Discordant Images

Women and Discord:

I spent part of the night reading (with a glass of porter and a fine Gurkha cigar) from Dr. Elizabeth Hallam's Chronicles of the Crusades. The book is mostly a collection of translated primary source writings from the period, both Western and Arabic. There are some sidebar pieces of analysis by the good doctor.

The Crusades are full of fascinating stories, reaching all levels of humanity. There are visions of saints and rivers of blood, chaste knights and unchaste nuns. The oath taken by the crusaders under Richard the Lionheart and his companion kings spent the greatest bulk of its words on regulations governing gambling by Crusaders while on the pilgrimage.

Here are a few notes that I thought were interesting:

Nicetas Choniates, a historian of the Byzantine empire, chronicles that the armies of the Second Crusade had "women riding astride horses... more masculine than the Amazons." Such women appear again in the chronicles of the Third Crusade at the siege of Acre, where they fought the Turks "with huge knives, bringing back severed heads in triumph." (p. 142)

Eleanor of Aquitaine's presence with the Second Crusade, however, went virtually unnoticed by the historians present for the Crusade itself. The importance of her presence, and that of her ladies, was created later by that sort of writer who -- having taken no part in the war himself -- seeks to excuse defeat by blaming it on those who did fight. A convienent excuse for those who want God to favor the righteous, the women were blamed for everything from excess luggage to excess lust. Not, that is, by anyone actually present: by people writing years later, from the safety of home.

The unchaste nun mentioned above (and mentioned on p. 73 of the text) sought out the highest authorities of the First Crusade to wail about her ravishment by a Turkish lord. She was granted forgiveness for whatever sin had been in such unlawful union, but then soon after, a messenger from that same Turk appeared to offer her a chance to join him for another such adventure. She disappeared, perhaps in the hope of winning her ravisher to marriage and Christianity, and thus making all good. So we believe, though Albert of Aachen adds after noting that potential hope, she might have gone simply "because her own lust was too much to bear."

Women made vows to go on Crusade from the earliest, the book notes, but often redeemed them for cash: this was a useful way for women who were not physically capable of the war of the day to participate in the great calling of their era. Yet even from the beginning many went in person, especially those who could afford to field a small army of followers who would add weight to the venture.

In this way, the women of the Crusades were exactly like the men. The old wisdom was that Crusaders were mostly second-sons and young men without other hopes for advancement. More careful scholarship in recent generations has proven otherwise: the Cross was taken most often by established men with much to lose, who mortgaged their holdings for the chance to clean their souls.

It's a more interesting story than we have allowed ourselves to believe it.

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