A Woman’s Role

Woman spinning

The women who lived during the Crusades were faced with many
challenges and opportunities. Although the society of the time was
patriarchal, it is a serious misconception to think of the medieval
woman of this era as the “Lady in the Tower” remote from the affairs
of everyday life. An expanding economy coupled with the large number
of wartime casualties and absence of men in the East allowed women to
assume many more roles than earlier medieval domestic options.

Women Crusaders

Several women from both East and West played prominent roles in
the Great Crusades. Anna Comnena (1083-1153), a daughter of the
Alexis I, wrote the history of her family, the Alexiad after she
failed in a coup to put her husband on the Byzantium throne instead
of her brother; she depicted the knights of the first crusades not as
saviors but as looters who turned greedy eyes to the gold, enamel,
and art work of Byzantium.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, (1120-1204) took the cross with her first
husband Louis VII of France and scandalized Europe by leading 300 of
her women dressed as amazons and a thousand of her knights from her
duchy in the armies of the Second Crusade. Even though she insisted
that the women went along to “tend the wounded,” Eleanor insisted on
taking part in strategy sessions and sided with her uncle Raymond of
Antioch instead of her husband Louis on the question of whether to
attack Jerusalem. Louis settled the argument by insisting that she
accompany him to Jerusalem. The King and Queen of France went home on
separate ships, and back in Europe after she gave birth to a
daughter, Eleanor insisted on a divorce and married Henry II of

During the third crusade, Shagrat al-Durr (d. 1259) wife of the
Egyptian sultan, organized the defense of the realm during her
husband’s illness, became sultan due to the support of the army on
his death, and defeated Louis IX, King of France at Damietta. Her
overlord the Caliph of Baghdad refused to let a woman ascend the
throne and sent a Marmalul solider, Aibak, to take her place. Shagrat
then seduced and married Aibak and ruled happily with him until he
wanted to take another wife. Shagrat had him murdered, but is killed
herself by Aibak’s son and former wife.

The paladins who created the Frankish Kingdoms of the East after
the First Crusade intermarried with the women of the East,
particularly Armenian Christians. One of the children of these unions
was Melisende, the daughter of Baldwin II who married Morphia while
Count of Edessa. Melisende (1105-1160), Queen of Jerusalem, ruled the
Frankish Kingdom of Jerusalem jointly with her husband or son or vied
with them for supreme power. (Women in History Website). The
experience of women such as Anna, Eleanor, Shagrat and Melisende
proves that women were willing to seize power when the opportunity
presented itself. All of these women provoked strong masculine
response and found it easier to exercise power through a husband or

Eleanor and Shagrat were strong women who were able to assert
their independence because of their strong wills and the resources
they commanded, but after Eleanor’s adventures during the Second
Crusade, the Church officially discouraged women rulers from taking
vows of crusading. Western women did continue to accompany men to the
wars, as the sister and wife of Richard the Lion-Hearted did in the
Third Crusade, but they went along in a private capacity. The only
women that the Church officially approved for part of the Crusaders
army was the washerwomen. Why the washerwomen? They played a vital
role in washing clothes to prevent the spread of lice, and they were
usually too old to be temptation for men.

Women on the Home Front

The women who were left behind had to actively rule their estates
and defend their castles. These chatelaines had to hold the family
lands together for themselves and their children. Governing in their
husband’s name, these women engaged in legal transactions, oversaw
agricultural activities, collected moneys for ransoms, and brought up
the children. (Women in history website) Strong women who ruled as
regents kept whole kingdoms together. After being imprisoned by her
second husband Henry II for supporting her children in a dispute,
Eleanor of Aquitaine ruled England as regent for her son, King
Richard the Lion-Hearted, during the Third
Crusade. Blanche of
(1187-1251). Eleanor’s granddaughter, had her son Louis
IX (St. Louis) crowned king of France when her husband died,
supervised his education, and functioned as his regent when he went
on crusade and ruled jointly with him on his return.

Even though women were often idealized as either a virgin/mother
or reviled as a temptress, medieval manuscripts depict women from all
levels of society in a wide variety of active roles. (Salisbury,
1985) There are even rare cases of trial by combat between men and
women. (Hodges, 1997).Besides predominating as workers in the textile
and silk-making trades, Frances and Joesph Gies (1980) list over 100
crafts, such as shoemaker, tailor, barber, goldsmith, baker, armorer,
or chandler where women worked alongside men. Women also controlled
the important tasks of manufacturing and the sale of food and
beverages. On the manorial estates, women worked with the men in the
fields, hauled the water and handled the livestock, prepared the food
and did the housework, including spinning cloth which paid the feudal
dues or could be sold for outside money (Washington, 1985). Medieval
women functioned as teachers, nuns and abbesses, artists, writers and
composers, merchants and alewives, washerwomen and prostitutes. One
of their most important and respected roles was that of healer and
midwife. The new Universities of the twelfth centuries, with their
medical schools which drew upon Arab learning, downplayed this role
(Booher 1997).

Women as Patronesses of Culture

Queens, abbesses, and widows functioned as patronesses of culture.
McCash states that since patronage for women was sanctioned, it
provided “rich opportunities for women to make their voices heard”
(McCash, 1). Eleanor of Aquitaine herself commissioned art in the
Great Abbey of Fountevrault. Her daughters promoted literature and
culture all over Europe. Marie de Champagne was the patroness of
Chretien de Troyes who created some of the great Arthurian romances;
her sister Mathilda of Saxony commissioned romances and introduced
courtly poetry into her husband Henry the Lion’s circle; their sister
Leonor and her husband Alfonso of Castile welcomed troubadours and
minstrels. The period of the crusades gave women the economic
resources to promote cultural activities. Many other royal and noble
women supported the copying and dissemination of books. Eleanor of
Castile (d 1290), a Queen of England, included a scriptor in her
royal apartments that employed both a writer and an illustrator to
create books on saint’s lives, Psalters, as well as books of romance.

Rich widows whose husbands died on crusade often commissioned
works of art after raising children. Examples include
Agnes, the countess of Bar, who was Eleanor of
Aquitaine’s sister-in-law though her marriage to Robert, brother of
the king of France. Between 1188 and 1204 Agnes gave large gifts to a
church at Braine, even getting glass from England, with the help of
Eleanor, for stained glass windows. Agnes made sure that the artists
depicted feminist themes. Topics in the windows include a Jesse Tree,
a symbol often used by women, and a female personifications of the
liberal arts. Despite gender restrictions, McCash states, “the
pattern of female cultural patronage provides a growing awareness of
women’s worth and intrinsic value to society” (McCash, 33).

Patronesses and Troubadours

Chretien de Troyes states that that in composing the Arthurian
romances he just elaborated on the basic material and interpretation
that his patroness Marie, Countess of Champagne, wanted him to
express. (McCash, 18). The livelihood of Troubadours often depended
on pleasing their patronesses. After the death of her husband on
crusade, Marie found herself in a harsh world where she had trouble
collecting taxes and enforcing marriage agreements that they had made
for the children. McCash adds that because of the difficulties
involved in ruling alone, Marie was especially interested in
sponsoring works that enhanced the “power or reputation of women.”

Influenced by Arab love songs, troubadours flourished at the
courts of Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Noble women
themselves such as Marie de France and the female troubadours in
Occativa in France between 1160-1260 composed romances and songs of
love. The poems of women were more personal and candid than those of
their male counterparts. Here in an abstract from a poem (translated
by Meg Bogin), two sisters Alais and Iselda discuss candidly their
feelings about marriage:

Lady Carneza of the Lovely Gracious Body
give some advice to us two sisters
shall I marry someone we both know?
or shall I stay unwed? that would please me,
for making babies doesn’t seem so good
and it’s too anguishing to be a wife (p.144)

The advice Carenza gives shows that no matter how active their
role, women were still encouraged to either marry or become nuns:

I therefore advise you, if you want to plant good seed
to take as husband Coronat de Scienza
from whom you shall bear as fruit glorious sons
saved is the chasity of she who marries him

Romantic songs and stories were popular with women all over
Europe. After all , love is the opposite of war and these songs were
good escape literature. McCash quotes from Denis Piramus:

The lais most usually please women
with joy they hear them willingly
for they are in accordance with their desire
Kings, princes, courtiers,
counts, barons and vavasserus
like talkes, songs, and fables
and good verses which are amusing (p.24)

This world could take time out to be entertained.

Related Topics within Cultural Crusades:

[Art |
Music ]

Related Links:

The Role of Women at Home:

  • Abbess.
    Source Document on an Abbess as Lord of the Manor.
  • Ale
    Stiles, Ben, Women and Brewing in the Middle Ages by Ben
  • Anchoress
    Daily life of an anchoress, a source credit.
  • Artist.
    Women Artists in the Middle Ages, by Stephanie Smith.
  • Bond
    . A source document on how to keep serfs in their
  • Healer.
    Beyond the Birthing Room: An Interview with Monica Green on the
    Role of Women in Medieval Science and Medicine.
  • Maids.
    An Overview on the Role of Maids by Sarah Weber.
  • Prostitute.
    A Necessary Evil? by Mary Ann Weaver.
  • Spinster
    or Widow
    . A source document for an independent woman.
  • Troubadour
  • Warrior.
    Advice for Female Warriors in Trial By Combat, a site by Kenneth
    Hodges. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~klhodges/fecht.htm

Women in the Crusades

  • Anna
    , Byzantine Historian of the First Crusade, by Lyn
    Reese http://home.earthlink.net/~womenwhist/heroine5.html
  • Blanche
    of Castile
    . Women Left Behind, by Lyn Reese.
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine:
    • Eleanor
      and the Arabs
      . The stories about Eleanor’s Conduct in the
      Crusade, by Dee Lee Evans
    • Eleanor
      of Aquitaine
      . History of Eleanor after the Second Crusade,
      by Stephanie Smith.
    • Letter
      to Queen Eleanor
      . Letter from Bishop Peter of Blois,
      advising her to support her husband instead of her son.
    • Eleanor
      and the Second Crusade.
      Account of Eleanor’s role in the
      Second Crusade, by Lyn Reese.
  • Melisende,
    Queen of Jerusalem
    , (1105-1160). Account of Melisende’s life,
    by Lyn Reese. http://home.earthlink.net/~womenwhist/heroine4.html
  • Shagrat
    (or Shajarat) al-Durr. Account of her career as Sultan of Egypt
    and her role in the Seventh Crusade.

Artists, Composers and Writers

Chivalry and the Mythical Women from the Arthurian Sagas.

For More Information:

Bogin, Meg, The Woman Troubadours

Booher, B. “Beyond the Birthing Room: The Work of Monica Green.”
Online. Internet. Available

Bornstein, Diane. The Lady in the Tower, Medieval Courtesy
Literature for Women

Caviness, Madeline H. “Anchoress, Abbess, and Queen: Donor and
Patrons or Intercessors and Matrons?” The Cultural Patronage of
Medieval Women
p. 105-154.

Crusades, (Video-tape), History Channel, October 4, 1997

Gies, Frances and Joseph. Women in the Middle Ages. New
York: Barnes and Noble, 1980

McCash, June Hall. “Medieval Patronage of Medieval Women: an
Overview,” The Cultural Patronage of Medieval Women .

Parsons, John C. “Of Queens, Courts, and Books: Reflections on the
Literary Patronage of Thirteen Century Plantagent Queens.”

Salisbury, Joyce, (video-recording). Medieval Women

Modified December 8, 1997

Source Article