It’s a subject that has vexed historians and history buffs – did women fight in the crusades? There are strong claims that they did. But what role did they actually play?
Saracen claim of women on crusade
The Saracen chronicler Imad ad-Din al-Isfahani claims that women did indeed fight on the Christian side. He accompanied Saladin on all his major campaigns including the Battle of Hattin where the crusader and Templar force was slaughtered. This was what he claimed about women in chain mail:
“Among the Franks there were indeed women who rode into battle with cuirasses and helmets, dressed in men’s clothes; who rode out into the thick of the fray and acted like brave men although they were but tender women, maintaining that all this was an act of piety, thinking to gain heavenly rewards by it, and making it their way of life. Praise be to him who led them into such error and out of the paths of wisdom! On the day of battle more than one woman rode out with them like a knight and showed (masculine) endurance in spite of the weakness (of her sex); clothed only in a coat of mail they were not recognized as women until they had been stripped of their arms. Some of them were discovered and sold as slaves.”
So, does this prove women were really in the crusades?
Was this really true?
The consensus view among scholars – well, the view I’ve seen aired among most sources – is that this was intended as a mocking, derogatory accusation by the Islamic chronicler to denigrate the crusader army. But that said, Guibert of Nogent claimed that a “troop of Amazons” accompanied the Emperor Conrad on crusade in Syria.
Dr Helen Nicholson argues that women did take the cross – they certainly accompanied their husbands and may have acted as auxiliary forces bringing supplies to warriors. But did they actually fight in battle?
Well, Dr Nicholson quotes a Saracen source that describes female corpses on the battlefield at Acre in 1190 – the writing is so vivid that it’s probably true. They would, in all likelihood, have fought alongside the infantry in defence of the city.