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13.03.15, Bom, Women in the Military Orders of the Crusades

13.03.15, Bom, Women in the Military Orders of the Crusades

The topic of women's participation in the military orders is one which has not had nearly as much attention as it warrants. For that reason alone, Myra Miranda Bom's book is a welcome addition to the literature. Potential readers should be aware from the outset, however, that the book delivers both more and less than the title suggests.

The book is divided into several distinct sections. The first discusses medieval attitudes to women in religious life in general. Central to Bom's thesis is the notion that the military orders' attitudes to female membership derived from the monastic tradition from which these orders developed. She concurs with earlier suggestions that the Hospitallers were more open to women membership because their order emerged out of the Augustinian canonical tradition which valued good works in the community and expressed its vocation through care for the sick. From this perspective, the order's military role was simply an extension of this expression of service. In contrast to this, she suggests, the Order of the Temple had its roots in the monastic Cistercian tradition and had a far more cautious attitude to women membership. This differing tradition is adduced to explain the relatively greater numbers of women documented as members of the Hospitallers as opposed to the Order of the Templars, which rejected women as members in 1129. She also demonstrates, however, that this distinction may not have been so neat in reality: the Templars did in fact have women members after this date, including one woman commander in northern Spain in the late thirteenth century, and many nunneries founded by women in northern Spain during this period were under the aegis of the Cistercian Order. The Teutonic Order took elements from the rule of both its major predecessors: the Templar's rule for warfare and the Hospitaller's rule for hospital and charitable work. It therefore does not fit precisely into either category. The author does not link her discussion of women's participation in religious life to the emergence of the crusading movement nor does she explore the extent to which women who joined these orders did so out of a desire to participate in the crusading movement. This would have been a welcome addition to the analysis but given the nature of the sources it may be difficult to establish.

The introductory section is followed by an overview of the female membership of a number of military orders during the twelfth and thirteenth century. The author cites the difficulty of establishing the existence of female members in these orders. In houses where both sexes are known to have been represented, the members of the community are referred to in the masculine plural, effectively disguising the female element. Women rarely appear in documentation relating to the orders and in general it is likely that estimates of female participation are significantly understated. This chapter discusses women in the Order of the Temple, the Order of Calatrava, the Order of Santiago, the Teutonic Order and the order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the major focus of the book as a whole is women's role in the Order of the Hospital of St John, and therefore, although this chapter contains much of interest, readers will not find an exhaustive analysis of the role of women in other orders here.

The bulk of the book is then devoted to a more in-depth analysis of the development of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and its attitude to the membership of women, focusing on the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. An account of the development of the Order reiterates the importance of its Augustinian roots and traces its development and gradual militarization alongside the changes in attitudes to women in religious orders. Women were associated with the order since the early twelfth century, although the first sister in the order is not documented until 1146.

A variety of forms of membership were open to women who wished to share in the merit of the Hospitaller order, and the author analyses these in detail. In particular she discusses forms of lay association and the distinction between the terms "donat" and "consoror," concluding that while the specific term used might vary locally, the type of affiliation these implied remained constant: the "consoror" relationship allowed associates to share in the spiritual benefits brought by the order in return for taking a vow and making a donation in money or in kind, while the "donat" type of affiliation represented the first step towards full professed membership. Women who did take the next step to become full members of the order were to be found working alongside men throughout the area in which the order was active; the author specifically cites the cases of the commanderies in Toulouse, Saint-Gilles and Cervera. From the 1170s onwards, in response to papal demands for the segregation of women, women's houses were set up in Sigena in Aragon by Sancha, queen of Aragon, in Buckland in England by Henry II, and in Manetin, sixty miles west of Prague. A further seven women's houses were established during the thirteenth century. The author describes the foundation at Sigena in some detail. She argues that the association with the Hospitallers allowed the queen to establish a community where she could participate in a religious life while still fulfilling her royal duties. The queen wrote an addition to the Hospitaller rule for the new foundation, and this allows detailed and vivid insight into the daily lives of the members. Bom regards this rule as "the first evidence for a new life of contemplation for Hospitaller sisters" (88), although women elsewhere continued to contribute to the active lives of mixed commanderies.

Finally, the author poses the question as to why the order appears to have been relatively positive in its attitude to women members. The statistical evidence presented shows that of the thirty-five commanderies which are known to have had women among their membership in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, only ten or possibly twelve had hospitals. Women therefore appear to have contributed to a variety of roles in the order, including leadership. Of these thirty-five commanderies, six had women commanders at some point in their history; of these five were in Spain and one in southern France. It seems probable that women were more likely to be recruited in areas where male recruitment was difficult and where there was a specific requirement for defence against the Moors. Less surprisingly, the author also points out that women often brought status, royal connections and also large donations. For the women, affiliation to the order, in whatever form it took, gave a promise of security and the opportunity to participate in its spiritual life.

Students and researchers with an interest in female monasticism and the Hospitaller order will find much to interest them here. As the book demonstrates, it is difficult to generalise about this topic. Doctrine did not always reflect reality and instead much of what shaped women's participation in the military orders appears to have been a pragmatic response to local circumstances. The author gives a great deal of information on the detail of the how the Order of St John functioned and of the contribution of specific individuals, and this is where its greatest contribution lies. There is, however, much more detailed work to be done before scholars have exhausted the theme of women's participation in the military orders.