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Since sieges, whether of castles or cities, featured assaults on places that were both military and residential centers, women were inevitably caught up in this type of warfare. The sources of medieval warfare most frequently mention women as victims of war, unfortunately. Women were much more frequently victims rather than perpetrators of war. A number of risks faced women who occupied besieged cities, including capture. Once prisoners of the enemy their fate was determined by their status. Elite married women had a good chance of being ransomed, as there was more than likely to be someone around who had the high sum to ransom them. Unmarried or poor women with no chance of ransom faced death or enslavement. Sometimes their fates were unknown- During the Crusades- Albert of Aachen reported the sorry fate of Ida, the widow of Leopold III and the countess of Austria, who served as one of several women among the leaders involved in negotiations with the emperor Alexius in Constantinople. Ida’s fate was unknown following the betrayal of the Frankish armies by the Greeks, but Albert ran through the possibilities: “Countess Ida was either captured or taken away, or torn limb from limb by the hooves of so many thousand horses: to this very day her fate is not known, except that they say she was carried off among the many thousands of women into the lands of Khorosan in eternal exile.” Literary tradition would claim that Ida, while in captivity, was converted to Islam and married to one of her captors; the son produced by this marriage would grow up to be Zengi, the Seljuk atabeg who united Turkish forces against the crusaders and began the push for reconquest that would eventually end the Latin presence in the Holy Land.
Just as captivity remained a risk throughout the crusader period, so did enslavement, the fate that awaited female captives not ransomed or killed. Slavery in this period was a feminized domestic institution; and every well-to-do family had domestic help. Again during Crusades- Fulcher of Chartres mentioned that though very few of the Muslim men survived the siege of Caesarea, “a great many of the women were spared because they could always turn the hand mills. When the Franks captured the women they bought and sold them, the comely and the ugly, among themselves.” The chronicle of Ibn Al-Qalānisī reported the enslavement of the population of Aleppo after the successful siege of April 1105: “Its population fled in panic, and a number of them were plundered and enslaved.”
Helen J. Nicholson (trans.), Chronicle of the Third Crusade (Brookfield: Ashgate, 1997), 153.
Albert of Aix, Historia Ierosolimitana: History of the Journey to Jerusalem, ed. and trans. Susan B. Edgington (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), 630-1.
Fulcher of Chartres. A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127. Trans. Frances Rita Ryan. Ed. Harold S. Fink. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1969.
Ibn Al-Qalānisī, The Damascus Chronicle of the Crusades: Extracted and Translated from the Chronicle of Ibn Al-Qalānisī, ed. and trans. H. A. R. Gibb (London: Luzac & Co., 1967), 70.
Jennifer Lynn Jordan is an author and medieval blogger. She is also a doctoral student in medieval history and teaching fellow at SUNY Stony Brook.