Crusading women

  • Themes: Books, crusades, History

Whether as companions, patrons, regents, warriors or writers, women played vital roles in the crusades of the medieval period.

Burial effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II at Abbey of Fontevraud, Loire, France.
Burial effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II at Abbey of Fontevraud, Loire, France. Credit: Jeanette Teare / Alamy Stock Photo

Women and the Crusades, Helen J. Nicholson, Oxford University Press, £25

The Crusading movement was an absolutely gargantuan enterprise, preoccupying a good chunk of Western Christendom’s attention between the late 11th century and the dawn of the modern era. Crusading campaigns took place on many frontiers, fighting against many different neighbouring societies, and, while Christendom’s crusading fervour waxed and waned over the years, these holy wars remained of the closest interest to people across the social spectrum.

In this fascinating new study Helen Nicholson reveals the sheer extent of the crusading movement through a comprehensive study exploring the lives of the women who supported, championed, or became caught up in these wars. Far from being consigned to the sidelines, she draws out the extent of women’s involvement, from the crusades’ early years in the 11th century all the way through to the early modern period. Whether as regents managing estates while the crusaders were away, or as pious crusading advocates leading prayers and processions, or as patrons plying money and lands into the Knights Templar, or as participants – even occasionally leaders – in the huge crusading armies setting out for the frontier, this work reveals the sheer scale of women’s engagement in the holy wars of this era.

Women and the Crusades is teeming with fascinating insights, which in turn reflect the considerable expertise in this field of Nicholson, professor of medieval history at Cardiff University. She demonstrates that while some pious women could set off independently for the distant Holy Land, most engaged with the crusading movement as part of a family group. Some wives accompanied their husbands on campaign; daughters or descendants might commemorate their fallen forebears; others steeped their children in their dynasty’s crusading traditions.

In almost all cases, the surviving sources tell us far more about women from aristocratic and royal backgrounds than about their less exalted neighbours – a common problem with the medieval period – but among some elite families Nicholson is able to trace women’s engagement with crusading across multiple generations, crusade-by-crusade. This is as impressive as it is illuminating and she draws upon a whole range of examples gathered from a wide range of sources including: legal texts, diplomatic documents, chronicles, artwork, monuments, as well as theological and other religious works. Many of these materials – especially the legal sources – are not well known even to professional historians and they help to identify some of the curious legal entanglements that could arise from crusading. We learn for example of a woman called Katherine, from the English diocese of York, who committed adultery with a knight called S. Constable. The allotted punishment was for S. Constable to promise to pay £100 for the support of the Holy Land if he ever sinned in this way again. We hear about Muriel, widow of Adam of Croxby, who became caught up in a complex legal case regarding her property, which hinged on the question of whether her crusader husband was still alive (which is what her adversary claimed) or dead (which she claimed, supported by two witnesses). Uncertainly about the fate of crusaders who departed never to return was a longstanding problem with powerful emotional, legal and jurisdictional implications; Church law adapted to this matter by decreeing that a woman should wait for a complete year before remarrying, once she came to believe that their husband was dead.

Many women actively joined marching crusading armies. Like many male participants, some would have had no choice – if their masters or families were going, then they were going too. Others clearly felt a strong spiritual urge to participate and, while Nicholson draws attention to the many challenges involved in understanding why people went on crusade, she supports the current scholarly consensus that the majority took the long road of the crusade out of a deep sense of piety.

Once on campaign, women played many roles in a crusading army. Sources frequently mention them bringing water, food or ammunition to frontline troops; one woman, Margaret of Beverley, helped to defend Jerusalem against Saladin’s besieging army in 1187 wearing a cauldron on her head as a makeshift helmet. A question that frequently arises here is the matter of whether or not women actually took part in combat, either as archers, siege engineers, or in the cut-and-thrust of the melee. Women and the Crusades draws attention to several examples where contemporary writers claimed that women directly engaged in combat although here – as elsewhere – Nicholson warns us to be careful about authors’ agendas and perspectives. For example, she notes that some Muslim writers describing female crusader combatants may have offered these portrayals to offer a demeaning image of their opponents’ lax morality, rather than necessarily reflecting reality. Her overall conclusion on this matter is that women only very rarely engaged actively in combat.

Many women suffered acutely during this period, either during crusading campaigns or in the wars of the Crusader States (territories set up by the first crusaders between 1097-1102 in the Eastern Mediterranean, which survived in some cases until 1291). During these years, women from many different cultures suffered either death or enslavement at the hands of the many armies engaged in these conflicts.

Women’s participation in crusading campaigns provoked many moral or even theological questions for lawyers, theologians and other commentators across the medieval and early modern periods. Some felt women should not participate directly in crusading at all and sought to block their active involvement; some saw women as essential participants. Some expressed concern that women – especially single women – might provoke lust and therefore sinful behaviour within a crusading army; many felt that women should travel with their husbands and remain sexually active because it was deemed to be good for the couple’s health. Clearly, although women engaged with the crusading movement in large numbers, aspects of their participation remained controversial in the eyes of the architects of crusading.

Much of Women and the Crusades concerns those who supported or participated in these campaigns, but Nicholson also discusses women from neighbouring cultures who either fought against – or conducted diplomacy with – the crusaders. These include Shajar al-Durr, widow of the Ayyubid sultan of Egypt, who galvanised resistance to the armies of the Seventh Crusade in the 1250s. There is also the Byzantine princess Anna Comnena who wrote a detailed account of her empire’s history covering much of the 11th and early 12th century, including a great deal of information on the First Crusade and its aftermath.

There is much that is impressive here. Women and the Crusades demonstrates a remarkable command of this topic, drawing out the sheer extent of women’s involvement in crusading in a study spanning many centuries and geographical regions. It includes an extremely rich assortment of case-studies, many of which are little known even to experts in this field. Always clearly and engaging written, this study represents a substantial advance in research on this topic.


Nicholas Morton