Women and the Crusades 
by Helen J. Nicholson.
Oxford, 287 pp., £25, February, 978 0 19 880672 1
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Few medieval enterprises​ have been as romanticised or as vilified as the Crusades. Aside from the bitter legacy of hate they left in the Middle East, they also wrought havoc in Europe. Departing crusaders routinely attacked Jews, giving them the options of slaughter or forced baptism (many preferred collective suicide). In the Fourth Crusade of 1202-4, the Venetians diverted the army from Egypt to sack Constantinople, while the Albigensian Crusade of 1209-29 devastated a flourishing Occitanian culture. But recent scholarship has revisited crusading from new perspectives, seeing in the movement not merely a long series of failed foreign wars, but a penitential practice that deeply shaped European Christendom and involved the whole of society, men and women alike. As they failed in their primary goals – to recapture territory and convert Muslims – the crusaders’ ideal evolved towards the purification of society through penance and imitation of Christ in his Passion, especially in the very lands where he suffered.

Helen Nicholson’s project in Women and the Crusades is to consider all dimensions of women’s participation, both on campaign and on the home front. She casts a very broad net. Like other recent historians, Nicholson redefines crusading to denote ‘any military expedition originated, authorised and organised by the papacy [or] any expedition which its participants depicted as a crusade … or any instance of penitential warfare, holy war which justified fighting in defence of the Christian faith with the expectation of spiritual reward’. By this definition, campaigns in Iberia, the Baltic, southern France, Ethiopia, Malta and Rhodes all qualify, whether the ‘enemy’ was Muslim, pagan or Cathar. So do abortive popular movements such as the so-called Children’s Crusade of 1212 and the Shepherds’ Crusades of 1251 and 1320.

Women frequently travelled on campaign with their menfolk. But female warriors were rare, not only because of conventional gender roles but because women lacked the specialised training and equipment of knights. Far more often they served in support roles: supplying food for crusaders, doing their laundry, tending the sick, and providing sexual services, sometimes as prostitutes but more commonly as wives and mistresses. Many also travelled as servants. Even for non-combatants, the dangers of such expeditions were very real. During the First Crusade in 1096-99, one of the few which actually achieved its military goal, the overall casualty rate was astonishing. Historians’ estimates range from 37 per cent (Jonathan Riley-Smith) to as high as 75 per cent (John France), with illness and starvation causing more deaths than combat. Women faced the additional hazard of pregnancy, which could be life-threatening at the best of times, and, like men, they could be taken captive. Despite the romance figure of the female knight whose opponents mistake her for a man, women who engaged in real combat probably did so at a distance. They might collect stones to use as ammunition, hurl missiles from a tower, or operate siege engines in default of men, but it’s hard to be certain because the sources are so fragmentary and seldom mention women other than the high nobility. Narrative reports can be deceiving: a ‘heroic’ female figure could be deployed as a rhetorical device to shame the enemy because death at the hands of a woman was considered humiliating.

There were exceptions. Urraca, queen of Castile between 1109 and 1126, is said to have led her own army against the Almoravids, capturing Sigüenza from them in 1124. She also fought other Christians, including her half-sister Teresa of Portugal. Eleanor of Aquitaine famously accompanied her first husband, Louis VII of France, on the Second Crusade and may have participated in negotiations between him and her uncle, Raymond of Antioch. Much later, as queen of England, she represented her son Richard I while he was on the Third Crusade. At a humbler rank, the Cistercian monk Thomas of Froidmont wrote a Life of his heroic sister, Margaret of Beverley. Having gone on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1187 while Saladin was besieging the city, Margaret assisted in its defence ‘like a fierce virago’, wearing a cauldron as a helmet as she carried water to defenders on the walls. Wounded in the assault, she displayed her scars long afterwards. When the city fell, she paid her own ransom and escaped, but was later captured and enslaved by Muslims, who forced her to do fifteen months of labour. Margaret was then ransomed again and travelled home via Acre, one of the last Christian strongholds, after many hair-raising adventures. An inveterate pilgrim, she stopped along the way to visit shrines in Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Finally she became a Cistercian nun in France, where she lived until at least 1210.

When Margaret was reunited with Thomas after so many years, he initially doubted her identity. This scenario was not uncommon, though normally it was a male crusader who returned after years in captivity, only to find that he was presumed dead and his wife had remarried. Crusaders were expected to make their wills before departing, but countless estates and even thrones were contested as a result of their long absence. Baldwin IX, count of Flanders and first Latin emperor of Constantinople, was captured by the Bulgarians in 1205 and presumably died in prison. Yet as late as 1225 an old man appeared in Flanders claiming to be him. Welcomed by a few nobles and the urban poor, who were desperate due to famine, the false Baldwin tried to overthrow his presumed daughter and successor, Countess Jeanne. He was eventually exposed as a fraud, but it took six more months and the aid of the French king before he was arrested and handed over to Jeanne, who had him pilloried and hanged. Even so, many of her people called her a parricide.

After the Third Crusade in 1189 failed to retake Jerusalem, there was a significant change in the crusading ideal. ‘Taking the cross’, or making a crusade vow, was initially the prerogative of knights alone, but 13th-century preachers encouraged everyone to make vows, including women, children, the poor, the old and the feeble. Such vows could then be commuted to cash payments to help fund the army. Many women proved to be energetic fundraisers; one even preached the crusade herself. The monk Caesarius of Heisterbach, a raconteur of devoutly entertaining tales, tells in his Dialogue on Miracles (c.1219-23) of one Master Theobald, a crusade preacher in Kaiserslautern. Heckled by a woman in the audience who mooed like a cow, Theobald decided that she must be possessed and had her demon interrogated. Abrianus (demons were generically male) said he had been sent to sow doubts about the preacher’s promised indulgences. But Theobald, by the power of the cross, commanded the demon to preach in his stead and even placed his stole around the woman’s neck. Though unwillingly, Abrianus preached with such power that eight hundred men came forward to take the cross. We may take such tales with a grain of salt, but demon preachers appear in other sources too. Known to us only by the name of her demonic persona, this woman may have used possession to gain a kind of authority that would otherwise have eluded her.

Crusading was a family affair, and aristocratic families participated in the movement over many generations. The historian Anne Lester cites the example of Mahaut (or Mathilda) of Courtenay (1188-1257), countess of Nevers, Auxerre and Tonnerre. Mahaut’s first husband, Hervé of Donzy, fought in both the Albigensian Crusade and the Fifth Crusade (1217-21). After his death, her second husband, Guy IV of Forez, participated in the Barons’ Crusade of 1239-41. Agnès of Donzy, a daughter from the first marriage, married another crusader. Their son, Gaucher of Saint-Pol, fought in the crusade of Louis IX alongside his brother-in-law. In the next generation, Mahaut II of Nevers married Eudes of Burgundy, who campaigned in yet another crusade in 1265-66. All six counts in this family tree died on crusade or soon after their return, over a period of less than fifty years. While noblewomen supported their husbands, brothers and sons, encouraging them to take the cross and uphold the family tradition, they must have done so with few illusions. They knew their farewells might be permanent. Self-sacrifice and penance characterised the ladies no less than their lords. It is small wonder that a new genre of crusader songs, chansons de départie, voiced the anxiety of parting and the heartbreak of absence. Henceforth the body must live without its heart, the lover without the beloved.

Women also played a major role in memorialising crusaders, commissioning tomb monuments as well as prayers for their souls. The Cistercian order had been linked to crusading for generations, ever since Bernard of Clairvaux promoted the Knights Templar in his treatise In Praise of the New Knighthood (1120s). As Lester has shown, many crusading families founded Cistercian nunneries for the sisters of knights. These could support the military effort with their prayers, house relics brought home by crusaders, and serve as family necropolises. Just as crusading was reconceived as an opportunity to do penance and suffer with Christ, the strictly ascetic nuns shared their brothers’ penitential spirituality.

In the diocese of Liège, an extensive hagiographic corpus allows us to chart the deep spiritual involvement of holy women with the crusading enterprise. Marie of Oignies, a devout woman who had separated from her husband to care for lepers, rejoiced when she learned through a vision in 1211 that some crusading knights in Languedoc had been killed. It was not that she sided with the enemy, but rather that she had seen the dead crusaders’ souls carried to heaven by angels – an account that her biographer, Jacques de Vitry, circulated as crusade propaganda. Similarly, a holy woman known (for good reason) as Christina the Astonishing exulted when Jerusalem fell to Saladin because many souls would be saved while fighting to recover it. Lutgard of Aywières, a Cistercian nun, undertook to fast for seven years on bread and beer to support the Albigensian Crusade. Alice of Schaerbeek, another Cistercian nun, lost both eyes to leprosy; she offered the left as a ‘fruit of penance’ for the success of Louis IX’s crusade.

The most popular literary genre of the age, chivalric romance, is shot through with allusions to crusading. After the Fourth Crusade, a flood of priceless relics looted from Constantinople made its way to the West, spurring still more intense devotion to the Passion and heightening the romance mystique of sacred, magical objects. One such relic was the Crown of Thorns (recently rescued from the fire at Notre-Dame), for which Louis IX paid more than he did for the entire Sainte-Chapelle built to house it. That relic has its double in romance. In the bloodthirsty Perlesvaus, from the early 13th century, a lady called the Queen of the Circle of Gold sets the crown in a reliquary of gold and precious stones, anticipating the French king, even though she is still a pagan. Eventually she crowns the hero Perceval with the precious circlet, presents herself for baptism, and further decrees that ‘all those who will not be baptised and believe in the New Law [shall] be killed with your sword.’ Perlesvaus was written by a knight, perhaps a traumatised combat veteran (to judge by his obsession with beheading and other gruesome forms of death), and his patron was the Flemish lord Jean de Nesle, a leader in the Fourth Crusade. Such romances represent a topsy-turvy, wish-fulfilment version of actual crusading. The lost Holy Land is transmuted into a mythic kingdom beyond the sea (often thematised as Britain), where heroic knights achieve victories by the help of God. Pagans – a euphemism for Muslims – are either slaughtered or converted en masse, whether by force, marriage or miracle. Women could figure as marriage prizes or, like the Queen of the Circle of Gold, as heroes in their own right.

Another romance heroine, Perceval’s unnamed sister, has a place among the companions of the Holy Grail. This was the ultimate relic: the chalice of the Last Supper, later used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood flowing from Christ’s wounds. It features in a long series of romances. In the French Quest of the Holy Grail, written in the early 13th century, Perceval’s sister sheds her virginal blood to heal a leprous lady, thus becoming a female counterpart of Christ. The dish that captures the blood is in turn a feminine analogue of the Grail. After she dies a virgin martyr, the Grail knights place her incorrupt body in a boat that sails of its own accord to the land of Sarras (a back-formation from ‘Saracens’), so she reaches the holy kingdom before any of them.

In both real life and romance, marriage alliances could appear as a path to conversion, ideally though not always peaceful. Interfaith marriage was more common in the Middle East and North Africa than in Europe, where it was frowned on. Such marriages didn’t always require one spouse to convert, but in Ethiopia noble families used interfaith marriage to forge alliances and the wife usually converted to her husband’s faith. The Muslim princess Eleni of Hadiyya (d. 1522) lost a battle over tribute with the Ethiopian king Zara Yaqob, resulting in her capture, forced conversion to Christianity and marriage to him. Though late in the period, Eleni incarnates one of the stock characters of romance, the beautiful Saracen princess who accepts baptism when she marries a Christian prince. In the Middle English King of Tars (c.1330), it’s the reverse: a Christian princess marries a sultan in order to end a war, but only pretends to convert and to worship his idols (popular writers had next to no understanding of Islam, which they took to be a brand of polytheism). When the princess gives birth to a child it is merely a shapeless lump of flesh, sparking a religious contest between the parents. The father’s prayers accomplish nothing, but as soon as the mother has the child baptised it is transformed into a healthy son. On seeing this miracle, the sultan opts for baptism as well, whereupon his dusky skin becomes white – an early (and unusual) example of racialised Christianity.

One of the most idealistic plans for women in the crusading project was developed by Pierre Dubois, an offbeat political writer, around 1306. In his treatise On the Recovery of the Holy Land, he proposed that the European properties of the crusading orders should be converted into schools where children of both sexes could learn Latin, Greek and Arabic. They would also study medicine and surgery, and the girls would then be adopted by Latin Christian princes to give them noble status. Thus groomed, their ultimate destiny was to marry Muslims or Eastern Orthodox priests and nobles, converting them all to Latin Christianity. The ability to practise women’s medicine would be their trump card, since women were commonly thought to avoid male doctors out of modesty. These highly educated wives could then urge their husbands to be make peace with Western Christians. Although Dubois’s plan was never implemented, its ambition typifies the resilience of the crusader ideal even after centuries of military defeat.

Hope springs eternal. As late as the 1370s, St Catherine of Siena was still pleading for a new crusade, begging popes and secular lords alike to raise the cross. She was inspired by an idea dating back to 1095, when Pope Urban II summoned the First Crusade: a fractious Europe could be pacified if only Christians would form a united front against the infidel. Writing to John Hawkwood – the most notorious of the condottieri – Catherine urged him to ‘march against the infidel dogs who possess our Holy Place’. If he took such pleasure in fighting, he should at least ‘not make war against Christians anymore’. That crusade never came to pass, and one can only guess what the grizzled old warrior made of these sentiments. But, for better or worse, we can no longer imagine crusading as an all-male venture.

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