While medieval chroniclers acknowledged the roles of women during the crusades, their accounts – when viewed today – are not necessarily revolutionary depictions of femininity. Chroniclers, to appease the Church’s canon law, represented crusade participants in terms of their stereotyped gender roles.
Men were depicted as strong and valiant warriors expected on pilgrimages and the battlefield; and women were weak and powerless peacekeepers who remained at home or worked in the city. However, these historical accounts also demonstrate that these expectations were sometimes defied by women. One, by Thomas of Froidment, wrote with astonishment that his sister Margaret of Beverley was on the battlefield “feigning to be a man, like tufa pretending to be sapphire.”
In this case, one must ask: was this really “feigning” or did women, during the crusades of the central and late Middle Ages, in fact defy stereotypical gender roles? By interpreting particular historical accounts of the crusades, this is what I will set out to answer. In so doing, I must explore the complications and complexities of this question in order to determine the extent to which women’s roles mixed with the more “manly” ones of the crusader movement.
The limitation to answering this question is that the accounts of the crusades were written by men. In other words, what is documented of women during the crusades is challenged by male ideals and behavioral patterns. Through this male gaze, women, “overcome by their emotions [...] and fearing the final loss of their menfolk” are unfavorably compared to the heroism of Christian male warriors – “pious soldiers who mastered the breakup of their emotional ties with their loved ones [for] a higher commitment to the cause of the crusade.”
Women were seen as a weak, inferior sex who – when they hit the battlefield – were not challenging the stereotypes of women but just trying to fit in with males. There was no ideal female crusader; women warriors were not seen as “real” women, but almost these pseudo-males. Their gender was only acknowledged when they performed ancillary tasks enabling their male co-crusaders to fulfill their own roles as soldiers.
Therefore, it would (perhaps ostensibly) seem the only thing similar among men and women during the crusades was their individual mission: to engage in “a personal act of service and devotion to God [...] and the salvation of his or her soul.” This is not to say women’s roles were completely disassociated with men’s. Medieval warfare, up until at least the 14th century, was based on feudal structures and so both sexes found themselves working in close quarters. Military matters, such as recruitment and training, usually occurred within the context of household and family.
Military units consisted of a small group of vassal warriors bounded by fealty to their lord. Since women were forbidden entry into military schools, they participated in the training on the estates with young boys and vassals. When the lord was absent, the wife or daughter would protect the land with the vassal warriors.
Some women, with their husband’s permission, even went on crusades themselves. For example, Orderic Vitalis wrote of an 11th-century noblewoman named Isabel of Conches, who went on the battlefields and “rode armed as a knight among the knights, and she showed no less courage among the knights in hauberks and sergeants-at-arms than did the maid Camilla, the pride of Italy, among the troops of Turnus.”
Therefore, it was this domestic organization of warfare that changed women’s typical obligations and allowed them to train for the crusades and head to the battlefield. But it was rare when chroniclers would report of women joining the invading forces as armed fighters. Medieval chronicler William of Tyre observed at the Fatima siege of Jaffa, in 1123, that women simply brought water and ammunition (stones) to the male soldiers, or provided their sexual services to raise the morale despite victory or failure.
Theologian Oliver Paderborn and medieval chronicler Jean de Joinville also mentioned of women who “sold provisions” and, when routed by the Turks, “raised cry for alarm” (98). We see here women depicted as submissive, weak, and, above all, subservient to the men – their roles useful but nonetheless “womanly”. Although women were training on estates, this accomplishment is hardly recognized.
Even on the battlefield, women are depicted according to their stereotypical gender behaviour – helpful yet fragile supplicants to the war effort. On the other hand, some chronicles report of women who started to take arms in invading forces, “stepping out of conventional female roles, becoming female crusaders in what started out as an all-male venture.”
But many chroniclers did not embrace this deviation from normal gender behaviour because it defied the Church, humiliated male Christian warriors, and was “forgetful of their [women’s] true selves.” Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus claimed in his work History of the Danes that, in 1200, women were “putting toughness before allure, aimed at conflicts instead of kisses, tasted blood, sought the clash of arms rather than the arm’s embrace.”
This shows that female participants in the crusades were mostly frowned upon by chroniclers devoted to the notion that crusading was a man’s activity. Even if the women were challenging their stereotypical gender roles, this was depicted as unnatural and forced – what Grammaticus coarsely called “unsexing” themselves.
But some chroniclers were more enthusiastic. They were astonished by the fact women, like men, were using swords and knives, and embodying a rather uncharacteristic savageness. One wrote about a naval battle in 1190, in which women “pulled the Turks along by the hair, treated them dishonorably, humiliatingly cutting their throats; and finally beheaded them. The women’s physical weakness prolonged the pain of death, because they cut their heads off with knives instead of swords.”
Interestingly, this writer uses the women’s stereotypical physical weakness as a way to praise their ability to use weapons to skillfully perform a vicious task. However, it is difficult to associate this unusual female act of brute force with those of the men, because chroniclers only gave this type of praise to the women when it served to glorify the crusaders, that is the male warriors.
In this case, the women’s fearless actions represent more of a collective, predominantly male triumph. Still, there is no denying that women contributed to the crusade war effort and the victories of certain battles. What remains, however, is the chronicler’s tendency to evade the idea that women’s roles during the crusades sometimes mixed with the men’s. Only such recognition was given when it would deflect on the greater cause of that “all-male venture”.
Thus, there are two forces working against each other here: first is the chroniclers’ refusal to acknowledge the positive integration of women’s roles with men’s; the second is, judging by the accounts previously given, that this integration was very much prevalent.
Why crusade chroniclers were so ambivalent to mix gender roles may lend to the fact that this time, especially during the late Middle Ages, were not interested in complicating gender roles because there was a “growing desire for role definition found at many levels of western European society at this time, a desire provoked by the rapid economic and social changed of the period.”
This attitude dominates the writings of crusade chroniclers; although female warriors are accounted for in these writings, they are only viewed in comparison to stereotypical men, not as their own unconventional women. Therefore, these historical accounts, arguably, sought distinctive gender boundaries even if the reality of the crusades proved to the contrary.
Whether women’s roles intertwined with the more manly ones of the crusader movement or not is an engaging inquiry that, with the historical records presented, is full of complexities and is thus difficult to answer. It is perhaps true that women on the battlefield were simply “feigning to be men”, but their ancillary duties at home, on the battlefield, or in the city were considered invaluable (and, above all, womanly) contributions to the crusades.
While chroniclers of that medieval era are limited since they are written through a biased male gaze, they still show women deviating from their standard gender roles. The underlying problem is that the time itself was perhaps not ready for such a transgressive action. For now, it seemed the tufa had to keep pretending to be sapphire.