WOMEN AND CRUSADING CRIME

Introduction

We may think of the crusades, however crudely, as fanatical wars of religion or as a clash of cultures.

But they were also a clash of identities and genders.

Patterns of crime inevitably adapt to the society in which they take place – and that is just as true of gender and social environment as it is of poverty and economic status. Crime is what academics call a ‘gender-associated activity’ – more simply put, the vast majority of criminals were, and are, men. Ideas of what constituted ‘manly’ behaviour in the medieval world reinforced the idea that violence was far more acceptable for men than for women – and that violence found outlets in criminality just as much as in warfare.

Gender and Criminality

Gender disparities in criminality are obvious but often unspoken. The most clear similarity between twenty-first-century crime and the crusader underworld is that in both eras the vast majority of crimes are, and were, committed by men. The UK’s prison population is currently 96% male – the equivalent figure for the US (at 93%) is very similar. This is true across all crimes – fraud, theft and so on – but it is particularly the case with violent crime. Women certainly feature in violent incidents, but mainly as victims or, sometimes, as instigators. But they are rarely the main agents of such activity.

These disparities also existed in medieval Europe – but they were even more pronounced in the Latin East. The social and demographic groups most likely to be serious criminals, particularly young men, were also those most likely to be attracted to the medieval Holy Land. They were thus the most likely to be artificially over-represented in the crusader states and their warring neighbours.

Victims of Crime

Not surprisingly under these circumstances, women were overwhelmingly victims rather than perpetrators – and, even when they were criminals, they tended to commit different, less serious crimes. Female crime tended not to encompass murder or other major acts of violence, for instance, and was far more centred around theft and petty fraud.

Different crimes were reflected in different trials and punishments. Female criminals tended to receive more lenient punishments and sentences. They were less likely to get capital or corporal punishment – female offenders were rarely given a whipping, for instance. They were also more likely to receive pardons than men.

Patterns of criminal behaviour were very different too – this was particularly true with violent crime, where women played a relatively minor role. Crime data is always problematic. We have no quantitative data for the crusader states, for instance, but contemporary case studies in European societies shed light on the gender patterns underlying violent offences.

Weapons and Female Murderers

In mid-thirteenth century England fewer than 10% of the people accused of murder were female. Similarly, in France, the court records for the period 1389-1422 show that women represented only 4% of those petitioners seeking pardon for serious crimes. And, even when women were the perpetrators, they were far less likely to be prosecuted, as their crimes were often less serious than those associated with men.

The lack of serious consequences was not just a function of biology and physiology – they were far less likely to be fighting with weapons than their male equivalents. As a consequence, violent crimes committed by women were much less likely to escalate into outright murder.

There was a similar pattern of behaviour associated with theft – female offenders tended to be involved less often and, even when they were guilty, their transgressions were largely at the less serious end of the sentencing spectrum. Women were usually involved in petty crime, and when they were ‘professional’ or habitual criminals, they tended to be operating in roles such as fences for stolen goods.

The typical medieval female criminals were nurses, servants or pub landladies who stole from their clients rather than cold-blooded bandits or violent muggers. Petty theft involving deception was the classic female crime.

Serious crime was largely the domain of men – and, for medieval women, that was a rare aspect of gender disparity to be proud of.

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Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land by Dr. Steve Tibble
Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land by Dr. Steve Tibble

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The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble
The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble
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The Crusader Armies 1099–1187 by Steve Tibble
The Crusader Armies: 1099–1187 by Steve Tibble

SOURCES

  • Tibble, S. (2023). Crusader criminals: How knights went rogue. Yale University Press.

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