5. Women in Medieval Warfare


 

In this page, you will be introduced to women in wartime within the medieval period examining why they went to war, their militarised roles and the gendered historiography surrounding them within the military history literature.

Guiding Questions

When examining women in medieval warfare, think of the following questions:

  • What the historical discourse is on women in war.
  • What role women played in wartime.
  • The historiography of women in war.
  • Cross regional historical sources on women and their significance in wartime.
  • New historical perspectives challenging prior and existing perspectives.

Causes

Historians have assessed the underlying causes and outcomes for the militarised role of women in medieval periods. Due to the sources often not revealing explicitly the motives for why women went to war, historians have made inferences from the available evidence. Some of these possible reasons are outlined below:

Political vacuum: Oversees military duty for men left women to fill roles that involved more than domestic supervision of the family. Those who were elite women had to defend their husband's land, fortresses and estate from rivals. Low-ranking women too defended their husband's property.

Necessity: often, there was no choice for high-ranking women but to be embroiled into war or conflict due to the failing alliances of their husbands or expansionist ambitions of their political and dynastic rivals.

Religious reasons: many women, nobility and general folk alike, fought for deeply religious reasons. Some for penance and others for their conviction of seeking victory for the Cross.

ATL Skills: Communication and Critical Thinking

Comparative Task

Complete the task in the link provided

comparative activity: Women WWI and medieval war

Discourse on Women

There are wildly varying perspectives historians have on women's role and presence in military history. Writer, lecturer, women's activist and historian Mary R. Beard wrote:

...had power as rulers or in ruling families they often instigated and proclaimed wars and even marshalled the troops as they went into battle. They incited men to ferocity at the fighting fronts. They accompanied men on marauding expeditions. They fought in the ranks. They took up arms to defend their homes (Women as Force in History: A Study in Traditions and Realities, New York, NY.: Macmillan, 1947, p.279).

The famous military historian John Keegan, however, concluded:

Warfare is, nevertheless, the one human activity from which women, with the most insignificant exceptions, have always and everywhere stood apart… [Women] never, in any military sense, fight men. If warfare is as old as history and as universal as mankind, we must now enter the supremely important limitation that it is an entirely masculine activity (A History of Warfare, New York, NY.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, p. 76).

These two views appear to mark the polar opposites of evaluating women's involvement in medieval warfare. As students examining the practice of war as part of your syllabus, it is important to understand the shifting attitudes and interpretations among historians regarding not only women's active role in conflict, but their experiences and perspectives.

It is also important to note that the historical sources on this topic reveal a complex array of information - often conflicting - that requires analysis and interpretive skill. This makes the task daunting no doubt, but exciting too!

Limitations

Military historians whether in pre-modern or modern times assessing the role, function and impact of women during the medieval period had a number of limitations that affected their research. These included:

  1. Little focus on women's role, function and impact in wartime as a specific area of research.
  2. Selective assessment of women's role, function and impact in wartime.
  3. Lack of documentation of women's perspectives and actual experiences in wartime.
  4. The guiding assumption that women played a one-dimensional role during war - facilitating men.

Some key works on women in medieval warfare in addition to the references in the page include:

Women Crusading.

Gendering The Crusades.

Writing War.

Defining women:

Below is a handout on how women were defined in the Medieval period.

Women in medieval thought:

    ATL Skills: Critical Thinking
    Aristotle on Women

    Aristotle in his Politics states (1245b13-15):

    Again, as between the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.

    Questions:

    [1] Why do you think Aristotle's characterisation of women appeared so attractive to medieval thinkers? Discuss.

    (some background reading on Aristotle's view on women for the discussion can be found here and here).

    ATL Skills: Critical Thinking
    Saxo Grammaticus

    Below is an excerpt from the 12th century author Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum ('Deeds of the Danes') which is a patriotic work written in a literary style chronicling the history of Denmark and Scandinavia. Recounting Danish women who dressed like men and spent most of their time cultivating soldiers' skills, Garammaticus writes:

    (tr. by E. Fisher, reproduced in Saunders, "Women and Warfare in Medieval English Writing", in Writing War: Medieval Literary Responses to Warfare, ed. by Corinne J. Saunders, Françoise LE Saux and Neil Thomas, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2004, p.189).

    Questions:

    [1] State three things you can infer from this source. (3)

    [2] "As if they were forgetful of their true selves they put toughness before allure". What do you think this statement means? Discuss.

    [2] What are the values and limitations of this source for Historians understanding medieval women in wartime. (4)

    Military role of Women

    Although the military in the early and late medieval period was a male-dominated arena, historical sources do suggest a complex inter-relationship at play between women and the demands and circumstances of war. Women's involvement in war- in their capacity as high-ranking persons - as the sources appear to suggest, lay primarily within two capacities:

    (1) commanding armies and

    (2) diplomacy.

    Military Commanders

    This involved women ordering the movement of troops, making strategic decisions and possessing responsibility for the outcome of a battle or siege in which they were involved. Often, the women who assumed a military role of this sort did so in a defensive situation and only temporarily, until circumstances permitted a male to assume charge or the position of military leadership. Women were usually forced out of necessity to defend their castle or territory. Some women, however, had a greater freedom to influence military affairs and very few were even able to conduct military campaigns or assaults from their own initiative - as independents.

    Agents of Diplomacy

    This involved women of the royal or nobility households as agents of negotiation or as mediators or intercessors on behalf of warring third parties. Such a role afforded them a capacity whereby they could play a significant role in influencing whether diplomatic negotiations were successful.

    Example 1: Ethelfled

    One medieval monarch who commanded armies and indeed admiration was Ethelfled, Lady of the Mercians.

    (She ruled from 911 until her death in 918).

    Henry of Huntingdon had this to say about her in his Chronicle of England:

    (The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon: Comprising The History of England, from the Invasion of Juluis Cæsar to the Accession of Henry II. Also, The Acts of Stephen, King of England and Duke of Normandy, London: H. G. Bohn, 1853), pp.167-168.

    ATL Skills: Communication

    EthelFleda

    Questions:

    [1] Read Huntingdon's account of Ethelfleda above. State three things you can infer from that source. (3)

    [2] How might Huntingdon's account be a value and a limitation for historians studying the life of Ethelfleda? (make sure you explain your answer clearly). (4)

    [3] What does Huntingdon's tribute in verse to Ethelfleda suggest about men, war and medieval gender roles? Discuss. (you can write your answer if you wish).

    (You may read a quick fact page on Ethelfleda here at the bbc page).

    On women and diplomacy in the middle ages, Theresa Earenfight writes:

    ("Diplomacy and Reconciliation" in Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia, ed. by M. C. Schaus, New York: Routledge, 2006, pp.210-211).

    Example 2: Shajar al-Durr

    Another famous woman who was brief ruler over the Mamluk Sultanate was Shajar al-Durr (d. 1257). (Sometimes spelled as "shajarat al-Durr", which literally means 'Tree of Pearls' in Arabic).

    The famous Egyptian historian born in the Turkish Mamluk elite of Cairo al-Taghribirdi (d. 1411) in his encyclopedic work of history entitled al-Nujum al-Zahira fi Muluk Misr wa'l-Qahira ('The Resplendent Stars of the Kings of Egypt and Cairo'), vol.2, p.243 (online edition) reproduces the excerpt by the early 14th century historian al-Safadi (d. 1363):

    قال الشيخ صلاح الدين خليل بن أيبك الصفدي في تاريخه: " شجرة الدر أم خليل الصالحية وجارية السلطان الملك الصالح نجم الدين أيوب، وأم ولده خليل؛ كان الملك الصالح يحبها حباً عظيماً، ويعتمد عليها في أموره ومهماته؛ وكانت بديعة الجمال ذات رأي وتدبير ودهاء وعقل، ونالت من السعادة ما لم ينله أحد في زمانها. ولما مات الملك الصالح في شعبان سنة سبع وأربعين وستمائة على دمياط في حصار الفرنج، أخفت موته وصارت تعلم بخطها مثل علامة الملك الصالح، وتقول: السلطان ما هو طيب. وتمنع الناس من الدخول إليه؛ وكان أرباب الدولة يحترمونها. ولما علموا بموت السلطان ملكوها عليهم أياماً. وتسلطنت بعد قتل السلطان الملك المعظم ابن الملك الصالح نجم الدين أيوب، وخطب لها على المنابر، وكان الخطباء يقولون على المنبر بعد الدعاء للخليفة: " واحفظ اللهم الجهة الصالحية ملكة المسلمين، عصمة الدنيا والدين أم خليل المستعصمية صاحبة السلطان الملك الصالح " . انتهى كلام الصفدي.
    The shaykh Salah al-Din Khalil b. Aybak al-Safadi in his historical work wrote: Shajarat al-Durr, Umm Khalil al-Salihiyya, the servant girl of the Sultan al-Malik al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub, mother to his son Khalil. al-Malik al-Salih loved her very much and relied on her in all important state matters. She had extraordinary beauty, was opinionated, managerial, cunning, sharp, delightful and intelligent. She attained success and happiness that no one in her time had attained. When al-Malik al-Salih passed away in the month of Sha'ban in the year 647 [Hijri] in the city of Damietta during the Crusades, his death was concealed ... She prevented the people from entering to see him. The powerful elite within the state would revere and respect her. When they had learned of the Sultan's death, they appointed her in authority over them for a period of time and so she assumed power after the death of the Sultan al-Malik al-Mu'azzam b. al-Malik al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub. She was praised from the platforms in the Friday sermons where those leading the prayers would recite after their supplications for the Caliph, "Oh Lord! protect the administration of al-Salihiyya the Queen of the Muslims, the protection of this world and the next, the mother of Khalil, following the Caliph al-Mu'tasim, widow of al-Malik al-Salih!" Here al-Safadi's words end.

    For some general information about her life, achievements and significance see the articles here by Amalia Levanoni, here by Tom Verde for Aramcoworld, here and here.

    Below is an excerpt from an encyclopedia entry on Shajar al-Durr by S. Calderini:

     

    ("Shajar al-Durr", The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History, vol.1, ed. by B. G. Smith, New York-Oxford: University Press, 2008, p.30).

    (S. Guthrie, Arab Women in the Middle Ages: Private Lives and Public Roles, London: Saqi Publications, 2013).

    ATL Skills: Communication
    al-Tighribirdi

    Questions:

    [1] Read al-Tighribirdi's account of Shajar al-Durr above. State three things you can infer from that source.

    [2] How might al-Tighribirdi's account be a value and a limitation for historians studying the life of Shajar al-Durr? (make sure you explain your answer clearly).

    [3] What does al-Tighribirdi's excerpt on Shajar al-Durr suggest about politics in the Muslim lands as well as medieval gender roles? Discuss. (you can write your answer if you wish).

    Other roles women played in war included that of a support role in the army, e.g.

    1. bringing water for the soliders,
    2. tending to the wounded,
    3. morale for the fighters (urging them on),
    4. laundresses,
    5. picking lice and fleas from men's bodies,
    6. standing a post to defend it,
    7. operating stownthrowers as part of an attack strategy.
    ATL Skills: Critical Thinking and Communication

    Wartime Entertainment

    Read the article from the BBC here and take some time to research "militainment" and "Morale and Welfare Activity" (as per NATO). Also watch the clips below here (cheerleaders for the US troops) and here (Marilyn Monroe singing for the troops) respectively:

    Questions:

    [1] Why do you think maintaining morale is important for those in war? Discuss.

    [2] What do the videos above suggest about contemporary culture and the role of women in wartime? Discuss.

    [3] Regarding women in war, have we moved away from the gender embedded characterisation of the medieval period? [Set up a class debate on this topic].

    Women as victims of war

    The historical sources mention that a number of negative consequences specifically for women during war, included:

    1. Death.
    2. Torture.
    3. Injury.
    4. Trauma.
    5. Enslavement.
    ATL Skills: Critical Thinking

    What is War?

    Read the poem by Rose-Troup below:

    (Reproduced in Saunders, "Women and Warfare in Medieval English Writing", p.187).

    Questions:

    [1] What do you think this poem means? Discuss.

    [2] How might this poem reflect gender stereotypes? Discuss

    [3] This poem was written in 1916. How insightful and relevant do think it is for understanding women in medieval wartime? Discuss.

    One of the most brutal acts in war, however, is rape. Women were the primary targets. Rape was used as a weapon in order to dehumanise, intimidate, humiliate and demoralise the enemy. Martial rape was a grotesque combination of power, terror and violence "masquerading as passion".

    The medieval period, like the present, was not free from this kind of dehumanising act. In the Nuestra Señora de la Asunción in Alaitza (Álava), for example, the northern chancel vault has this register of a complex narrative of warfare, pilgrimage and rape. The latter is vividly depicted (all the more troubling due to its proximity to the holiest part of the church): 

    James F. Powers and Lorraine C. Attreed describe the painting:

    ("Women in the Context of Romensque Combat Scenes in Spain and France" in The Medieval Way of War: Studies in Medieval Military History in Honor of Bernard S. Bachrach, ed. by G. I. Halfond, New York: Routledge, 2016, pp.244-246).

    Women and the Crusades

    This section can be read with the content for the HL Paper 3 Option on The Crusades.

    The European women who lived during the Crusades were faced with many challenges and opportunities. Although the society of the time was patriarchal (male dominated), it is a serious misconception to think of the medieval woman of this era as merely the “Lady in the Tower”, remote from the affairs of everyday life. There are times when Christian women would actually go to war and fight alongside their husbands or with other men. Medieval Arabic sources mention this. The 13th century Medieval historian Baha’ al-Din ibn Yusuf al-Shaddad (d. 1234) - personal biographer of Saladin - for example writes:

    ولقد حكى لي شيخ عاقل جندي أنه كان من جملة من دخل قال وكان داخل سورهم امرأة عظيمة عليها ملوطة خضراء فما زالت ترمينا بقوس من خشب حتى خرجت منا جماعة وتكاثرنا عليها وقتلناها وأخذنا قوسها وحملنا إلى السلطان فعجب من ذلك عجباً عظيم

    One very intelligent old man related to me that he was amongst those who forced their way into the enemy's trenches that day. 'Behind their rampart', he told me, 'was a women, wrapped in a green melluta,' [a kind of mantle] 'who kept on shooting arrows from a wooden bow, with which she wounded several of our men. She was at last overpowered by numbers; we killed her, and brought the bow she had been using to the Sultan, who was greatly astonished'.

    (The life of Saladin, trans. A. Stewart, Palestinian Pilgrims Text Society, London, 1897, p.195. The Arabic text of this work, with French translation, is in RHC Or. vol.3, pp.3-370. Finally, see 'Imad al-Din al-Isfahani, Conquête de la Syrie et de la Palestine par Saladin, trans. H. Massé, Documents relatifs l'histoire des croisades 10, Paris, 1972, pp.239-240. A detailed study of women on crusade is in R. C. Finucane, Soldiers of the Faith: Crusaders and Muslims at War (London, 1983), pp.174-184.).

    ATL Skills: Communication
    Ibn Yusuf al-Shaddad

    Questions:

    Read the source containing Ibn Yusuf al-Shaddad's account.

    [1] What can you infer from the source? Write three points.

    ATL Skills: Communication

    Women and the Crusades

    Below is a set of activities on a unique royal figure of the 12th century Anna Comnena and her perspective on the Crusades through the Alexiad:

    Anna Comnena

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