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Monsters, mothers and mistresses: The varying faces of women in Crusades literature by Dr Jennifer Markey

We who were Occidentals have now become Orientals. He who was […] a Frank has […] been made into a Galilean […] Some have taken wives not only of their own people but Syrians or Armenians or even Saracens who have obtained […] baptism.

In this famous passage celebrating European acclimatisation to Middle Eastern life, the twelfth-century chronicler Fulcher of Chartres discusses intermarriage with indigenous people. Marriages to eastern Christians were often a means of alliance; notably Melisende of Jerusalem was the daughter of a Frankish father, Baldwin II, and his Armenian wife Morphia. Fulcher also touches on the possibility of marrying baptised Muslims. Interreligious relationships were however discouraged, sex between Muslim men and Christian women being prohibited on pain of castration and mutilation. Such limitations notwithstanding, Crusades literature, in a manner reminiscent of Edward Said’s critique of the ‘luxuriant and seemingly unbounded sexuality’ attributed to the allegedly exotic and sensual Eastern woman, viewed Muslim women with both fascination and horror; an alluring yet dangerous Other.

A popular stock French epic character was the belle sarrasine; a beautiful, strong-willed Muslim woman who abandons her people for a Christian lover. Perhaps the most famous example appears in the twelfth-century Fierabras, in which Charlemagne and his Peers travel to Spain to recover relics stolen by the titular antagonist. During this adventure, the Peers are captured by their Saracen enemies, but rescued by Fierabras’ sister Floripas, who falls in love with the knight Gui de Bourgogne. Both Fierabras and Floripas ultimately embrace Christianity, with Floripas urging their unconverted father’s execution.

Floripas’ appeal can be linked to marriage as a form of alliance and conquest; with her Muslim father dead, his lands may be passed to her Christian husband. Floripas is also an object of desire, to the extent that Charlemagne admires her naked body as she is baptised. Such impulses to dominate the female Other were not limited to Christian literature; illustrating perhaps the universal nature of male fantasy, medieval Muslim epics included similar tales of converted Christian women.

In appearance, Floripas embodies the white European ideal, facilitating her acceptance as a love interest. Fierabras however also includes a very different image of a Saracen woman in the form of the monstrous Amiete, who seeks to protect her children after her husband is killed. Unlike Floripas, the black-skinned, red-eyed Amiete is depicted as almost inhuman, and is soon killed by the Franks. Amiete’s monstrous appearance makes assimilation impossible, emphasised when her sons die after being fostered by Charlemagne’s Peers. These two faces of Saracen women, beautiful seductress and terrifying demon, reveal both a desire and fear for the Other in Crusades literature.

Floripas’ rebellious behaviour may also reflect the contemporary status of European women. Left in charge of a crusading husband’s estate, a noblewoman could experience greater power and independence. Differences in the freedoms granted to Christian and Muslim women in the Crusader States may also have been noted; the chronicler Usama ibn Munqidh observes with surprise that the Franks permitted their wives to speak freely with other men. Tellingly, it is implied that it is Floripas’ initial pagan status which enables her behaviour; her betrayal of her father occurs before baptism renders her truly Christian. Floripas’ ultimate assimilation thus allows the tantalising portrayal of a liberated woman who does not, however, threaten the male Christian status quo.

It is reductive, however, to dismiss Crusades literature as straightforwardly racist or sexist; further examination reveals surprisingly nuanced portrayals of Muslim women, including those who avoid conversion. The thirteenth-century Chevalerie Ogier presents Gloriande, who not only remains unconverted but is reunited with her Saracen lover Karaheu. More intriguing still is Calabre, mother of Kerbogha, ruler of Mosul, who features in accounts of the First Crusade.

In both the Latin chronicles and the vernacular Chanson d’Antioche, Calabre warns her son against fighting the Crusaders, sometimes invoking her powers of astrology and prophecy, sorcery being commonly associated with Saracen women. This portrayal is two-edged, on one level clearly intended to praise the Crusaders as a Muslim confirms their alleged superiority. Calabre however, also presents audiences with an intelligent Muslim woman devoted to her son, echoing the idealised Christian maternal archetype who frequently appears in the epics. Parallels may be drawn between Calabre and Ida of Boulogne, mother of the renowned Crusaders Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin of Boulogne. Celebrated as an exemplary mother, Ida is depicted in the Chanson d’Antioche as a strong influence on her sons, predicting their victory at Jerusalem and urging them to piety and generosity. Both Muslim and Christian matriarchs are powerful figures whose advice male relatives ignore at their peril.

To conclude, Crusades literature does not operate on a simple binary when depicting Muslim women, but permits a degree of sympathy for those who remain outside the Christian fold. The problematic nature of conversion and the family rifts this could create is also acknowledged, notably in Fierabras, where Floripas’ brother rebukes her for encouraging their father’s death. While working within a Christian ideology with stock characters, Crusades writers could nonetheless acknowledge some of the complexities which came with new cultural contacts.

Jennifer Markey is an independent researcher focusing on Crusades literature. She was awarded a PhD in medieval French from the University of Bristol in 2018. She blogs about history and literature at www.antioch1098.wordpress.com and can be found on Twitter at @antioch_1098.

Sources and Further Reading

Ailes, Marianne, ‘Desiring the Other: Subjugation and Resistance of the Female Saracen in the chanson de geste’ in French Studies, 74, 2 (April 2020) 173-88

Asbridge, Thomas, The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land (London: Simon & Schuster, 2010)

de Weever, Jacqueline, Sheba’s Daughters: Whitening and Demonizing the Saracen Woman in Medieval French Epic (New York; London: Garland, 1998)

Hodgson, Natasha, ‘The Role of Kerbogha’s Mother in the Gesta Francorum and Selected Chronicles of the First Crusade’ in Gendering the Crusades, ed. by Susan B. Edgington and Sarah Lambert (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001) pp. 163-76

Ramey, Lynn Tarte, Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature (New York; London: Routledge, 2001)

Said, Edward W., Orientalism (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2019)

Sinclair, Finn E., Milk and Blood: Gender and Genealogy in the ‘Chanson de Geste’ (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2003)

Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Melisende_of_Jerusalem#/media/File:Melisende_of_Jerusalem.jpg

 

 

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