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Female Secret Agents in the Middle Ages

By Cait Stevenson

Post-classical Europe didn’t get its first standing mail delivery network until the very end of the fifteenth century, and even that was a false start before Charles V reinstituted it some twenty-five years later. So even though the medieval Islamic world was always more literate and urbanized, it still might be a surprise to learn that establishing a postal service was one of the first priorities of the Umayyad caliphate in the seventh century. Of course, the German system was because princes had stopped attending Reichstag meetings and still wanted to know what was going on (in…exhausting…detail). For the Umayyads and their successors, on the other hand, formal letter delivery and deliverers had a purpose beyond correspondence. The “carrier of letters” or sahib al-barid was also the sahib al-khabar, the carrier of secrets. The mailman, in other words, was a spy.

Photo by Lionel Martinez / Flickr

It wasn’t just the mailman, either. If we can believe the chroniclers, dynasties and empires from the Rashidun caliphate to the heydey of the Turks secured their internal and external power through a basic principle: “the ruler ought to plant spies on his subjects and associates; eyes that spy on their whereabouts, their news, especially if there is any doubt about them.” Spies were so zealous and persistent that the Seljuq Turks had to regulate boundaries for their own agents (don’t unveil women or break down locked doors), and letters of advice warn anxiously not to act against an ally on the word of a spy until you are really, really sure. By the end of the seventh century, the expectation of espionage was so ubiquitous in Basra that groups of people would simply turn away any unknown face.

With both suspicion of and need for secret agents so high, Muslim rulers found themselves turning to the ultimate undercover agents: women. Legends told of the earliest days of Islam describe the special use of women messengers to convey sensitive intelligence from one camp to another. After camps became cities and tents became palaces, illustrious ambassadors were charmed by the songs of the “singing girl” woman slaves—while the women assigned to clean up in the background were listening for any whispered words. And why stop at slaves? Reportedly, Saladin (Salah ad-Din) recruited the queen of Antioch to his intelligence service in the 1180s.

Debra Cortese credits caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah with reviving the use of women spies among the Fatimids to an impressive extent. al-Hakim recognized that women were not just useful for getting the knowledge, but having the knowledge in the first place. He delegated elderly women to cagily pry information out of their female friends on seemingly ordinary social visits. Not to be outdone, his half-sister Sitt al-Mulk organized her own spy network.

And sometimes, you didn’t just need eavesdroppers, you needed people who, well, built their own eves. As a Fatimid vizier in the middle of a colossal struggle for power, al-Afdal Shahanshah brought in the heavy hitters: his mother. She masqueraded as the mother of one of his soldiers, moving around the court and city spouting tales of the horrors of official service. She lured out supporters of the rebels, and reported every word back to her son.

When we talk about spies in the Middle Ages, it’s easy to envision soldiers sneaking into enemy camps or royal messengers with a hidden agenda. But to understand the full power of information to medieval rulers, we have to look through their eyes and value the spies they valued—all of them.

Click here to read more from Cait Stevenson

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