The crusader states, established at the beginning of the 12 century, rapidly developed unique political institutions and their own legal traditions. One of the most interesting ways in which they set themselves apart from contemporary societies was the prominent role played by women. I
In the surrounding Muslim world, of course, women had neither names nor faces, much less a voice, in public. In the Byzantine Empire, on the other hand, women enjoyed considerable freedom, wealth, education and influence, but they did not directly hold power. In Western Europe, the 12th century saw several very powerful female rulers, notably the Empress Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine, yet the crusader kingdoms stand out because the high status of women in the Holy Land was more comprehensive and institutionalized than in either the Eastern Empire or the Western Europe.
This exceptional position for women probably evolved out of the repeated failure of the ruling dynasties to produce male heirs. A look at the succession in the Kingdom of Jerusalem illustrates this well. When Baldwin II died in 1131, he was succeeded by his daughter, Melisende, who ruled jointly with her husband Fulk of Anjou (grandfather by his first marriage of Henry II of England). When Fulk died in 1143, Melisende remained Queen of Jerusalem, and ruled jointly with her eldest son, Baldwin III. Although her son eventually side-lined her, it was only after a struggle in which several powerful barons and most of the clergy sided with the Queen. At Baldwin III’s death in 1163, his heir was his brother Amalric I, but Amalric’s heir was the ill-fated Baldwin IV, the Leper King, who could have no children. This made his sisters (and through them and their husbands) his heirs. At Baldwin’s death, the crown passed first to his sister Sibylla’s young son, Baldwin V, and, after his death, to her and her husband, Guy de Lusignan. At Sibylla’s death, Guy lost his right to the crown (in the eyes of the Barons of Outremer), and it passed instead to Baldwin IV’s other sister Isabella and her successive husbands. When Isabella died, she was succeeded by her only child, a daughter, Marie, and she conferred the kingship on her husband, John de Brienne, before dying giving birth to yet another girl, Yolanda (or Isabelle), who passed the crown of Jerusalem to her husband, Friedrich II, the Holy Roman Emperor.
In short, in the century between the death of Baldwin II and the ascension of Friedrich II, the crown of Jerusalem passed through the female line no less than ten times! Furthermore, the situation in the crusader states and baronies was similar, if not quite so dramatic; that is, the title to baronies repeatedly passed through heiress rather than heirs. This fact alone would have increased the importance of women, but it is significant that these queens (and countesses and ladies) were not passive vessels.
Melisende was Queen in her own right, commanded loyalty and support among her vassals and forced both her husband and later her son to take her political wishes into account. Sibylla forced upon the kingdom a man patently unsuitable for the kingship and soon detested by her brother, the reigning King, and the majority of the barons. When her son Baldwin V died, Sibylla – not Guy – was crowned by the patriarch, and she placed the crown on Guy’s head as her consort. Furthermore, Guy’s vassals viewed their oaths to him absolved the moment Sibylla died – despite Richard of England’s determined support for Guy. In the end, even the Lionheart gave up and recognized that without Sibylla, Guy could not be King of Jerusalem. The crown passed to Sibylla’s sister, Isabella. Isabella conferred the crown on three men in succession, Conrad of Montferrat, Henri de Champagne and finally AImery de Lusignan. Notably, Henri de Champagne, a nephew of both Philip II of France and Richard I of England (his mother was a daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Louis VII), never even called himself King of Jerusalem; he remained Count of Champagne, while Isabella was Queen of Jerusalem. Her daughter’s husband, John of Brienne, also lost his title of King of Jerusalem at his wife’s death, although he acted as regent for his infant daughter until she wed Friedrich II.
The dynastic importance of women was both cause and effect of a uniquely high status for women in the crusader kingdoms that took many other forms. Not only did women act as regents and receive homage from vassals, they enjoyed a freedom of movement and opinion that scandalized the Muslim – and sometimes the Christian – world. Some claim Amalric I’s first wife, Agnes de Courtney, was set aside because of her immorality; certainly she was accused of having affairs with a prelate of the church (later the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Heraclius) and with Aimery de Lusignan. Her daughter Sibylla is alleged to have had an affair with Baldwin d’Ibelin before taking Guy de Lusignan to her bed. A contemporary claimed that Baldwin IV wanted to hang Guy for “debauching” a princess of Jerusalem, but was then persuaded to let his sister marry her lover. It was behavior such as this that led many in the West to believe Jerusalem had been lost because of God’s wrath with the immoral Christian rulers.
Yet while the antics of the royal women may indeed have deserved censure, the higher status of women generally meant that widows in the crusader kingdoms exercised far more control over their property and their lives. SIbylla is the most prominent example, but she was not alone in choosing her second husband. Constance of Antioch chose Reynald de Chatillon, and Maria Comnena chose Balian d’Ibelin, just to name two other prominent examples. In short, young girls were married often at very tender ages to boys or men of their parents’ choice, but widows had the power, property and right to choose their own husbands – and often did.
The higher status of women also impacted their daily lives. Upper class women were literate as they could not have otherwise conducted their affairs, and they owned books. Some accounts stress that they rode astride for greater safety in an always precarious environment, something that gave them greater mobility. They did not have to go veiled in public, although women almost certainly covered their faces from the ravaging effects of the summer sun when out of doors. But perhaps most important, they were entitled to their opinions, free to voice them and often heeded by their male contemporaries. Compared to their faceless and voiceless sisters in the Muslim world, this was undoubtedly the greatest privilege of all.