath down on them. The chroniclers of the First Crusade had made this complaint against women in the crusading armies, and some commentators on the Second Crusade had also blamed the failure of that crusade on the misconduct of the women. But none of these writers accused the women of going so far beyond accepted norms that they fought on the battlefield. During the Third Crusade, the author of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum stated that although women supported the crusade and encouraged their menfolk to go, they did not go themselves; later writers on that crusade insisted that all the women were left behind in Acre in August 1191, whereas Bahâ’ al-Dîn’s account shows that this was not the case. Any women who were mentioned by Christian writers on the Third Crusade had to be respectably married women. In later crusades, ordinary women were mentioned only in support roles.
Did women on the ‘other side’ fight?
Finally, one Muslim noblewoman did command military forces against crusaders, although she did not fight herself. Shajar al-Durr (d. 1257) was originally a Turkish slave and from 1240 concubine of al- . She became the sultan’s favourite and was promoted to being his wife. The couple had one son, Khalīl, who died young. Shajar or Shajarat al-Durr’s period of power and fame came after her husband’s death, when she played a role in bringing about the end of Ayyūbid power in Egypt and the rise of the Mamluks. In November 1249, while King Louis IX of France’s first crusade was attacking Egypt, Sultan al- alMaqrīzī, writing nearly two centuries later, Shajar al-Durr called together the emir Fakhr al-Dīn ibn Shaykh al Shuyūkh, commander of her late husband’s armies, and Djamāl alkeep the death a secret, for fear of demoralizing the Muslims and encouraging the invaders. The three worked together to keep the government going until the heir, alMalik al- -Shāh Ghiyath al- (now Hasankeyf in south-eastern Turkey). Shajar persuaded the emirs and government officials to swear to acknowledge Tūrān-Shāh as heir. The people suspected that the sultan was in fact dead and that Fakhr al-Dīn intended to seize the throne, but Shajar continued to act as if he were still alive and told everyone that he was ill and could not see anyone.
The crusaders, who had already captured the important port of Damietta, heard rumors of the sultan’s death and advanced towards Cairo. Fakhr al-Dīn led the Muslim defense. After a series of battles, the crusaders were defeated at Man and forced to withdraw (8 February 1250), but Fakhr al-Dīn himself was killed. Shajar al-Durr continued to conduct affairs of state in the name of her dead husband until Tūrān-Shāh arrived at Cairo and was proclaimed sultan. The crusaders, meanwhile, began to retreat, but were surrounded by Muslim troops and forced to surrender. Many were executed--the leaders, including King Louis himself, were held for ransom. Having dealt with this danger, Tūrān-Shāh demanded that Shajar al-Durr hand over the dead sultan’s treasure to him. Shajar al-Durr denied having the treasure and appealed to her late husband’s mamluks for aid. These were a crack fighting force of Turkish Muslims who were originally slaves but who had been trained by the sultan to be his personal elite troops and who had been rewarded with lands and rights. They murdered Tūrān-Shāh, and made Shajar al-Durr sultana. Ruling in her own name, Shajar negotiated with the captive King Louis IX and with his wife Queen Margaret, who was defending Damietta, for the surrender of Damietta and the release of King Louis and his fellow crusaders on payment of a ransom. Louis and his army left Egypt. However, the Syrian emirs would not acknowledge Shajar al-Durr as ruler of Egypt and threatened to invade Egypt, so the Mamluks appointed a military commander to rule jointly with Shajar, and she then abdicated.
As with the Christian women who were involved in crusades, Shajar came into the public sphere only because she was acting on behalf of her late husband, and her authority lasted only until a replacement was found.
Overall, clearly women did take part in crusades, but their involvement was generally in traditional women’s support roles: diplomacy, health and hygiene, bringing water for those fighting, helping to build siege works, encouraging their menfolk. Wealthy women organised their own expeditions, hired fighting men and paid for the construction of fortifications. Noblewomen commanded the defence of fortresses; royal women, such as Queen Margaret of France and Shajar al-Durr, took command when their husbands could no longer act as commander. However, as no European Christian sources, not even those critical of the crusaders, mention Christian women fighting on the battlefield during crusades, it seems unlikely that women ever played a prominent role in the fighting. The Muslim writers who claimed that female crusaders fought, did so to demonstrate the Christians’ barbarity. Probably crusading women fought on foot only in emergency situations, as when the Muslims broke into the Christian camp, and they never fought on horseback in the battlefield.