Jessalynn Bird

title.none: Edgington and Lambert, Gendering the Crusades (Jessalynn Bird)

identifier.other: baj9928.0210.010 02.10.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jessalynn Bird, Northwestern University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Edgington, Susan B. and Sarah Lambert, eds. Gendering the Crusades. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Pp. xvi, 215. $18.50 $39.50 0-231-12598-4. ISBN: 0-231-12599-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.10.10

Edgington, Susan B. and Sarah Lambert, eds. Gendering the Crusades. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Pp. xvi, 215. $18.50 $39.50 0-231-12598-4. ISBN: 0-231-12599-2.

Reviewed by:

Jessalynn Bird
Northwestern University

As the concise yet stimulating preface by James Powell suggests, this collection of thirteen articles, many presented in sessions organized by its editors for the International Medieval Congress in Leeds (2000), explores how conceptions of gender impacted the quality and extent of male and female participation in the crusades and both sexes' conception of the crusading movement. The volume's authors draw upon letters, poems, charters, artwork, saints' lives, records of relics, and Christian and Muslim chronicles of the crusades, using interdisciplinary techniques to explore the roles of women on the home front, as crusaders, and as settlers in the kingdoms the crusaders established Outremer. Several key questions implicitly or explicitly inform their investigations. Did women accept and conform to, perhaps even exploit the parameters imposed on them by male perceptions of the limitations and frailties of their gender or did they seek to subvert or openly rebel against masculine conceptualizations and authority? Was the crusading movement an embodiment and extension of social, cultural and religious conceptions and restrictions created by western European males, or did it provide opportunities for women to escape or bypass them? In short, how did the crusades affect the opportunities offered to women of all estates and the kinds of roles available to them in domestic and foreign fronts?

As recent textbooks, monographs, and articles on the crusades have illustrated, women participated in the crusade in large numbers. Some persuaded male relations to take the crusader's cross and, through their dowries, contributed to the financial sacrifices necessary to ensure their participation. Others managed farms, businesses, estates and households in their male relations' absence, donated money to crusade campaigns or took part in the liturgical intercessions considered essential for divine favor. Despite persistent attempts to discourage them from joining in the crusades' military campaigns, women were also present in crusading armies as noblewomen subsidizing contingents of trained warriors, laundresses, camp-followers, pilgrims, businesswomen and female relations of male crusaders. Many tended the sick and wounded, provided logistical support, and helped to build and "man" defensive works and siege engines. While the majority of participants returned home, some men and women settled permanently in the territories conquered by crusaders. These well-established findings somewhat belie the publisher's presentation of this volume as the "first substantial exploration" of a "comparatively neglected topic." For the authors' footnotes reveal their indebtedness to the collective work of previous generations of historians who have outlined the participation of women in the crusading movement and to the perennially prolific literature on medieval women and gender studies, to which many of them have contributed in the past. However, this volume does present a far more nuanced and complex portrait of the real opportunities and disabilities facing medieval women than that afforded by the popular focus upon exceptional, albeit fascinating characters such as Eleanor of Acquitaine or by adherents to current political and cultural agendas who continue to produce lopsided or staggeringly inaccurate portrayals of cultures ruled by very different conceptions of the roles acceptable for each gender and each estate. Several essays also investigate how eastern and western writers used depictions of gender to portray their opponents in histories or propaganda as supremely "other" in a fashion which will strike some as reminiscent of modern western governments' recent publicization of the limitations faced by women and defendants under the Taliban regime to foment public support for the invasion of Afghanistan.

Gendering the Crusade's contributions fall into several thematic clusters. Helen Nicholson examines how gender impacted medieval men's and women's devotion to female saints, focusing on the Templars' veneration of the Virgin Mary, St. Thais, St. Euphemia, and St. Ursula and her martyred virgin companions. She concludes that the Templar's devotion to female saints would be unjustly exclusively attributed to their sublimated sexuality as celibate religious. As potential martyrs, the Templars valued former martyrs as intercessors and patrons. Moreover, regular religious and laypersons alike were encouraged to think of their spiritual journey in gendered terms, as the female soul seeking union with Christ the bridegroom. To become spiritual was to become male, while femininity was used to depict the soul's physical and spiritual frailty and its potential for renunciation and conversion. The "female" virtues of chastity, modesty, humility and obedience were valued as part of the Templars' cloistered religious life and military discipline, as essential counterbalances to the potentially divisive "male" virtues of courage, vengeance, and individual exploits. Miriam Tessera uses the letters of Hildegard of Bingen, collected to reinforce her carefully cultivated image as saintly abbess and prophetess, to examine her influence on Philip, count of Flanders' decision to take the cross and his conception of his crusading experience. Like many before him, Philip eagerly sought the support of prayers from religious institutions and seems to have conceived of his participation in the crusade as not only the continuation of a chivalric family tradition but a penitential pilgrimage capable of expunging his manifold sins, as the next best option to the religious way of life denied to him as a secular prince. In a similar fashion to her male contemporary Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard portrayed the crusade as a penitential and quasi-monastic exercise in her response to the crucesignatus Philip's request for spiritual advice, underlining the ways in which spiritual advisors, male and female, shaped contemporaries' perceptions of the crusading movement. Constance Rousseau draws together recent work done on crusade preaching and liturgy to reaffirm the importance of female influence on men's decision to take the cross and mustering the finances essential for a crusading pilgrimage. Reiterating the ambivalent attitude of authorities toward a female presence in crusading armies, she also outlines the opportunities for women's participation in the home front through prayer, fasting, almsgiving and the redemption of crusading vows. Elizabeth Siberry eloquently illustrates the ways in which nineteenth-century artists, librettists and writers imagined the hardships posed to the crusader's family by his departure and absence and the unpleasant surprises potentially awaiting his return, including lawsuits, infidelity, illegitimate children, and violence against household, relations, or property, scenarios confirmed by legal treatises and medieval court records explored by Christopher Tyerman and James Brundage, among others.

Peter Frankopan shows how evaluations of the worth of the Byzantine princess Anna Comnena's account of the First Crusade have been negatively colored by her gender, yet argues that ironically, her largely accurate focus on the typically male roles played by her husband, father and other men in the imperial court in Constantinople during the First Crusade and elsewhere (derived from her own observation, documents and eyewitnesses) frustratingly obscures the ways in which she and other women in the imperial court impacted events by their advice and influence. Silvia Schein and Yvonne Friedman expand on the work of Bernard Hamilton and others on the position of Latin and non-Latin women in the crusader kingdoms. Schein argues that women in the Latin Kingdom enjoyed more legal rights, held more important positions and carried out more functions than their contemporaries in Europe. Male settlers' notoriously short lifespan and distraction by constant warfare ensured that women exercised functions normally assigned to men and as widows or sole surviving children, became regents or heiresses responsible for managing important estates and furnishing military contingents. As with western European women, these women were subjected to intense pressures to marry candidates chosen by their overlords, but faced greater legal recourse in rejecting candidates they deemed personally unsuitable. Other risks faced by female settlers and native women are highlighted by Friedman. Despite forming the majority of captives taken during raids and sieges of strongholds, as noncombatants, women's lower rank and correspondingly lower ransom lessened their chances for survival and worsened the conditions of their imprisonment. While maltreatment diminished the value of a hostage or potential slave, torture and sexual abuse were endemic; both Islamic and Christian writers assumed that it was impossible for captive women to maintain their honor and praised as heroic those who chose suicide rather than defilement. Yet both sides also related accounts of clemency shown to noble mothers and portrayed female captives or converts married to their captors. Some may have made the best of a bad situation. The assumption that female captives had been sexually abused made for a difficult return home; single women who managed to return found it hard to marry and were often too impecunious to join a convent, while some husbands used their wives' "sullied" state as a pretext to put them away.

Further essays examine the roles available to women in the crusading army. Pointing to the evidence for women's presence in the crusading army as individuals as well as travelling companions for male relations, Keren Caspi-Reisfeld stresses the moral and logistical support they provided to male soldiers by acquiring and preparing food and clean water, selling provisions and war materiel, providing basic sanitation and tending the sick and wounded. In times of crisis and in the absence of men, high-ranking women such as Margaret, the wife of Louis IX could assume command or become involved in negotiations. However, perhaps swayed by modern debates on women serving as combatants in the armed forces, Caspi-Reisfeld reads empowerment where perhaps little lay. She claims that prostitutes kept up the crusaders' morale despite the fact that commanders often attempted to eliminate whores' infiltration of crusader camps, particularly in times of crisis. Similarly, she interprets the arrival of female crusaders and camp followers by ship as evidence of military commanders' enlisting women in preference to men. The real portrait is far more complex. Many kings and leaders attempted to cull women and the impecunious from their fleets, yet groups of crusaders (including women) often banded together to hire their own ship or sought passage on vessels owned by the military orders or merchants. Similarly, although recent articles by Megan McLaughlin and Helen Nicholson have rightly given wary treatment to biased and multivalent evidence while examining the military roles played by aristocratic women who joined their husband's campaigns or directed retainers in battles, particularly defensive ones, Caspi-Reisfeld contends that female crusaders fought in offensive combat dressed in full armor and wielding the weaponry of professional fighters. These assertions are based more on modern agendas than historical fact, and in making them, she not only ignores persuasive contrary arguments presented during the conference strand which produced this volume, but transparently selects supporting evidence as reality while dismissing other accounts as unreliable.

In contrast, two essays by Matthew Bennet and Michael Evans convincingly draw out the problems posed by sources describing women warriors. Crusade accounts were written to reinforce the status quo, even if the crusade campaign offered crises which challenged traditional gender roles. Christian authors assumed that virtuous women did not fight and downplayed female combat lest Christian armies be discredited, while Arab historians described Amazonian female fighters to discredit their "effeminate" and socially disordered opponents in a manner similar to Usamah ibn-Munqidh's anecdotes of sexually rapacious female Frankish settlers. Women from both sides occasionally donned armor, but typically did so to shame their husbands or retainers who were displaying "unmanly" cowardice. Women could be drawn into the fighting during emergencies; when invaders stormed a stronghold or an army camp was overrun, they and other non-combatants seized whatever was to hand to defend themselves and their loved ones. Yet these situations and roles were depicted as unnatural and contrary to women's essentially unmartial nature. While the militarily untutored were capable of operating siege engines, performing guard duty, building fortifications or in crises, wielding a bow, knife, stones or club, training in the use of arms and armor was a skill jealously reserved to the knightly classes and professional warriors and so women were unlikely to form part of an offensive operation.

Natasha Hodgson and Susan Edgington also elucidate the commonalities and differences in male representations of women from foreign cultures and religions. Latin Christian sources often portrayed Greek women, like Greek men, as treacherous. Chroniclers took a page from western chivalric literature in their depiction of the appropriate roles for and treatment of noblewomen and mothers of all cultures. Various surviving literary images of the mother of the First Crusaders' Turkish enemy, Kerbogha, display many of the values esteemed in western matriarchs, including often prophetic wise advice, while counterbalancing these positive aspects by portraying her as a devilishly foreign sorceress. Consisting of earlier material reworked in the late twelfth century, the Chanson d'Antioche presents a microcosm of western attitudes towards women and the roles considered appropriate for them. They vary from the chivalric depiction of damsels weeping over their lovers' abandoning them for the crusade (as well as vowing chastity in their absence or taking the cross themselves), to women and children starving or massacred in the crusader camp by the "heathen" Turks and more individualized portraits of pagan or Saracen women. However, as Edgington notes, the fact that the chansons, like Ambroise's account, were literary works which drew upon complex written and oral stereotypes and traditions renders their accounts of female participation in battle highly questionable, particularly as the authors tend to treat female combatants in a humorous and mocking fashion typical of the fabliaux's portrayal of domineering women who transgressed the roles acceptable for their gender. How then can these accounts be interpreted? One potential answer is proffered by Susan Lambert, who shows that cultural definitions of maleness are often determined by its contrast, femaleness. For example, accounts of men sending wool and distaff to males who failed to enlist in the crusade and women urging their male relations to go while lamenting the fragility of their sex which prevented their participation illustrate medieval conceptions of the occupations suitable for men (fighting) and women (spinning) and the way in which contemporaries were faced with the choice of conforming to or combatting the actions and qualities considered appropriate to their gender. She and many of the other authors in this volume rightly note that women were often brought into crusade narratives to define peculiarly "male" activities or to symbolize the right or wrong ordering of society, whether European, Islamic or Greek.

As the preface and essays themselves admit, this volume cannot address all of the multifarious elements of female participation in the crusades. However, as a teacher and a researcher working on a monograph on women and the crusades, I have often wrestled with the types of questions which ought to be raised and what kind of conclusions can be drawn from evidence which is often either problematic or simply lacking. This collection reminds us of the complex nature of many of the sources used for the study of the crusades while illustrating the new ways in which crusading history can be approached through the lens of gender roles. For these reasons, and as a affordable and convenient summary of many of the major conclusions regarding female participation in the crusade previously scattered throughout monographs, journals, and collections of essays on the crusades, Gendering the Crusades will remain a valuable first reference for students of the crusading movement, gender studies and military history and will doubtless stimulate further interest in women's roles in the crusading movement.