Women in the Crusades

A Male Dominate Crusade

The image that is shown below is taken from the Morgan Picture Bible, also referred to as the Crusaders Bible. The bible illustrates scenes from the Old Testament as well as visualizations of daily life during thirteenth century France. The artist of the bible utilized images of contemporary crusades to illustrate the stories of the Old Testament. The incorporation of contemporary imagery allows for the analysis of the views and beliefs of individuals living during this period. When viewing the image, the lack of female representation is revealed. Although women played crucial roles in the organization, recruitment, and support of male crusaders, they were not incorporated into artwork that portrayed the crusades. Further proving the negative views towards women during this time period.

The Crusades

The crusades were first envisioned by Gregory VII in 1054. His goal for the movement was to take back the Holy Lands that had been in the hands of Muslim rule for centuries. It wasn’t until 1095 when Urban II made his vision a reality. Urban motivated prospective participants to be soldiers of Christ and their actions would receive spiritual reward. In Urban II’s proposal, described by Robert the Monk, he addresses women and the role they are allowed to play in the crusades. Urban pronounced “nor ought women to set out at all, without their husbands or brothers or legal guardians,” therefore limiting the role women were allowed to play during the Crusades. Due to the support Christian women provided during the Crusades, the expeditions were able to grow to the magnitude and acquire the financial assistance necessary for the papacy to gain further international authority. This also allowed for the growth of Christian piety due to the increased contact with holy lands. 

Views Toward Women

Society’s views toward women limited their acceptable action during the crusades to providing spiritual support, providing financial assistance as needed, and encouraging men to take part in the Crusades. Many crusade preachers illustrated women as holding back their brothers and husbands if they did not encourage them to take part in the crusades. Women were discouraged to take part in crusades because they were seen as a sexual threat to the spiritual purity of the expedition and were therefore seen as more of a hindrance than aid. Despite discouragement from Christian leaders, many women still joined the First crusaders as peaceful pilgrims. Women pilgrims performed many supportive tasks such as bringing water to warriors on the battlefield and basic hygiene and medical care for the male soldiers. They also undertook labouring tasks such as throwing missiles at the enemy and making arrows and bowstrings. As the crusades began to go poorly, the blame was placed on the women’s participation. They were accused of introducing sexual temptation and were forced to leave the camp by religious leaders. This action was referred to as a ceremonial cleansing intended to recover God’s approval for the expedition. It is important to note that during this ceremony, it is suspected that not all women were forced to leave but many historians argue that women of wealth and power may have stayed back with their husbands.

Women's Role During the Crusade

Although women’s role was limited by the religious and cultural expectations during this time period, they played an undeniable role in the magnitude and organization of the crusades. It is important to note when discussing the role of women during the crusades that modern historians are unable to understand the full extent of the role women played due to the lack of unbiased sources and a multitude of forced religious and political narratives. Even if women were incorporated into sources, their contributions were often distorted. Mystic and writer, Catherine of Siena, and several other women during this period, planned and organized separate crusades that included both men and women. When asking for the Pope’s permission, the excursions were denied. Although denied by the pope, many women, during the Third Crusade, disguised their gender and fought alongside the men. Their chainmail coats were able to hide their feminine characteristics and were not identified as women until they died and were stripped of their arms. Many Muslim writers identify women warriors and their bravery to fight in the crusade. There is disparity, however, in Christian writing due to the negative views toward women taking part in the crusades. Women were deemed as being particularly “susceptible to evil,” and being a “weaker sex.” A Christian writer would therefore have not been allowed to write about women soldiers in fear of humiliating the male Christian soldiers “for their need of women’s support.” Other women stayed home to run businesses and their households. Women also supported the Catholic Christian crusaders by taking part in religious military orders that were developed in and near the holy lands. Many women donated valuable sums of money, provided spiritual support through prayer, or worked as nurses at these establishments.

Famous Women During the Crusade 

Anna Comnena

The image to the left illustrates one of the first female historians Anna Comnena. Comnena was the daughter of the ruler of the Byzantine Empire, Alexius I Comnena, who ensured she had an excellent education. She was given the crown when she was young and expected to receive the kingdom once her father died. The birth of her brother changed her eligibility to take control over the kingdom. When she was 55, she retired to a monastery where she famously wrote, The Alexiad. She narrates the actions of her father, and focuses on the western crusades. Her narration of these events offers one of the only female perspectives during this time period.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

The image to the right illustrates Eleanor of Aquitaine and her husband Louis VII. The image creates a visual representation of the role women were expected to have. On the left hand side of the illustration, Louis VII is shown at his wedding with Eleanor and on the right hand side of the image, he is seen taking part in the crusade. The image only highlights Louis’ perspective and actions and disregards Eleanor’s participation in the crusades. When she was the Queen of France,  Eleanor of Aquitaine played an important diplomatic role in various lands where she lived, as well as accompanying her husband on the Second Crusade. By doing so, she became a major driving force behind the French activity in the Levant during this period. Despite her involvement in many of the successes, she is often blamed for being one of the reasons for the failure of the Second Crusades due to Louis VII being accused of sexual misbehavior. 


Link to Annotated Bibliography
Alexios Komnenos (son of John II). 12-13th century. Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alexios_Komnenos_(son_of_John_II).jpg
Caspi-Reisfeld, Keren. “Gendering the Crusades: Women Warriors During the Crusades.” Columbia University Press, 2002, pp. 94-105. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=K2ZPZziLRKcC&oi=fnd&pg=PA94&dq=women+in+the+crusades&ots=DnwkgfImAp&sig=SBsOcwuBMnrq0Uq82mf7_NzZTMg#v=onepage&q=women%20in%20the%20crusades&f=false
Comnena, Anna. “The Alexiad.” Internet History Sourcebooks, 2001, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/AnnaComnena-Alexiad.asp.
Les Chroniques de Saint-Denis. 14th century.Wikimedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleanor_of_Aquitaine#/media/File:Louis_vii_and_alienor.jpg
“Medieval Sourcebook: Urban II (1088-1099): Speech at Council of Clermont, 1095, Five Versions of the Speech.” Internet History Sourcebooks Project, 1997, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/urban2-5vers.asp
Nicholson, Helen J. "Women and the Crusades." Hereford Historical Association, 2008, pp.3. https://scholar.googleusercontent.com/scholar?q=cache:4VJngvL1z54J:scholar.google.com/+women+in+the+crusades&hl=en&as_sdt=0,6
Nicholson, Helen J. "The Crusader World: Women's Involvement in the Crusades." Routledge, 2016, pp. 1-35. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=g4q9CgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT78&dq=women+in+the+crusades&ots=CTpw13EwZF&sig=ZtXuzlCxlgPTAXPWe8Cty1ii8lg#v=onepage&q=women%20in%20the%20crusades&f=false
Special Collections, Morgan Bible. 13th Century. Special Collections https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Old_Testament_miniatures_with_Latin,_Persian,_and_Judeo-Persian_inscriptions_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
González Justo L. The Story of Christianity. HarperOne, 2010. 
Voelkle, William M. “The Crusader Bible.” The Morgan Library & Museum, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, 5 Dec. 2018,  www.themorgan.org/collection/Crusader-Bible. 
Barrett, Tracy. “Anna Comnena.” Female Hero: Anna Comnena (Women in World History Curriculum), 1999, www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine5.html.