The early Crusades, from 1095 to 1291, were holy wars fought to ensure safe passage for Christian pilgrims to religious places in the east. At first, the pilgrimages weren’t deliberately exclusive of women, but with the men off fighting for God, who better to protect the castle? Wives, mothers and sisters were encouraged to show support for the cause by keeping hearth and home in one piece until the men returned.
In 1095, Pope Urban II responded to Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnemnos’s plea for assistance by gathering an army. The original intent was to protect Constantinople against the invading Turks, but soon the objective changed to recapture Jerusalem and protect Eastern Christians from Islamic rule, which was also the goal for the second crusade.
Dr. E.L. Skip Knox summarizes Pope Urban’s speech, and this is a portion, perhaps explaining why people were willing to crusade:
“God himself will lead them, for they will be doing His work. There will be absolution and remission of sins for all who die in the service of Christ. Here they are poor and miserable sinners; there they will be rich and happy. Let none hesitate; they must march next summer. God wills it!”
So, there you have it. Absolution is a great deal, especially if you’ve done something you need pardoned for. Unfortunately, while the First Crusade was militarily successful, in terms of lives lost, women and children numbered high. Following the Crusade, the Pope expressed his disapproval of ladies, kids, and the elderly participating in further holy quests.
In 1145, this didn’t stop Eleanor, eight years into being Queen of France. When she heard Abbot Bernard Clairvaux’s cries for volunteers, she pledged not only a thousand of her loyal vassals, but three hundred of her royal women. Because she was Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, she commanded her men – along with her husband, King Louis. The story goes that the king was so enamored of his spirited young wife that she often had her way, despite his advisor’s guidance.
Chroniclers of the time said that Eleanor and her ladies dressed in red and white, and pranced along the hill top while riding white horses, and wearing red crosses, to encourage others to pledge their oath. Historians since then have disagreed. I say, where there is smoke, there is fire. While Eleanor may not have been the painted hussy the original writers allude to, I am certain that she did find a way to show her own colors.
I have read Odo de Deuil’s “Journey of Louis VII” from front to back, and again, many times. The main place where Eleanor is mentioned is when her vassal doesn’t follow the king’s instructions and many lives are lost, almost including Louis’. I’ve studied the reasons why Eleanor, such an amazing character, was not in the book and I’ve come to the conclusion that either women didn’t matter at all, which I just can’t believe, or that Eleanor was not included in the French happenings because she and Louis divorced immediately after returning home from the Second Crusade. Therefore, her name would have been the equivalent of mud. Also, Odo didn’t like her.
The Greek chroniclers hint at Queen Eleanor’s scandalous behavior, but nothing written in depth. Her past consists of rumor, innuendo and gossip. We will never know the truth, but whatever Eleanor did or did not do during the Second Crusade, the fact remains that after that, women were banned from further holy wars.
The church made an exception for the elderly washerwomen, who they encouraged because their laundry services kept lice outbreaks at bay. They were deemed too old, too undesirable, and they probably too tired, to be a temptation for all those single men.