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...