Crusading Warfare, Chivalry, and the Enslavement of Women and Children

Crusading Warfare, Chivalry, and the Enslavement of Women and Children

By John Gillingham

The Medieval Way of War. Studies in Medieval Military History in Honor of Bernard S. Bachrach, edited by Gregory Halfond (Ashgate, 2015)

"Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099", (oil on canvas), Signol, Emile (1804-92) / Château de Versailles, France / Giraudon / The Bridgeman Art Library

Introduction: The subject of the treatment of prisoners taken in crusading warfare, long neglected, has attracted considerable interest in the last fifteen years, but more can still be said, particularly on the ways in which crusaders dealt with their enemies’ women and children, the archetypal non-combatants. In this paper I focus principally on the campaigns which established the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem during and after the First Crusade, and then address very briefly the ways in which the women and children of the defeated were treated during the conquests of Estonia and Occitania in the Baltic and Albigensian crusades. Comparing this aspect of three crusades has the effect of highlighting a fundamental development in the customs of war within Europe, one relevant to the origins of chivalry in the sense of a code of values which helped to set limits to the brutality of war; it is also a development which puts a question mark against the view that in terms of constraints on the excesses of war ‘the crusaders’ homelands were less advanced than the eastern Mediterranean lands’.

According to a report in the Damascus Chronicle, one Friday in February 1111 (AH 504) the service in the Sultan’s mosque in Baghdad was disrupted by a crowd of people ‘clamouring and weeping for the misfortunes which had befallen Islam at the hands of the Franks, the slaughter of men, and enslavement of women and children’. As Yvonne Friedman has pointed out, ‘in their descriptions of warfare both Christian and Muslim chronicles often use the formula: “all the men were killed and the women and children were taken captive”’; she then considered and convincingly rejected the notion that this was merely a literary topos taken from the Old Testament. Both at the time and since chroniclers and historians have written a good deal about slaughter but relatively little about enslavement. Historians of warfare tend to focus on the fighting itself, not on its aftermath, and when they have thought about the plunder they have rarely given much attention to human beings. Much more attention has been paid to enslavement by Muslims than to enslavement by Christians.

In some part this is because Islamic laws of war, including the treatment of prisoners, were reduced to writing as early as the eighth century, long before the earliest such discussions in the medieval West, by Giovanni di Legnano and Honoré Bovet in the fourteenth century, by which time enslavement had long been unthinkable in inner-European war and in consequence was mentioned only as a long gone aspect of ancient warfare. Islamic authors by contrast discussed slaving in war as current practice. ‘The Sea of Precious Virtues’, for instance, a mirror for princes composed in mid twelfth-century Syria, states that ‘the women and children of combatants should be made slaves. The imam may kill sane adult men who are captured if he wishes, or enslave them’. These were the norms within which Saladin was behaving in 1187 when , according to Imad al-Din, his head of chancery, he at first refused to accept the Christians’ offer to surrender Jerusalem on terms, saying ‘we shall take you all, kill the men and make slaves of the women and children’.

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