‘An Entirely Masculine Activity’? Women and War in the High and Late Middle Ages Reconsidered
By James Michael Illston
Master’s Thesis: University of Canterbury (2009)
Abstract: The field of medieval gender studies is a growing one, and nowhere is this expansion more evident than the recent increase in studies which address the roles of medieval women in times of war. While this change in research has been invaluable in helping to reveal the many important wartime roles performed by medieval women, previous studies have been too narrowly focused. Scholars have examined particular aspects of women’s military activities without analysing the full extent and significance of their involvement, and their studies have focused geographically either on women in Western Europe or on women in the crusade movement without considering the relationship between these two areas.
This thesis bridges the geographic and analytical gap by looking longitudinally at the female military experience from the late-eleventh to the early-fifteenth century in Western European society (predominantly France and England), on crusade, and in the Holy Land. An examination of medieval legal, philosophical, and political debates and discussions provides theoretical understanding of contemporary attitudes toward women and their perceived roles in war. Subsequent chapters focus on how women functioned as military leaders, supporters of military activity, and victims of wartime violence. Perceptions of these women in the writings of contemporary chroniclers are also evaluated.
The disparity between theoretical attitudes toward women in war and the realities of medieval women’s military experiences is revealed through discussion of their extensive, though largely unstudied, participation in wars of the period. It is argued that historians must adopt a broader understanding and awareness of not only women’s ‘involvement’ in war, but also the importance of their contributions to medieval military history.