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The Role Women Played in the Crusades

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The Crusades, or the Holy War, were deemed as male-oriented. Males were appealed to by the popes to join the efforts and were the ones who advocated for the Crusades themselves. This raises the question, what were the roles of women in respect to the Crusades? Sarah B. Edgington, professor and former Senior Lecturer at Huntingdonshire Regional College, and Sarah Lambert, lecturer at Goldsmiths College, who edited Gendering the Crusades, discuss the various roles that women played during the crusades through a collection of essays. These essays vary from discussing laywomen that stayed at home, to Anna Comnena, the daughter of Alexius I, to even a few warrior women that fought in battle. The essays examined in Gendering the Crusades inform readers about the indirect, and sometimes direct, roles that allowed women to participate in the Crusades.

Keren Caspi-Reisfeld, a graduate student at Barl-Ilan University, Islam, wrote about two influential roles women played during the Crusades era. Those roles were as nurses and prostitutes. The first and most important role played by women during the Crusades was as a caregiver, or a nurse. Nurses would take care of the crusaders physical wounds and ailments, such as the taking away of lice from the soldiers’ heads. The women selected to be caregivers during the Crusades had to meet one qualification in order to participate. That qualification was unattractive looks. No prior medical knowledge was necessary, the only requirement was unattractiveness. This was done in order to not tempt and distract the soldiers from the purpose of the Crusades.

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Coincidently enough, the second most important role that women played were as prostitutes. Caspi-Reisfeld explains that prostitutes were not actively discouraged by the leadership as these women provided moral support to the soldiers in times of loss or victory. Allowing prostitutes contradicts the point of not allowing attractive nurses to join the Crusades. Those nurses would have distracted the soldiers, but prostitutes were allowed because they boost morale. This seems to be more of a self-gratifying reason than anything. The crusaders benefit with the presence of the prostitutes without having to mix work and play.

Constance M. Rousseau, professor of History at Providence College in Rhode Island, wrote about what the women who stayed at home endured during the Crusades. Rousseau spoke of the Church and the way they gathered soldiers to go on the Crusades. Pope Urban II urged people to join the crusade without singling out a single gender. However, women were not the primary focus of Crusade propaganda for the popes. In fact, women were scarcely mentioned, if at all directed, by the popes until Innocent III. Until Innocent III provided some sense of structure, women had no way to participate in the Crusades.

Innocent III, in his “encyclical Qui maior”, addressed the question of what women were to do to help in the crusade effort. He provided the means for women at home to indirectly participate in the crusades. Innocent “took both practical crusading goals and feminine enthusiasm into consideration” to outline what women were allowed, and not allowed, to do in preparation for the crusades. Women surrounded themselves around their church and the crusade ideal, as promoted by Innocent. Women that offered able bodied men and alms to the crusades would be forgiven by Innocent for not directly fighting. In turn, this gave women the purpose and drive in their involvement that they had been looking for. It is interesting to see that women were involved in the discussion of the crusades. Innocent III provided a purpose for women, instilling a drive for their further involvement. As a result of the Qui maior, women participated largely through “liturgical, devotional, penitential, and fiscal activities,” allowing them to benefit the Crusades.

However, women did not only stay at home and help the Crusade effort by donating money and praying. Some women participated in the Crusades directly through warfare. Caspi-Reisfeld wrote that women fought during the crusades, specifically the Third Crusade, alongside men and that “there were women killed in the fighting who ‘were not recognized as women until they had been stripped of their arms'”. These warrior women dressed like men and played active roles in sieges and invasions. They fought and died amongst men during battles. Overtime, the number of women fighting in the crusades decreased and eventually diminished.

Michael R. Evans, a lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University College, also believed that women took up arms during the Crusades. He wrote about Amazon women, the “archetype of female martial activity,” that would cut all ties with their femininity. Amazon woman would cut ties with their femininity through dressing like men, rejecting the roles of wife and mother, and even cutting off of their right breast to increase their skills on the bow. These women found themselves in battle alongside men as active participants. These women did not wish to follow the standard layout set for women at this time, making them extreme individuals, especially with the cutting off of a breast.

A main argument distinctively made by both Lambert and Edgington is that women were only talked about in relation to men. Lambert recognized that sources that distinguished between male and female did so with intent. Women were mentioned to emphasize the masculinity of the Crusades. If women were not mentioned, then there would be no male ideal without something to compare it to. Lambert’s assertion provides an explanation for the mention of women in texts. She supports said assertion with accounts from sources. One account in particular by Fulcher of Chartes described the reactions women held in regards to their husbands leaving on the crusades. This account describes the women as hysterical for her husband while he remains composed. Men are seen as masculine for not joining his wife in hysterics, instead he bravely takes up the cross and continues forward.

Through the Chanson d’ Antioche, an epic poem about the First Crusade, Edgington provides examples of women that had taken up the cross during that crusade. One example she provides is an account of them poem about a battalion of women that took up arms so that their husband’s would not die and leave them alone to deal with the struggles of life. Chanson d’ Antioche, written by Graindor de Douai, exaggerated the actions of women for entertainment value and to rouse the people into action in the crusades.

Gendering the Crusades contains more essays than the ones focused on above. Those essays were the most captivating and enlightening. The essays presented women in the crusades in a different manner, but they each seemed to have similarities. The women were shown as devoted to the crusades. They helped with the crusades however possible, be it through medical, sexual, or physical purposes. The most interesting idea in the collection of essays lied in the first essay. Lambert provided the idea that the only reason women were discussed was to present an opposite to men, such as how white is to black. Overall, Gendering the Crusades described how the crusades were gendered and the devotion the Christian and Muslim people had to the cause.

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