“La Damoisele del chastel”: women’s role in the defence and functioning of castles in medieval writing from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries
By Helen Nicholson
Crusader Landscapes in the Medieval Levant: The Archaeology and History of the Latin East, eds. Micaela Sinibaldi, Kevin J. Lewis, Balazs Major and Jennifer A. Thompson (Cardiff University Press, 2016)
Introduction: In the words of Ruth Whitehouse, ‘At one level, the medieval castle is an archetypical example of male warrior ideology associated with a society rigidly divided according to gender.’ Yes we also know that medieval European women had a role in the defence and functioning of castles; castles could form widows’ dowries and women had their own rooms and private spaces within castles.
It is is difficult to establish the actual extent of this role, for different forms of evidence – fictional sources, contemporary commentators, and archaeology and the built environment – present different images. In this paper I will argue that medieval sources that refer to women’s involvement in the defence of castles and the role of castles in society was based on a combination of gender stereotypes, social realities and military pragmatism that should not be take at face value.
The shrewd command of the Empress Berengaria at Toledo in 1139 when the garrison was caught unawares and ill-defended in the absence of Alfonso VII. She successfully averted a Muslim attack by concealing her few soldiers and shaming the besiegers vanity, asking them what honour they could hope to win by taking the city from a woman. To make her point, she retired with her ladies to the summit of the castle, and the Muslims, beholding these non-combatants deliberately arrayed in finery and playing musical instruments, withdrew from the field.
Top Image: BNF Latin 4915 Mare Historiarum fol.31