When thinking about the Crusades, few people consider the dramatic effect on women in these unsettling times. At first women, as ill prepared as men, set off for the Holy Lands, eager to wash away their sins and receive special glory for their effort to free Jerusalem from Muslim control.
After the bloody failures of the Crusaders in the fall of 1096, however, Pope Urban II decreed that henceforth no women, old people, nor children could take part in the Crusades. Despite Pope Urban’s ban, some women accompanied their husbands anyway. The best known adventurer was Queen Eleanor of Acquitaine.
Women who were left behind had to fend for themselves. The absence of a husband, son or guardian could be as long as ten years. Many men never returned. It is reported that in the second and third crusades perhaps 500,000 were lost, a significant drain on the male Christian population. Poignant evidence illustrates the emotional effect crusading men’s absence had on women. Two French troubadour songs speak to the depth of women’s loss:
‘Jesus,’ she said, ‘King of the world, because of You my grief increases,
I am undone by your humiliation, for the best men of this whole world are going off to serve you’,
..Nothing matters now, for he has gone so far away.’”
Know this to be true: I’ll never love you, for this is the reason for my unhappiness... Fair, sweet lover, how will you endure your great ache for me out on the salty sea,
When nothing that exists could ever tell the deep grief that has come into my heart?
When I think of your gentle, sparkling face that I used to kiss and caress,
It is a great miracle that I am not deranged....”
(Anonymous singer of women’s songs)