I have just been watching The Crusades Dr Thomas Asbridge BBC 2012, in which he states that "... girls, delicate and noble...", went into their tents to put on their best clothes, in the hope of winning "pity" from the Turks - involving, presumably, rape and/or slavery.

I have heard this claim before (possibly from the same source!) but can find no corroboration for it. I do not claim it did not happen, but have some difficulties with it.

Wikipedia makes no mention of it. Indeed, it states:

To protect the unarmoured foot and noncombatants, Bohemond ordered his knights to dismount and form a defensive line, and with some trouble gathered the foot soldiers and the noncombatants into the centre of the camp; the women acted as water-carriers throughout the battle. (emphases mine)

I do query

A) What "delicate and noble" girls were doing in the middle of a battle, considering such women would hardly have stirred a step at home without an escort.

B) In traditional Catholic theology, it was preferable for a woman to take her own life than submit to rape, which brought with it both spiritual and social death. (This was still the teaching when I grew up in the 1950s, one of the few occasions where suicide was not a mortal sin.)

I do not imagine that every crusader, pilgrim or camp-follower would, in the event, have preferred death as a martyr to life as a slave - many did not. But I still puzzle over these "noble" girls' eagerness not to die for Christ and their virtue - not to mention their presence on a battlefield, complete with tents and fine clothes.

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    I hadn't seen that claim before either. That story is in quite stark contrast to the story of Margaret of Beverley in the Siege of Jerusalem and its aftermath, but it seems to be from Albert of Aachen's History of the Journey to Jerusalem Oct 22, 2019 at 15:48
  • @sempaiscuba I have seen it once before, and suspect it might be from an earlier showing of the same video! Obviously, not every medieval Christian chose martyrdom, but there are just too many questions round this claim for me to accept it without some verification.
    – TheHonRose
    Oct 22, 2019 at 15:55
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    Do you have a reference for B? I've never heard that one before (but as a protestant guy, one wouldn't expect I would have).
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 22, 2019 at 16:19
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    I did see multiple mentions on that WP page to the Crusaders having a large number of non-combatants with them, and at least one mention of women. Nothing that explains why that would be though.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 22, 2019 at 17:29
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    Unfortunately, the only freely available version of Albert of Aachen I could find is in Latin. The relevant section is in book 2 chapter XXXIX. Hope that is some help. Oct 22, 2019 at 18:41

2 Answers 2



The Presence of Noble Ladies: The First Crusade included a large number of pilgrims, many of whom were women (including female relatives of nobles). Concerning their presence at the battle itself, there was no nearby safe refuge when the Turks attacked.

Rape over Death: The church's view was that victims of rape in war did not have to do penance. Also, the account of the 'noble girls' can be reasonably interpreted as them trying to save other prisoners (including children) as well as (possibly or probably) themselves.


In answering your first question, What "delicate and noble" girls were doing in the middle of a battle, we can look back to 1095 at Clermont, the moment that Pope Urban II called for a crusade:

In the weeks and months that followed, the pope's impassioned appeal swept across Europe, prompting some 100,000 men and women, from knight to pauper, to take up the call - the largest mobilisation of manpower since the fall of the Roman Empire....

Source: Thomas S. Asbridge, 'The First Crusade: A New History' (2004)

This wasn't quite what he had intended but he shouldn't have been surprised at the response for:

as a sub-species of pilgrimage, the crusade was a penitential act, and thus both voluntary and open to all Christians. The very feature that had made Urban's message so palatable - its packaging within an existing framework of devotional practice - meant that the principle of unrestricted participation was imported into, and imposed upon, the precepts of crusading, making it all but impossible to control recruitment.

Source: Asbridge

Thus, thousands accompanied the military element as pilgrims, a situation which was to greatly increase the problem of supplies during the crusade. On these non-combatants, the number

was certainly high. A large number of knights brought their ladies with them. Raymond of Toulouse was accompanied by his wife, and Baldwin of Boulogne by his wife and children. Bohemond had at least one sister with him. We know the names of several ladies that took part in Robert of Normandy's expedition; and occasionally other ladies appear in the story. All these ladies brought attendants; and there was certainly a large number of humbler women, respectable and the reverse, with the army.

Source: Steven Runciman, 'A History of the Crusades, Volume 1' (1987) (Note that it is disputed as to whether Baldwin had any children with his wife at this time.)

To pilgrimage, we can probably add (in some cases at least) duty and (in the case of servant women) obligation. Also, many crusaders were younger sons who had no expectation of inheriting land; at least some planned to gain land in the east and settle there, and thus they took their families. This may have been the case with Baldwin, who became king of Jerusalem in 1100.

The fighting men were, of course, the best protection these non-combatants had on their journey to the Holy Land. Consequently, the non-combatants (noble ladies and all) found themselves in the middle of the Battle of Dorylaeum when the Turks attacked as there was no nearby safe refuge: the crusaders were by this time too far from Nicaea (never mind Constantinople) to send the noble ladies there.

On your second question, the noble ladies submitting to rape rather than death, the answer may lie in how one interprets Albert of Aachen's account. From the link provided by sempaiscuba, we can get a fuller version of what Asbridge was referring to:

The Turks, with their prince Suleyman, were growing stronger and stronger, they burst into the camp in strength, striking with arrows from their horn bows, killing pilgrim foot-soldiers, girls, women, infants and old people, sparing no one on grounds of age. Stunned and terrified by the cruelty of this most hideous killing, girls who were delicate and very nobly born were hastening to get themselves dressed up, offering themselves to the Turks so that at least, roused and appeased by love of their beauty, the Turks might learn to pity their prisoners.

Given that the last sentence ends with "pity their prisoners", we could reasonably interpret this to mean that the ladies were attempting to save the lives of the other non-combatants (among whom were children). Alternatively (or perhaps even additionally), they may have seen it as justifiable even just for themselves, that they could be later forgiven and purified.

Interestingly, Albert's history has account of a nun forgiven for submitting herself to rape just a few weeks before the Battle of Dorylaeum (1st July 1097). After Nicaea fell to the Crusaders (18th June 1097), Albert writes

many of the Christians' prisoners were returned, a certain nun from the convent of St Mary at the Granaries...claimed she had been captured ... been taken in a vile and detestable union by a certain Turk and others with scarcely a pause. Then, while she was uttering her wretched moans ... she recognized Henry of the castle of Esch among the nobles and soldiers of Christ. Addressing him by name in a low and tearful voice, she appealed to him to come to the aid of her purification. He recognized her at once, and was affected by her misfortune, and he employed diligence and every argument of pity he could with Duke Godfrey until advice for repetance was given her by Lord Adhemar, the venerable bishop.... she was granted forgiveness for her unlawful liaison with the Turk, and her repentance was made less burdensome because she had endured this hideous defilement by wicked and villainous men under duress and unwillingly.

According to Albert, though, the nun later went back to the Turk but Asbridge casts some doubt on this 'ending'; the Turk, assuming he was still even alive after the fall of Nicaea, would have been a captive.

How a raped woman was regarded at the time depended very much on the circumstances and the male relatives of the victim. There are cases ranging from a raped daughter being put to death to a husband who, accepting his wife's word that she was a victim, challenged her rapist to a duel to the death (the rapist lost). Also, specific examples of medieval rape victims (and potential victims) show that they clearly had different feelings on how they should respond. By and large, though, it seems that rape victims in war (in the eyes of the church at least) had a good chance of not having to do penance; Pope Gregory I (died 604) stated this specifically, and the 9th century Capitula Judiciorum said "that women who had been raped in warfare were free from penance."

Other sources:

Stephen P. Pistono, 'Rape in Medieval Europe'. In 'Atlantis Vol. 14 No. 2' (1989) (link automatically downloads pdf)

Ashley Nicole Wallace, 'Jeopardized Virginity an Analysis of Rape and Spiritual Virginity in Medieval Europe' (thesis, 2015)

The Christian View on Rape

Niels Ebdrup, 'The church changed the perception of rape' (2012)

Belina (virgin)

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    @LarsBosten - thank you, that's very helpful. I did try some automated translations of the relevant passage, which naturally resulted in nonsense! And yes, I do take the point around "Given that the last sentence ends with "pity their prisoners", I did wonder that myself. And - I may be in error re RC teaching on death v dishonour, Augustine did not believe suicide to be permissible.
    – TheHonRose
    Oct 23, 2019 at 3:40
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    @TheHonRose Concerning 'death v dishonour' I would imagine that there were different interpretations on this depending on circumstances, time, the victim and the person being asked to grant forgiveness. If Albert's account of Henry of the castle of Esch's pleading on the nun's behalf is accurate (big 'if' perhaps), it seems that it in this case at least it wasn't easy to persuade the bishop ('every argument of pity' etc.). Oct 23, 2019 at 4:18
  • @LarsBosten - yes, it seems a more vexed/nuanced question than I was taught /understood as an RC girl - a very long time ago! Possibly one for Christianity:SE.
    – TheHonRose
    Oct 23, 2019 at 4:30
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    @LarsBosten - thank you for a great answer, which I've accepted. It's resolved virtually all my queries around this account, including the subsidiary one around how victims of rape were viewed in mediaeval Christendom.
    – TheHonRose
    Oct 23, 2019 at 8:07
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    You're welcome (and I enjoyed answering it!). Oct 23, 2019 at 8:10

Lots of women traveled with the crusades for different reasons. It was not as controlled as some say. Presumably any nobles that wanted wives with them had women and kids there.

Here is the episode


Here are some answers


While many women remained home to act as regents for their estates during the crusades, others accompanied their husbands and other family members on their quests, even going so far as to fight in emergency situations when their menfolk fell in battle.[3] It was no surprise that noblewomen would participate in combat in certain situations, their upbringing likely preparing them for this possibility, going so far as to include lessons on riding into battle.[4]

For (b), what if they didn't have time to give their own life? Or they weren't Catholic? Lots of reasons for that.

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    @user40733 thank you, interesting. Although presumably if the girls had time to get dressed up they would have had time to find a stray knife? And - all Western Christians were Catholic - the First Crusade was instigated by the Pope, and there were no "Protestants" in 1097.
    – TheHonRose
    Oct 22, 2019 at 21:15

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