Medieval(ish) matters 11: Did women fight in the crusades? And why did people follow a goose to the Holy Land?
HistoryExtra content director David Musgrove chats to Dr Natasha Hodgson about the experience of women in the crusades
Like the Norman Conquest, which I blogged about last week, the crusades were not solely a masculine affair. Dr Natasha Hodgson of Nottingham Trent University, who I interviewed before Covid-19 hit us, for the HistoryExtra podcast, has studied the women’s experience of the crusades.
Firstly, I asked her to outline how women were actually involved in the crusades:
“I've tried to think about this in terms of four different groups of women. First, those women who do actually go on crusade. We know less about them than we do the men, but we can trace at least 91 individuals who take the cross during this period of 1095–1291. And on top of that, large numbers of women are also mentioned en masse by chroniclers, although some of those accounts might be a bit questionable.
We can trace at least 91 individuals who take the cross during this period of 1095-1291
“Secondly, we have those women who are present in the settler society in the Latin east. So the ones who either come out with the crusaders, or who crusaders marry and develop family relationships with and settle with in the east. They have a role in providing continuity out in the new settler society. And their lives are often affected by new crusades coming out, marrying into new groups of crusaders, that kind of thing.
“And then thirdly, we have the women back at home whose lives are also significantly affected by this large portion of the male population disappearing off on crusade. And whether that involves supporting them financially or whether that involves taking on more traditional male roles while men were away, those are all different ways in which women's lives were affected. And, of course, there are the ones who are victims of crusading activity as well. So there's lots of different areas in which we can think about women's involvement in the crusades.”
Watch: Did women go on crusades? | 60-second history with Natasha Hodgson
Undeniably, the crusades were broadly a male affair, particularly when it came to the actual fighting. But what we do know of women’s place in these affairs is skewed by the concerns and intent of the sources we have. As Dr Hodgson notes in her book Women, Crusading and the Holy Land in Historical Narrative (Boydell, 2007), the chroniclers of the crusades did not go out of their way to write women into the story.
“Authors of crusade narratives had two main reasons for avoiding the subject of women. First, a crusade expedition was by nature a military undertaking. Women were eclipsed by the martial feats of men that writers celebrated in their histories, and were customarily marginalised to the roles of onlooker or victim. Second, women were actively discouraged from crusading by the Church. According to Robert of Rheims, Pope Urban II considered female participants without proper guardianship to be ‘more hindrance than help, a burden rather than a benefit’, but he included the sick and aged amongst this group, so gender was not the only grounds for refusing permission.”
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The woman who followed a goose on crusade
Where women are recorded, it’s often in a negative perspective. Take the example of a woman who followed a goose on crusade, because she believed it contained the Holy Spirit. Dr Hodgson explains:
“This is a story that crops up in two of the sources for the first crusade. It’s a story about a woman of lower social status: you can't really get much lower down than looking after the geese. That's a pretty menial task. Albert of Aachen tells us that a group of people follow a woman who's following a goose. And he calls them stupid and insanely irresponsible. So he's being quite critical and sees this as a foolish endeavour.
"Guibert of Nogent, who also talks about this, gives us a bit more information. He tells us that the goose actually is following the woman – and they thought it to be imbued with the Holy Spirit. It gets all the way to the altar of the church at Cambrai. People kind of treat it with reverence and then they get to Lorraine and the goose dies. And Guibert says, ‘well, it would have got Jerusalem quicker if the woman had cooked and ate it.’ So I think in both cases, it's an example of the sorts of people they don't want on crusade.”
So, the sources we have to rely on don’t necessarily put the most positive light on women’s role in the story, but when women are doing male work, in other words fighting, they are allowed more of a place in the story.
Dr Hodgson says: “Again, sources are a little bit untrustworthy when it comes to this. Certainly, the Western source do not really want to highlight women in fighting roles, because they're coming from an ecclesiastical official perspective. These texts are being circulated to tell the story of crusading and inspire others in the West to take up the cross. So they don't necessarily want lots of stories about women fighting. But what we do get is women fighting in extremis; women who are, for example, defending the camp at the siege of Damietta during the Fifth Crusade. They repulse an enemy attack because they are the only ones left defending the camp. In emergency circumstances, it's okay.
Listen: Natasha Hodgson explores women’s involvement in the medieval campaigns fought in the Holy Land
“Usually when women are described as doing that, we are told that they are taking on masculine roles, so they're described almost as being like men when they do it. There's one interesting example from a Western perspective of women at the siege of Acre on the Third Crusade. When an enemy ship is captured, we're told that the women put them to death using knives instead of swords. And this is seen to be a shameful and painful death because women don't have the strength to do this effectively.
“The only ones really that we have about women fighting in the crusader army come from an Islamic perspective. And again, a source like, for example, Imad ad-Din for the Third Crusade tells us that there were Frankish women wearing armour on the battlefield and they didn't even know they were women until they stripped the dead. But that comes just after a big, long story about how an entire ship of prostitutes came over to support the crusade with lots of very graphic descriptions about all the lascivious talents of said prostitutes. So whether we can trust that source or whether it's telling us more about what they thought of the Franks and their morality, that the way in which they allowed women to behave, is also open to question.”
Although it’s unlikely that women acted as warriors on crusades, there is one famous example of a women fighting: Margaret of Beverley.
“She is one of the more fascinating characters on crusade, I think, and more so because she's not precisely a noble woman, though she must have had independent means. She's sometimes called Margaret of Beverley, sometimes called Margaret of Jerusalem. She was born in the Holy Land while her parents were on pilgrimage there sometime in the mid-12th century. Then they come back to Beverley in Yorkshire, just north of Hull, and she grows up there. She has a younger brother, Thomas, who ends up in the circle of Thomas of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. And her brother goes into exile with Thomas Beckett in France and ends up in the monastery of Froidmont. It seems that once he is out of the picture, she is freed up in later life to return to the land of her birth. So she goes back to Jerusalem. She arrives just in time for Saladin to besiege the city in 1187, and she fights on the walls of Jerusalem,” notes Dr Hodgson.
“So here is one example of potentially a woman fighting. But what we're told is that she carries water to the troops on the walls. She wears a cooking pot on her head as a helmet and she throws weapons at the enemy. So she's not in an official capacity. But again, in extremis, she's trying to fight. She gets wounded by a millstone which is thrown onto the walls; she gets shrapnel in her leg from it. Then following Saladin's capture of the city, she is one of the lucky few who has enough money to buy her way out of captivity, but soon afterwards, is then taken into captivity again and spends 15 months as a slave doing hard labour. She manages to get bought out of slavery, continues during various pilgrimages around the Holy Land, and has another brief period of slavery. Following all of those adventures, she travels home with the third crusaders after having been allowed to visit the holy places by Saladin. Then [back in Europe], she goes on yet more pilgrimages.”
Listen: Rebecca Rist responds to listener queries and popular search enquiries about the medieval Christian campaigns in the Middle East
Margaret of Beverley’s life is certainly one of the more colourful ones that we have recorded about women’s role in the crusades, but it’s an outlier, because, as Dr Hodgson notes in the book I cited above, “As non-combatants, women, along with the old, the infirm and children, were often criticised for causing logistical problems, using up supplies and slowing the pace of crusading armies, but they also fulfilled practical functions. They helped with manual tasks such as clearing rubble and filling in ditches.”
As Dr Hodgson has pointed out, though, women’s involvement in the crusades stretched well beyond the fighting and campaigns, not only as settlers in the Crusader kingdoms, but also back in the Latin west, running estates and keeping things going in the absence of the warriors and their followers. You’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out more about them.
David Musgrove is content director at HistoryExtra. He tweets @DJMusgrove. Read the latest in his medieval matters blog series here
- Natasha Hodgson Gender and the Crusades (Forthcoming - Routledge, 2021)
- BBC Radio 4 In Our Time Podcast “Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem” Nov 2019