Women and the Crusades


When thinking about the Crusades, few people consider the dramatic effect on women in these unsettling times. At first women, as ill prepared as men, set off for the Holy Lands, eager to wash away their sins and receive special glory for their effort to free Jerusalem from Muslim control. After the bloody failures of the Crusaders in the fall of 1096, however, Pope Urban II decreed that henceforth no women, old people, nor children could take part in the Crusades. Despite Pope Urban’s ban, some women accompanied their husbands anyway. The best known adventurer was Queen Eleanor of Acquitaine.

Women who were left behind had to fend for themselves. The absence of a husband, son or guardian could be as long as ten years. Many men never returned. It is reported that in the second and third crusades perhaps 500,000 were lost, a significant drain on the male Christian population. Poignant evidence illustrates the emotional effect crusading men’s absence had on women. Two French troubadour songs speak to the depth of women’s loss:

“Her eyes welled up beside the fountain, and she sighed from the depths of her heart.
‘Jesus,’ she said, ‘King of the world, because of You my grief increases,
I am undone by your humiliation, for the best men of this whole world are going off to serve you’,
..Nothing matters now, for he has gone so far away.’”

(Troubadour Marcabru)
“Jerusalem, you do me a great wrong by taking from me that which I loved best.
Know this to be true: I’ll never love you, for this is the reason for my unhappiness...

Fair, sweet lover, how will you endure your great ache for me out on the salty sea,
When nothing that exists could ever tell the deep grief that has come into my heart?
When I think of your gentle, sparkling face that I used to kiss and caress,
It is a great miracle that I am not deranged....”

(Anonymous singer of women’s songs)

By the Second Crusade, experienced men-at-arms, mostly noble, were sought, leaving property and wealth to be administered and protected by women. Raids on property were common throughout this period and women often were called upon to defend their homes or castles. The words of Lady Alice Knyvet when faced with troops posed to take her castle probably reflected the motivations and actions of many who were forced into this militant role. “I will not leave possession of this castle to die therefore; and if you begin to break the peace or make war to get the place of me, I shall defend me. For rather I in such wish to die than to be slain when my husband cometh home, for he charged me to keep it.”

Such changing conditions gave some women greater power than they had had before. In times of constant warfare, women’s role in maintaining household stability was needed. Women who governed in their husband’s name engaged in legal transactions, directed the farming, collected monies in case of ransom, and brought up the children. Important female royal regencies rose when the king was away on crusade. One example was Blanche of Castile (1187-1251), queen of Louis VIII of France, who became regent while her crusader son, King Louis IX, took up arms in his “holy war.” On his departure in 1247, Louis IX told his accomplished mother: “I leave my three children for your wards. I leave this realm of France to you to govern it. Truly I know that they well guarded and it well governed be.” Blanche managed to suppress rebellions and actually extend the power of the French dynasty. In 1249 she completed the absorption of the Midi into the French state and made advantageous alliances. As a result, the kingdom of France more closely assumed the shape and appearance it has today.

The introduction of the more civilized customs of the East also may produced positive results for women. Among the nobility, at least, some of the harsher elements of Western European culture softened their treatment. The creation of the concept of the ideal, often unattainable, lady, fictionalized in knightly romances, can in part be traced to the years immediately following the first Crusade.

In the East, the effect of the Crusades on women was also evident. When the crusaders first occupied Jerusalem in 1099, women and children were among the thousands who were killed. Anna Comnena, daughter of the Byzantine emperor, documented the arrival of the “uneducated barbarians” who arrived from the West, supposedly to liberate Constantinople from the threat of Seljuk Muslim raids. Looting and raiding for supplies more often than not were the result of these “innumerable Frankish armies” which swept into Byzantine lands.

A few women who had access to power benefited. In 1249, Shagrat al-Durr mobilized the Egyptian Mamluk army to drive Frankish Crusaders out of the coastal town of Damietta. This helped her become, for a short time, the Sultan of Egypt. In the rich Christian states, which lasted almost 200 years, some queens of the Latin titular male nobility achieved the right to rule in their own name. One of the most fascinating was Queen Melisende, daughter of King Baldwin II of Jerusalem, who became a sovereign in 1131.

Some resources:

Meg Bogin, The Women Troubadours: Women Poets of the 12th Century, W.W. Norton, 1976.

Betty Millan, Monstrous Regiment: Women Rulers in Men’s Worlds, The Kensal Press, 1982.

The Romance of the Rose: Feminine Voices from Medieval France. CD by Heliotrope. Includes background and words
of songs. Koch International Classics, Koch International USA, Port Washington, NY. 1995.

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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