By Valerie Eads
Paper Presented at The Twentieth Barnard Medieval and Renaissance Conference: War and Peace in the Middle Ages & Renaissance (2006)
Introduction: Why did medieval women go to war? The usual explanation is that such actions take place in crisis situations when the absence of male authority creates a power vacuum and class temporarily trumps gender – the lady defending the castle while her husband is away on crusade motif. I do not think that the sources support this model and by considering the small but growing body of work on military actions undertaken by women in the Middle Ages I hope to be able to either establish a new model or to at least refine the extant model to something more useful. These studies almost arranged themselves into groupings.
Crusade studies are a lively field of research, and a number of studies on women participating in crusading military actions have been published. “Seek and ye shall find” seems to apply here. And there is (apparently) a good deal to find. From the Battle of Dorylaeum (1097) onward, the sources demonstrate that women kept finding opportunities to directly participate in this meritorious warfare.
By the time all this [carrying out Bohemond’s orders] was done, the Turks were surrounding us on all sides, throwing darts and casting javelins and shooting arrows from a surprisingly long distance. . . . Our women were a great help to us on that day since they kept bringing water for our embattled men to drink and bravely comforted them as they resisted.
One assumes that the Turks did not gallantly hold their fire while the women were performing this non-combatant task.
The Third Crusade provides what is probably the best-known example, thanks largely to lively descriptions coming from the Muslim historians Baha al-Din and Imad ad-Din. As Helen Nicholson showed, their reports of women actively fighting and dying were intended to emphasize the barbarity of the Franks and the fanaticism of Christians which so perverted the natural order. In contrast, the Christian writers are at pains to emphasize the virtue of the Crusaders, their worthiness to accomplish their holy objective. They regard the absence of women as a prerequisite for virtuousness, and so the accounts are quite different. It is, e.g., reported that all women except old (emphasis mine) washerwomen were prohibited from following the army on the march from Acre to Arsuf. The only touching they will undertake is delousing the men. This contrasts with the lovingly lascivious account of Christian prostitutes given by Imad ad-Din. The Christian reports of women in action are reticent: a woman killed while working on an engineering project, some shipwrecked Turks butchered by women–who did it badly due to lack of both strength and proper weapons.