Women of the Cross

THOUGH HISTORIANS HAVE FIXED the crusading knight firmly in the public mind, it is less easy to picture the women who went along on these ventures. Women followed the pilgrimage routes of medieval Europe as avidly as men. Women suffered while on ordinary pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and they could hardly expect lighter treatment on the Crusades. And yet they went.

well-known ladies accompanied their husbands on these dangerous journeys—for example, the wives of Baldwin of Boulogne and Raymond of Toulouse, leaders in the First Crusade, and the wife of Richard the Lion-Heart, who married him in the course of the Third Crusade.

Most of the women who accompanied the crusaders, though, were the wives of ordinary pilgrim-warriors. Sometimes the proportion of women must have been relatively high, considering the dangerous nature of the expeditions. On the First Crusade, the armies were held up at Antioch when a pestilence struck: it was reported, incredibly, that “nearly fifty thousand” women died within a few days. Even though medieval statistics are untrustworthy, the writer is clearly saying that a great many women died.

Whenever a fight was in the offing, women and other noncombatants (the clergy, the sick, the old, and children) were usually herded together in some secure position while the infantry, knights, and their leaders formed up for action. But there were bound to be fatalities.

As a prelude to the First Crusade, Peter the Hermit’s band was wiped out just beyond Constantinople, in the course of which the Turks invaded the base-camp of the Christians: “And going within the tents, they destroyed with the sword whomever they found, the weak and the feeble, clerics, monks, old women, nursing children, persons of every age. But they led away young girls whose face and form was pleasing in their eyes, and beardless youths of comely countenance.”

On Active Duty

Women sometimes took a more active part in the fighting. This might be as elementary as bringing water to the fighting men, as the women of Bohemond’s camp did at a skirmish beyond Nicea and at the siege of Jerusalem. At Damietta, during the so-called Fifth Crusade in the early thirteenth century, they brought water, wine, and bread, as well as stones to use as projectiles.

One woman was helping to fill a moat at Acre during the Third Crusade. After depositing the load she had been carrying, she was shot with an arrow. While she lay dying she asked her husband to use her own body to help fill up the moat, which was done. “No man” wrote a contemporary, “ever should forget such [a] woman.”

There are also reports of women actually taking up arms and fighting alongside the men. As William of Tyre claimed, women fought at Jerusalem in the First Crusade regardless of their “natural weakness.” During the Third Crusade actions at the city of Acre, three Frankish women “fought from horseback and were recognized as women only when captured and stripped of their armor.” [Muslim writer] Imad ad-Din claimed that among the Franks “there were indeed women who rode into battle with cuirasses and helmets, dressed in men’s clothes.”

Women occasionally participated in even more bloodthirsty activities: when a Turkish galley was taken, Christian women went on board, according to a contemporary, seized the captured Muslims by the hair, cut off their heads, and bore them back in triumph to the shore.

Margaret of Beverly was in Jerusalem while it was under attack by Saladin. She says she defended the city like a man, putting a cooking-pot on her head as a helmet and carrying water to the men on the walls; she was injured by fragments from a boulder big as a millstone fired by Saracen engines.

Sin in the Camp

Women served the crusading armies and pilgrims in yet other ways, much to the regret of Holy Mother Church. On the extended pilgrimage of a crusade, where women were scattered indiscriminately among armies larger than one usually saw on the battlefields of Europe, the risk of sin was great indeed.

In the midst of their troubles at Antioch during the First Crusade, army leaders and prelates decided that the troops had displeased the Lord by their dissipation. They therefore expelled the women from the camp.

After Acre was captured in 1191, the troops settled down in the city to enjoy “many damsels beautiful/ And with the wines and women they/ Caroused in vile and shameful way.” Consequently, to avoid God’s wrath for such behavior, when the army moved on, it was decreed that the loose women should stay behind in Acre.

On the Home Front

Of course, a great many women were left behind after those tearful farewells which the chroniclers and poets described so fondly. The fragile status of most women was made even more apparent when their men went off to battle the infidel.

For those wives who remained behind, the church guaranteed to protect them in their persons and property until their absent spouses should return. Even so, this protection was not always effective.

In the early thirteenth century, [a crusader named] John came back to his family and lands in Suffolk, only to find that during his absence in Jerusalem a certain Thomas had helped himself to thirty acres by the simple expedient of taking it from John’s wife, Matilda.

Some crusaders must have been thrown into states of outrage or depression when they heard scandalous rumors about their distant wives. During the Second Crusade, one party of Christians was taunted by Muslims shouting merrily from their city walls about “the many children who were going to be born at home while we were gone.”

The church tried to reduce the risk of adultery by requiring that both husband and wife must agree, and give mutual consent, to the man’s taking a crusading vow and departing for distant lands.

In canon law, the woman whose husband had died on crusade could remarry after the lapse of a year. If he were merely a prisoner of war, she had no right to remarry, no matter how long he remained in captivity. The difficulties began when there was uncertainty about the fate of a husband who was missing in action. After the mid-twelfth century, lawyers agreed that a woman should wait five years (an old Roman law) after her husband was missing.

Finally, sometimes the reappearance of a presumed-dead husband created complications. Palmerius, who was thought to have been killed, reappeared after several years’ captivity. His wife, Gilla, had remarried, and Palmerius brought an action to recover both wife and lands.

Gilla retorted that her first husband had died, and that the present claimant was an impostor since he could not play the harp like her Palmerius, or sing in French and Latin. On the claimant’s behalf his family maintained that he had the same bent finger, the same scar on his face, and the same two toes crossed in an unusual way, just as the original Palmerius had. Pope and cardinals pondered this case and then decided to let the second marriage stand. CH

By Ronald C. Finucane

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #40 in 1993]

Dr. Ronald C. Finucane is author of Soldiers of the Faith: Crusaders and Moslems at War (St. Martin’s Press, 1983), from which this article is abridged.
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