Veronica Bilenkin HIS 329-701 Dr. Gathagan 10/19/12 Women in the Crusades: A Historiographical Essay When writing about women’s participation in the Crusades, there is more than just the topic of the Crusades involved. Historians have unfortunately come to the conclusion that women’s participation in any type of warfare was practically unheard of during most part of the Middle Ages, due to tight social structures and gender roles.
Each historian delves into the topic between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries of the Crusades, dates in which most sources that they found reveal the most representation of women in combat. By finding a source that legitimately proves that women’s participation in war was more common than it is actually perceived, more details about the society’s thoughts on gender roles and issues were brought to light as well. Where historians Meghan McLaughlin, Elena Lourie and Helena Solterer differ is how they present the topic, what angle they argue for or against it, and the sources used to prove their arguments.
Many may wonder how sources on women warriors can exist at a time when gender roles were a strict and unchangeable social issue of the Medieval Ages. Anything that seemed in favor of woman’s role in warfare or even towards feminism or equal rights in general seemed to be counter-culture, and was not reflected in a positive way because it was against the norm. Thus, writers of this tense topic had to use subtle methods of representation on behalf of their female heroines.
Helena Solterer delves into such a direction in “Figures of Female Militancy in Medieval France”, using Peter Gencien’s iconic Li Tournoiement as dames to demonstrate such an attempt in Medieval French society. Throughout his narrative, Gencien assumes male authorship by writing in a way that portrays women as sexual objects of an erotic fantasy; making sure that his character’s newly appointed statues as a warrior didn’t seem to undermine this stereotypical concept was of crucial importance so as to subtly hide the underlying message of possible woman representation.
For instance, during the beginning of the narrative, Gencien goes back and forth between descriptions of the combat accomplished by the jousting women but constantly intervenes it with textual erotic imageries of which he insists is due to his own impulses as a man, and was therefore suffered by his male readers as well. Later on those interventions cease as the narrative progressive until there is nothing else but combat techniques and even ends with praise over the victory of the female warrior over the defeated male character.
This finale comes as quite a surprise, and proves Solterer’s main point, for Gencien wouldn’t have ended his narrative in this way if he himself didn’t believe or imagine this unconventional result. It’s almost like he stated his own admission of females in combat as his final message rather than oppose it, a bold decision that defied standard gender roles at the time it was written. On the other hand, a whole text devoted to warrior deeds and battles fought by women were obtained from Saxo Grammaticus’s History of the Danes.
McLaughlin’s essay, “The Woman Warrior: Gender, Warfare and Society in Medieval Europe”, serves primarily an outline of the many women that this important source points out with the intent to prove that women’s participation included and exceeded beyond just sitting by the sidelines as wives of knights or as nurses From Richilde of Hainaut’s fight and capture in at the Battle of Cassel in France to Lathgertha of the Scandinavian Vikings exploits, the feats of many Medieval women warriors have gone unnoticed for far long enough.
She makes an important note that the decline and rise of participation isn’t accidental or unusual circumstances, but because of historical structures and attitudes at the time that gave woman opportunities to participate. Focusing on the areas of Northern and Southern Europe (specifically France, England, Spain and Italy), McLaughlin’s essay provides the most information on the lengths that women had to go through in order to be recognized in military positions, along with two developments within later Medieval society that had nothing to do with gender or social issues.
The point at which private family life began to blend with a family’s public image, the lines which women could cross into a knight’s world became blurred to a point that enabled women to participate as productive members of society, in this case as fighters, rather than to sit at home and raise the children. An example that McLaughlin provides was what she referred to as domestic military system, which allowed women in a noble household to view, learn and even participate in military practice and tactics due to an early exposure to the military units that lived, visited and conversed within the house of a noble lord.
A good family name and heritage could also guarantee a women acceptance within military units through a prolonged period time in which they can become accustomed and comfortable enough with her to not exclude her from joining their ranks in the future (most women who tried to join without connections or former acquaintances were faced with mass resistance from their male counterparts, and were harassed and maltreated under accusations of witchcraft and sexual misconduct).
For the longest time, the only explanation that was deemed acceptable for women taking up arms was to protect her land and children while the noble husband was away from the manor, a reaction that was not expected of them and that was only enacted in emergency situations.
McLaughlin’s countless examples from Northern and Southern Europe prove this generalization incorrect, as so many woman warriors with a long history of warfare over a sweeping geographical context (from Northern Europe to Southern Europe) for personal gains and violent means have been dismissed primarily due to lost records or disbelief at the time that females performing such a masculine activity could exist.
This disbelief is also most likely the cause of the unsexing of female warriors, for many had to adorn heavy armor (such as the Lombard princess Sichelgaita) that alters their appearance that resulted in many confused Muslims during the Crusades, who had no idea that some of the knights were women until their armor was taken off. Lourie argues that while there were no fighting female units in the European armies during the Crusades, her main source, The Primera Cronica General or PCG, provides an account of female military participation on the Muslim side in “Black Women Warriors in the Muslim Army…”.
The PCG was the first general history book for Spain, and depicted some of the countries early highlights and downfalls, as well as famous people and places. This essay specifically dealt with a battle transcribed in the PCG that occurred during the last years of the First Crusade, outside the abandoned city of Valencia. Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, also known as the Cid, made a name for himself as the eleventh century warrior who took the city from the Almoravids, a Muslim sect of Berber nomads lead by Yusuf ibn Tashfin that came from the Western Sahara.
Their mission was of Dijah, or holy war, and to fulfill it was to overtake and conquer Morocco and most of Muslim Spain. During the battle in the plain of Quart, their massive army, led by Tashfin’s nephew, was considered invincible until the Cid and his small Christian garrison fought and defeated them for control of Valencia in 1094. The controversy surrounding this story begins with the accounts within the PCG that included statements from the Christian side regarding the three hundred black women who made up the front lines in the charging Almoravid army.
Their appearance compromised of shaved heads and well-armed with Turkish bows or cuirasses as weapons. What happened five years later is the main setting for Lourie’s argument: in 1101, the Cid died within the city, which prompted his lieutenant Alvar Fanez to gather the remaining knights and leave the city which by that time became surrounded by vengeful Almoravids once again. After nine days of siege, the Christian garrison sneaked out of the city at dawn along with the embalmed body of the Cid to initiate a surprise attack on the unaware Almoravids, starting with the tents of the female archers.
None of the archers had anticipated the attack, and in their effort to prepare themselves many were slaughtered and killed. This resulted in the remaining women fleeing for their lives, leading a retreat in which the Muslim men of the army followed suit. This would’ve been seen as a major victory for the Christians and astounding evidence to support female representation in warfare if the battle had not been considered “legendary”.
According to Lourie, it has been considered such based solely upon female presence on the battlefield, which is constantly referred to as incredible even in today’s feminized view of gender roles, as well as confusion on interpretation from both Cid’s Christian army and the Muslim Almoravids. Despite evidence suggesting otherwise, historians have made efforts to provide reasons why this battle couldn’t have happened, that it was just an invention of the Christian scribe behind the PCG who wrote the battle in as homage to the Cid and his brave garrison. Lourie spends a major part of her essay discrediting the hypothesis proposed by L.
P. Harvey, who strongly disagrees with the idea of women in a military setting of any sort, especially in the Crusades. Like most historians with this kind of mindset, his only evidence was pitifully small to say the least: the archers were in fact Tuareg men who were mistaken for women on account of their liltham, or veil, blocking their faces, their dark skin were a result of dyed stains that came off their lilthams, and a textual misunderstanding of Arabic sources that made the adjective “Targia” become transcribed as “Turkia” in the PCG (Lourie, 184).
Lourie proves him wrong on all accounts with her own evidence: the earlier passage of the PCG described shaved heads and top knots, a specific part of the archer’s appearance that wouldn’t have been mentioned had their heads been covered by liltham. Her most convincing argument was that Tuareg men never used bows as weapons, while the PCG specifically refers to one of the Almoravids main fighters, Nujeymah, as being named “Star of the archers of Turkey”. In addition to that evidence, the debate over the interpretation and origin of the PCG conflicts with Harvey’s flawed theory, and encompasses the other half of Lourie’s essay.
While it is clear that the PCG was written from a Christian standpoint by a Christian based on its description of the Almoravids; what is unclear is the intent of writing this particular battle: if one were to interpret the battle overall, the Cid’s garrison victory was guaranteed by the retreat of the women archers, which is not very glorious or noble considering his lieutenant decided to surprise attack not the entire army but basically a bunch of women.
These women in turn did the work for the Cid’s garrison, resulting in an overall victory but at an embarrassing cost to their image. They are not the only ones however: Lourie introduces a new angle; one that suggests that perhaps the narrative of the battle was based off the Muslim Almoravid’s placing blame on their female militants for leading a retreat so fast and so soon, in an attempt to cover up their own embarrassment over the battle outcome.
All three essays eloquently address the subject of exposing women’s military contributions in the medieval world. The period of the Crusades was one of the most well-known religious military operations in history, and fighting for a cause that large invited a lot of opportunity for new recruitment from areas society couldn’t have foreseen, or chose not to due to strict gender roles of the time.
In fact, there is a section of Solterer’s paper in which she highlighted specific sanctions and canon laws enforced by the Church just to prevent women specifically from joining the army (Solterer, 535-536). Of course, Lourie’s essay depicts women simply being women in Muslim armies, an acceptance was along with the statement that “there were certainly no female fighting units, either then or later, in European armies” (Lourie, 2000, 1). However, according to Solterer’s rticle on women representation in Medieval France, the Crusades featured women on both sides of the battle. The only difference between them was that while Lourie’s Muslim women seemed more at place and welcomed in the Muslim army, an Arab chronicler used by Solterer depicts the Frankish armies as including women warriors who “dressed in men’s clothing…were not recognized as women until they had been stripped of their arms” (Solterer, 1991, 540).
McLaughlin emphasis’s that it’s not necessarily the progression of cultural mindset that allowed women’s participation but the progression of society itself that opened new doors for women to walk into and prove themselves as fierce and capable of military duty as their male counterparts. That is why her essay covered a broad area of individuals and their geographic locations in Europe, as providing a lot of perspectives proved her main argument.
Both Solterer’s and Lourie’s essays were narrowly focused on a specific element of the topic of women representation: Solterer’s focused on Medieval France basing her evidence on a fictional text, while Lourie’s historical text provided her with proof of female military activity during the Crusades. The style of broadness and wide range of characters written by McLaughlin wrote on women’s achievements in the military world that leads into why they aren’t as accepted despite their prolonged presence in Medieval history, thus it was a good introductory essay for one to get started on thinking about such a topic.
The literary source that Lourie emphasized in her essay is revealing and reliable only to a point; the author of that source might have had his own neutral opinion on women’s participation in combat, but his main intention in writing his narrative was to entertain, or else no one in that society would’ve accepted a then outlandish idea of mixing women and jousting.
Therefore, the only essay whose specific and detailed style focused on a Crusade battle with leading, fighting, and involved women was Lourie’s; her emphasis on the debate over interpretation of the source as well as showing full support and evidence to prove that the presence and participation of women warriors didn’t mean the battle never took place was really drew me in, and definitely convinced me towards her overall thesis. The Middle Ages was a scare time for any sources, so it’s no surprise that sources that suggest women’s participation in warfare are limited.
However, that is precisely the reason why the sources that mention or advocate it even the tiniest amount should be thoroughly examined, not put aside as myth or misinterpretation. While more reliable sources may depict the more popular patriarchal and conventional mindset of the time, it is not a true depiction of how Medieval society was like back then; controversial topics like women’s advancement from traditional gender roles was tense and still is today, and sources provided in all three essays highlight the reactions to new outlooks and settings for women to participate in.
Exploring new textual territories, from fictional narratives to so called lost legends even, is crucial to getting new perspectives on a much debated topic, and hopefully results in a more enhanced understanding of one of the most complicated time periods for women in history.
Bibliography M. McLaughlin, ‘The woman warrior: Gender, warfare and society in medieval Europe’, Women’s Studies, 17 (1990) 193–209. H. Solterer, ‘Figures of female militancy in medieval France’, Signs, 16 (1991) 522–49. E. Lourie, ‘Black women warriors in the Muslim army besieging Valencia and the Cid’s victory: A problem of interpretation’, Traditio, 55 (2000) 181–209.