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A TYPICAL IMAGE OF CRUSADING WOMEN has them as suffragettes or wielding hatchets against Demon Rum. But Barbara Newman writes of “Cauldrons for Helmets” in London Review of Books, April 13, 2023. She’s reviewing Helen J. Nicholson’s Women and the Crusades.

Women and the Crusades, by Helen J. Nicholson, Oxford University Press, 2023.

Helen J. Nicholson is Professor of Medieval History at Cardiff University, with a speciality on the crusades. Among her other works are a history of Queen Sybil of Jerusalem (1186–1190). IndieBound says Women and the Crusades “surveys women’s involvement in medieval crusading between the second half of the eleventh century, when Pope Gregory VII first proposed a penitential military expedition to help the Christians of the East, and 1570, when the last crusader state, Cyprus, was captured by the Ottoman Turks.” Here are tidbits gleaned from Barbara Newman’s LRB review.

Newman writes, “Few medieval enterprises have been as romanticised or as vilified as the Crusades. Aside from the bitter legacy of hate they left in the Middle East, they also wrought havoc in Europe…. As they failed in their primary goals—to recapture territory and convert Muslims—the crusaders’ ideal evolved towards the purification of society through penance and imitation of Christ in his Passion, especially in the very lands where he suffered.”

Deadly Activities. “Even for non-combatants,” Newman writes, “the dangers of such expeditions were very real. During the First Crusade in 1096-99, one of the few which actually achieved its military goal, the overall casualty rate was astonishing. Historians’ estimates range from 37 per cent (Jonathan Riley-Smith) to as high as 75 per cent (John France), with illness and starvation causing more deaths than combat.”

Varied Women’s Roles. Newman observes, “Women frequently travelled on campaign with their menfolk. But female warriors were rare, not only because of conventional gender roles but because women lacked the specialised training and equipment of knights. Far more often they served in support roles: supplying food for crusaders, doing their laundry, tending the sick, and providing sexual services, sometimes as prostitutes but more commonly as wives and mistresses. Many also travelled as servants.”

Women As Warriors. Newman recounts, “Urraca, queen of Castile between 1109 and 1126, is said to have led her own army against the Almoravids, capturing Sigüenza from them in 1124. She also fought other Christians, including her half-sister Teresa of Portugal.”

Such were the tumultuous times.

A 14th-century depiction of crusading knights and Saracens. Image from

A Most Compelling Tale. “At a humbler rank,” Newman says, “the Cistercian monk Thomas of Froidmont wrote a Life of his heroic sister, Margaret of Beverley. Having gone on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1187 while Saladin was besieging the city, Margaret assisted in its defence ‘like a fierce virago,’ wearing a cauldron as a helmet as she carried water to defenders on the walls. Wounded in the assault, she displayed her scars long afterward.” 

I’m reminded of Henry V’s speech prior to the Battle of Agincourt some 230 years later: “Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars/ And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’ ”

“When the city fell,” Newman continues, “she paid her own ransom and escaped, but was later captured and enslaved by Muslims, who forced her to do fifteen months of labour. Margaret was then ransomed again and travelled home via Acre, one of the last Christian strongholds, after many hair-raising adventures. An inveterate pilgrim, she stopped along the way to visit shrines in Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Finally she became a Cistercian nun in France, where she lived until at least 1210.”

Jerusalem-Born, c. 1150. Indeed, Wikipedia notes, “Though conceived in England, Margaret was born in Jerusalem due to her parents being on a pilgrimage.” Her parents and she “returned to England shortly after Margaret’s birth and settled in Beverley, Yorkshire.” Original-source details of her life are described by her brother/biographer, the monk Thomas of Froidmont. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023 

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