Medieval Warfare, The First Crusade, and Rape: Lessons for the Present?

Above Image: Francis Rita Ryan’s translation of Fulcher (Fulk) of Chartres A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem- 1095-1127 (University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1969).


On January 3, 2015, I had the chance to present a paper for the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City. I am presenting the basic text of my talk below. Anyone familiar with the dynamics of presenting papers at academic conferences will realize this is a very condensed overview of my broader consideration of the topic.

My paper was titled “Rape and the First Crusade.” It considers the oddity of the First Crusade as it related to the issue. While the wartime rape of captured women (and sometimes men) was common by all medieval armies, Christian or Islamic, the participants of the First Crusade generally seem to have avoided the practice. Indeed, the sources, whether friendly or hostile to the crusaders, seem to agree on the issue. This presentation pulls together some disconnected themes already considered by other historians into a broader and more comprehensive narrative to argue that the theoretical framework of the First Crusade contributed to a new mentality among warriors by which they sought to avoid sexual immorality, including rape, if they were to be successful on the battlefield.

This seems worthwhile to post here because the wartime rape of captive women continues to be a major problem today. One need only consider events in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s, or more recent events with Boko Haram in Nigeria or ISIS in Iraq over the past few months. See my recent blog post on the issue here. What is most interesting about the First Crusade (as it relates to this topic) is that this potentially represents a case in which a theological framework for warfare seems to have, at the least, diminished instances of rape by otherwise violent warriors who had become accustomed to such practices prior to the First Crusade. If medieval Christian clerics could find a way to curtail, if not eliminate, such a brutal practice by Christian warriors in their day, then perhaps there is some small kernel of value in studying this for dealing with similar problems in the present.

yaz Boko


Rape and the First Crusade

Andrew Holt- Presented to the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship, AHA Annual Meeting, Jan. 3, 2015.

I’d like to begin by pointing out that there has been a lot in the news recently, and unfortunately, about the topic of rape and warfare. Just to highlight two of the most prominent recent examples, the Islamist group Boko Haram has kidnapped 200 Christian girls in Nigeria, who they then forcibly married off to various jihadists to provide them with wives. More recently, forces of the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) have kidnapped large numbers of Yazidhi women in Iraq and held the equivalent of public auctions for them. A youtube video claims to show the enthusiastic jihadists waiting around, with one of them smiling as he announces how happy he is to be getting a “sex slave,” and that he hopes to get a “young one.”

This obviously offends modern sensibilities. Indeed, some popular news commentators have, unsurprisingly, referred to the actions of the Islamic State and Boko Haram as “medieval.” Certainly, modern medieval historians often roll their eyes at the use of the term. We all know that a lot of modern popular writers and commentators use the term indiscriminately and (often enough), improperly.

Yet in this case, the claim that the seizure of enemy women in combat for sexual purposes was rather typical of the Middle Ages is, essentially, correct. As many scholars have long argued, this was indeed a common practice among medieval armies, both Christian and Islamic. On the Islamic side, for example, perhaps the best known text revealing this reality for captured Christian women during the crusading era is found in Imad ad Din’s account of the aftermath of Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem. Although undoubtedly engaging in some degree of hyperbole, Imad ad Din highlighted the triumph of Muslim warriors who, in his words, “deflowered,” “tamed,” and “stripped of their modesty” thousands of Christian women. Why was this an important topic for Imad ad Din to so gleefully highlight in the wake of the conquest? Because the mistreatment of the enemies’ women in such a way suggested both the totality of the conquest and the humiliation of their enemies.

Although typically condemned by clerical authorities, medieval Christian warriors also often engaged in rape. As has been widely researched by many others (Bradbury, Keen, etc…), siege warfare customs dating back to Greek and Roman times, held that the populations of towns under siege had an important choice to make. It was customary that if a defending population negotiated the surrender of a town and most of its possessions to an attacking army, agreeing to hand over the town or city, they could leave with their lives (at least) and typically avoid captivity. Yet if the defending population decided that they could withstand the siege successfully, then they risked capture and often brutal treatment as captives of their conquerors. All bets were off, so to speak, concerning the fate of the captured townspeople. Although medieval clerical writers often condemned rape, as an extension of their general concerns about non-marital sexual relations, it remained a major concern as late as the Hundred Years War, when wartime rape was prohibited as a crime punishable by death.

The circumstances of the First Crusade (specifically, and not necessarily later crusades) provide some interesting insights into this clash of clerical expectations and military custom. It was then that, at least in theory, that clerical authorities had the opportunity to establish new rules for warfare due to their spiritual oversight of the expedition. Indeed, it was the Pope who called for the crusade and put it under the oversight of the Church, requiring participants to take pilgrimage vows (later known as crusading vows) demanding the monk like virtues of chastity and humility for the duration of the crusade.

The thinking behind requiring such vows, at least as espoused by clerical writers of the time, was that since this was a type of holy war, the warriors needed to be holy. The success of holy wars did not depend on the prowess of the fighters, but rather the good will of God, who enabled victory for those who were faithful to him. If such warriors claiming to represent God sinned during the course of the crusade, then they no longer represented him, and thus lost his favor and would surely lose on the battlefield as well (e.g. example of the events at Antioch).

Obviously, the vow of chastity prohibited, in theory at least, the customary practice of raping captured women during the course of the crusade. Unchastity in any context, customary or not, was forbidden. This is not to suggest that knights and others who participated in the crusade were always chaste. Clerical sources are full of complaints by clergymen over crusaders cavorting with washer-women, prostitutes, etc… But what about the specific issue of rape?

A number of books published since the 1970s claim that the participants of the First Crusade regularly engaged in rape. An oft-mentioned line I came across was that the knights and pilgrims who participated in the First Crusade all “took time off “for the rape of Muslim women as they made their way on their crusade. On further inspection, it turns out that nearly all of these secondary source claims can be traced back to one book- Susan Brownmiller’s now classic and once bestselling work, Against our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, published in 1975. So I checked the reference in Brownmiller’s book and, disappointingly, she did not provide a footnote for this information.

Moreover, and in contrast, a few crusades historians have highlighted that the clerical Latin sources of the First Crusade do not claim the crusaders raped captive women. If so, this would represent a significant change from how medieval warfare was typically carried out. The crusaders were, after all, very successful militarily, conquering a number of cities and populations during the First Crusade. It would be odd if they avoided availing themselves of what they would have understood as the customary act of imposing themselves on captured women in the wake of a successful conquest.

Was this a case of the crusaders’ religious beliefs having a mitigating effect on one of the most brutal crimes associated with warfare, ancient, medieval, or modern? If so, based on current events, then this is certainly a topic worthy of study. From what I have seen most historians have only given this topic a few lines or paragraphs here and there, without a focused study on crusader attitudes toward rape.

First, let me begin by considering how some, specifically, crusades specialists have dealt with the issue of the crusaders possibly committing rape. Concerning the sources, Yvonne Friedman in her essay, Captivity and Ransom: The Experience of Women, very briefly addresses this topic and correctly notes that no Christian chronicler of the First Crusade would boast of the rape of women as Imad ad Din (mentioned earlier) did (pgs 127-128). To the contrary, she highlights the well known reference to Fulk (Fulcher) of Chartre, where after the successful battle of Antioch, he boasts not of how the crusaders raped captured women, but instead of how they did not rape captured women. Specifically, he notes how the crusaders did the captive Muslim women “no evil” and instead only drove lances into their bellies.

Fulk’s claims are in keeping with clerical concerns about almost all forms of sexuality at the time, with rape being no exception. The First Crusade, called in the immediate wake of the Gregorian Reform by the former cluniac monk Pope Urban II was a product of its time. Just as the reforming monks sought to impose monastic virtues on priests during the Gregorian Reform, during the First Crusade they attempted to do the same with lay participants through the imposition of pilgrimage vows of humility and chastity. This was also a period when canonists like Ivo and Gratian were starting to address the topic of rape as a major sin, with major penalties. In keeping with such views, the later twelfth-century historian William of Tyre claimed clerical leaders imposed specific prohibitions on the crusaders that included drinking, swearing, and sexual immorality to include rape.

Such attempted prohibitions are a bit stunning from the perspective of a gender historian like myself, as such behaviors (bawdy behavior, boasting, sexual prowess, etc…) were often essential to how knights defined themselves as men in the competitive world of the eleventh and twelfth century nobility. Nevertheless, the clerical authorities of the First Crusade required knights to abandon all of these traditional markers of knightly masculinity if they were to participate in the crusade. It is possible that such restrictions may have contributed to the reason that only 1% to 2% of Europe’s knights participated in the crusade.

But of course clerical accounts like Fulk’s should not be accepted uncritically. As a member of the clergy he may have had an interest in portraying the crusaders as obedient to clerical authority. Also, the fact that he emphasized how the crusaders did not rape the captured Muslim women of Antioch may reflect his concern over either the fact that some crusaders had committed the act previously or that rumors existed they were engaging in such behavior. Moreover, some secondary works written by scholars (although not necessarily crusades specialists) will claim that at least some of the earliest participants of the First Crusade did engage in the rape of Muslim women. All of these secondary works ultimately point to the Chanson d’Antioche as their source, which specifically claims that an exceptionally violent group of crusade participants known as the Tafurs raped Muslim women after the conquest of Antioch.

The problem with these claims is that much of it is speculative. Fulk “may” have emphasized that good crusaders at Antioch did not rape out of concern that other crusaders had engaged in such practices earlier, but this is not certain. Similarly, he “might” have been emphasizing the unwillingness of crusaders to rape Muslim women to combat rumors the Tafurs had been raping women. But again, “may” and “might” are not certain. Moreover, the claim that the Tafurs raped Muslim women at Antioch is based on a very weak source- The Chanson d’Antioche was written nearly a century later not as a serious historical source, but for the literary purpose of entertaining knights. Consequently, its reliability as a source is much disputed. It includes the incredible claim, for example, that Christian women formed a battalion of warriors during the Battle for Antioch and engaged their Muslim opponents, which is not repeated in any other source. This troublesome source, written nearly a century later, seems to be the only source that claims that participants of the First Crusade raped captive women and is in direct opposition to contemporary sources that claim otherwise.

What about Muslim sources for the First Crusade? They said many negative things about the crusaders, describing them as everything from polytheists to barbarians. Rarely do they miss an opportunity to highlight the primitive and violent nature of the crusaders. The more substantive sources are from decades later, written around 1160 or later. Yet according to the Islamic history scholar Carole Hillenbrand, in some cases, later accounts may be based on earlier surviving contemporary sources such as Islamic poetry.

So what do these sources say about the first crusaders committing rape against Muslim women?

Nothing, really.

There is only one source that, perhaps, hints at it. In this case, the poet Ibn al-Khayyat at one point, writing of the fear that Muslim girls and women had at the coming of the crusaders, might be addressing the issue. But that is it- just an ambiguous reference to the fear of Muslim women on the approach of the crusaders. No specific claim that they feared sexual assault. So far as I am aware, and I continue to study this issue, there is no actual claim that the crusaders committed such actions. To the contrary, early Arab sources are surprisingly quiet on the issue of rape when they otherwise take every opportunity to highlight the violence and transgressions of the first crusaders. Now this could be because Arab writers did not want to highlight the subjugation of their women to the crusaders, which would be a source of shame to Muslim men. In this case they would not want to include such references as the dominance of enemy women was seen as a clear sign of conquest. Yet, whatever the reason, there is nothing in Islamic sources for the First Crusade that supports the idea that crusaders raped captive women.

But there are still third party accounts that we can consult- the Hebrew accounts of Jewish victims of the First Crusaders. Although Crusades historians have debated the degree (or the numbers) to which Jews suffered during the First Crusade, there is no debate that they suffered….and quite a bit too. Thus, it is not surprising that they would have a say in all of this through their surviving sources.

Thanks to the work of S.D. [Shelomo Dov] Goitein in the Cairo Geniza, the discovery of a few letters, two discovered in 1952 and one in 1975, have given us some insights into the crusaders’ actions during the massacre that took place after their conquest of Jerusalem. The letters reflect the awareness of the elders of Ascalon of the predicament of the Jerusalem Jews, who they had been in correspondence with in the immediate wake of the conquest. The most telling point of the letters, for our purpose here, is the claim by an elder of Ascalon reporting to other Jews on the situation in Jerusalem, who at one point notes, “We have not heard, thank God, the exalted, that the cursed ones known as Ashkenaz, violated or raped women as others do.” Let me highlight how the writer makes it a point to include this in his note, which suggests how unusual it was for the time, as the “cursed” crusaders do not act on this issue in the same way “as others do.”

So again, to recap, we have both friendly Christian AND hostile Jewish sources from the First Crusade that, nevertheless, explicitly deny crusaders raped women in cases where, according to the typically accepted customs of medieval siege warfare, they normally would. I should also note that we also have the silence of specifically lay Christian sources on the issue, as the Gesta Francorum (written by a knight) or surviving letters from other knights on the crusade never mention the occurrence of rape. Similarly, Muslim sources on the First Crusade are silent as well when they would seemingly otherwise never fail to highlight the barbarity of the crusaders.

So then, why are so many modern secondary sources continuing to claim the first crusaders were raping women?

As best I can tell, generally negative modern assumptions about the crusaders, when coupled with the very real and extraordinary violence of the crusaders, as well as our knowledge of customary rules of medieval warfare in a non-crusading context, perhaps make it easy for many authors to accept the claim that the crusaders were rapists. But the sources do not actually provide evidence for that conclusion and instead seem to say the opposite.

I don’t have any grand conclusions about this, at least not yet, but I’m working on it. It’s a topic that I am really only now seriously beginning to research and pull all of these disparate parts together into a collective whole.

But it seems like a much more significant topic than it has so far been given credit for. If it can be shown that the framework of the crusade, as a unique new type of holy war, imposed by the clergy on the violent knights of late eleventh-century Europe, could effectively change the battlefield behavior of medieval warriors with regard to rape, then it certainly seems like a subject worthy of study for today.

While the rape of captured women in the Middle Ages was expected and considered customary on the part of all armies, Christian or Muslim, today it’s clearly a war-crime. Yet even with this added stigma, the association of rape with warfare continues on a broad scale in the present (e.g. consider events in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s or Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS in Iraq today). Yet if the rough, warlike, and violent men of the First Crusade could- apparently- be tempered in their desire to commit the act of rape through the theological framework of war fighting created for the First Crusade, perhaps there is something those medieval crusading clerics can teach us on how to deal with the issue in the present.