‘Virile Strength In A Feminine Breast’: Women, Hostageship, Captivity, And Society In The Anglo-French World, C. 1000- C.1300

Empress Matilda

‘Virile Strength In A Feminine Breast’: Women, Hostageship, Captivity, And Society In The Anglo-French World, C. 1000- C.1300

By Colleen Slater

PhD Dissertation, Cornell University, 2009

Empress Matilda

Abstract: Hostage and captive-taking were fundamental to medieval warfare and medieval society in general. Despite their importance, however, until recently, these practices have received very little scholarly attention. In particular, the relationship between gender and these practices has been virtually ignored. The evidence, however, belies this neglect, and the sources are littered with examples that not only illuminate the importance of women and gender to these customs, but also how women used them to exercise power and independence militarily, politically, socially, and religiously. Moreover, women worked within a patriarchal society that was often deeply distrustful of their participation in hostage and captive situations in any capacity.

This thesis attempts to fill the gaps in the scholarship and illuminate the importance of considering gender when examining hostage- and captiveship. It pulls together evidence from a wide variety of historical and literary sources to suggest that women were not only victims of these processes as hostages and captives themselves, but were also active participants in them as hostage and captive takers, ransomers, and holders. Moreover, they were sometimes but not always accepted in such roles. It will also be suggested here that women were essential to medieval men’s understanding of male roles in these activities. Medieval society possessed deep-seated anxieties about the fate of hostage and captive women that were played out in a wide variety of sources. As will be demonstrated here, by exploring all the ways in which women and gender intersection with hostage and captive-taking practices, we can more greatly understand not only how women shaped medieval military matters, but also familial relationships social hierarchies, family relationships, religious conflicts and agreements, understandings of emotions, power, authority, love, and hate; as well as theories and practices of rulership.

Introduction: Why Hostage- and Captiveship?

My interest in the relationship between hostage- and captive-taking practices and gender originally arose out of the idea for a much grander project about women and warfare. As I repeatedly perused the sources of the eleventh-, twelfth-, and thirteenth-centuries over the course of my graduate studies, I noticed to my surprise that women were much more prevalent in war-time situations than I had been led to expect. Furthermore, they were doing many more and much more interesting things than I had thought possible. Wondering what scholars thought of these portrayals, I searched for scholarship that dealt with these women as anything other than victims, and to my chagrin, found that much of it dismissed such women as marginal, irrelevant, or aberrant.

In general, women have not traditionally been given much consideration in military history historiography. “War is the one human activity,” wrote military historian John Keegan in his 1993 monograph A History of Warfare, “from which women, with the most insignificant exceptions, have always and everywhere stood apart. Women look to men to protect them from danger…women, however, do not fight. They rarely fight among themselves and they never, in any military sense, fight men. If warfare is as old as history and as universal as mankind, we must now enter the supremely important limitation that it is an entirely masculine activity.” While this view is slowly being called into question by historians of all time periods, this idea often reflects the nature of the sources available to historians. This is especially true of the Middle Ages. As scholar Megan McLaughlin remarked in her groundbreaking 1990 article on the medieval female warrior, medieval warfare was “generally viewed [by contemporaries] as the quintessential masculine activity… descriptions of warfare in medieval texts were peppered with references to gender, references which equated fighting ability with virility.” This gendering of warfare is often carried over into modern medieval historiography, in which references to women concerning matters of warfare are limited at best, made in passing, and very rarely explore the implications of female participation.

Click here to read this thesis from Cornell University

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