Sex and Marriage between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades

From the start of the First Crusade, Christian men were fascinated with the possibility of marrying Muslim women. In his account of the Battle of Antioch (1097-1098), Peter of Tudebode narrates an incident about the Emir, Yaghi Siyan, offering the Crusaders the following bargain: “Deny your God, whom you worship and believe, and accept Mohammed and our other gods. If you do so we shall give to you all that you desire such as gold, horses, mules, and many other worldly goods which you wish, as well as wives and inheritances; and we shall enrich you with great lands” (pp. 58-59). The bargain included wives.

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Kerbogha, the Atabeg of Mosul and the renowned Turkish soldier, defends Antioch from the Crusaders in 1098

Fulcher of Chartres’s utopian version of the intercultural interaction reads like a propaganda piece meant to attract prospective settlers to the newly established Crusader territories. He provides an idyllic vision of assimilation that took place at the meeting point of the East and the West. According to him, assimilation was achieved through the acquisition of inheritable properties and servants by Occidentals, the mutual blending of languages, and most importantly through intermarriages between Christian men and non-Christian women through baptism as he boasts, “Some have taken wives not merely of their own people, but Syrians, or Armenians, or even Saracens [medieval term for Muslims] who have received the grace of baptism” (p. 281). Fulcher’s account, written around 1125 appeals to the aspirations of prospective male settlers in Western Christendom—their aspirations for property and wives. The two examples provided above, resist a simplistic version of what happened between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades. Popular portrayals suggest that the Crusades were violent religious conflicts in the Middle Ages with Christianity on one side and Islam on the other.

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Miniature from the 13th century (original held at the National Library in Paris) depicting the violence between Christians and Muslims during the Siege of Jerusalem

However, violence is only one part of the story. Relations between these two religious groups were much more complex. The writings of both Fulcher and Tudebode suggest that the idea of securing local wives was tempting to the Crusaders and the settlers of newly acquired territories. The Crusades reveal that medieval attitudes towards sexuality were not always rigid and repressed. 

Even though the earliest laws in the Crusader states reveal concerns about the danger miscegenation posed to Christian sexual purity, they focus on sexual acts and do not explicitly forbid interfaith marriages. The Canons of the Council of Nablus of 1120, the earliest laws in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem prescribed draconian measures against the rape of Muslim slave-women by Christian men. Canons 13 and 14 punished sexual activity between Christian men and Muslim slave-women with castration and expulsion. In the same vein, Canon 15 of the Nablus prohibits consensual sex between Muslim men and Christian women. Thus, these Canons reveal an anxiety about intermixing and the impurity incurred by sexual acts between Christians and Muslims. 

However, the Nablus laws were not concerned about interfaith marriage. Marriages between Christians and non-Christians (pagans, Muslims and Jews) were quite common in the initial stages of the Crusades. In fact, there is no law in the Nablus that prohibits consensual or non-consensual sex between Christian men and free Muslim women. There are two possible reasons for this: either every single Muslim woman was enslaved once Jerusalem was captured during the First Crusade or sexual acts between Christian men and free Muslim women were not considered threats to sexual purity. 

The conspicuous absence of a law prohibiting sexual acts between Christian men and free Muslim women silently condones the Christian penetration of Muslim culture and, hence, the latter’s subordination through sexual acts with free Muslim women; just as Canon 15 prevents the Muslim subordination of Christians by prohibiting sex between Christian women and Muslim men. The Nablus laws reveal a nuance in how the idea of sexual purity worked in the Crusader states. In a master-slave dynamic, when the Muslim was already in a subordinated state, the fact that she was Muslim was important. A Christian man having sex with a Muslim slave constituted sexual impurity. However, when the Muslim woman was free, the dynamic was dramatically altered. The focus then was on the fact that the Muslim is free, suggesting that a member of an antagonistic religious group had autonomy. The existence of a free Muslim presented evidence that complete subordination of the community was not achieved. Consequently, sex with a free Muslim woman did not constitute impurity. Rather it was an act of nullifying the autonomy of the Muslim community through religious conquest disguised as sexual penetration. 

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Livre des Assises de la baisse Court, c’est de la Court dou Visconte dou Reaume de Chipre; Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliotek, Cod.gall. 51, [S.l.] Zypern, ca. 1315
By the mid-thirteenth century, the Canons of the Council of Nablus fell into disuse and were gradually replaced by the secular law codes Livre des Assises de la Cour des Bourgeois. The Assises protected the economic stakes of Christians, that is, wealth tied in property, and consequently prohibited intermarriages. Chapter 177, for instance, states that, “the holy faith prohibits a Christian from marrying a Saracen, because everyone should know that according to the holy foundations of Jerusalem, a woman is entitled to half of all the property that her husband earns with it after they were married, because as a man and a woman are one flesh, all that a man acquires the lifetime of his wife, falls in half possession of his wife legally.” Along the same lines, Chapter 200 states that one third of the property of a baptized former slave without legitimate heirs goes to his former lord and-or lady. This stipulation prevents illegitimate heirs from inheriting the entire estate. Illegitimate heirs of a former slave would likely have been Muslim. Most slaves in Jerusalem were Muslim and while the conversion to Christianity granted them freedom, it also made their marriage to their Muslim partners illicit. Therefore, this law intended to keep at least part of the wealth and property, that the baptized former slave accrued, in Christian hands. Chapter 235, on a slightly different note, authorized the son to “disinherit his father and mother of all his property” if the parent goes to Muslim territories and denies his faith or becomes a “Jew or a Saracen.” 

Thus, the laws pertaining to sex and marriage in Crusader states evolved with the evolving necessities and concerns in Western Christendom. At the start of the First Crusade, the exertion of Christian dominance over Muslim subjects entailed sexual acts and marriage between Christian men and free Muslim women as suggested by Nablus laws. By the mid-thirteenth century, intermixing was increasingly prohibited for economic reasons. 

Ambika Natarajan
Oregon State University

Ambika Natarajan received her Ph.D. in the History of Science from Oregon State University and she specializes in the History of Science and Sexuality in the Habsburg Monarchy. Her research work focuses on multiple aspects of migrant female work, including domestic work and sex work and how working-class women altered the discourse on labor and migration. Her work has appeared in The Austrian History Yearbook and she is currently working on a book manuscript. She also has graduate degrees in English Literature and Biotechnology and diplomas in German, French, and Creative Writing and has taught courses in Biostatistics and graduate-level biology courses, Russian History, American Diplomatic and Religious History, and History of Science and Religion internationally. To learn more about her research, visit her website.

Varangian Guards and Their Traces in Istanbul: Runic Inscriptions in Hagia Sophia

Since its foundation in around 657 BC by the colonists of the city-state of Megara in Greece, the city of Constantinople was inhabited by people from different ethnicities and cultures. One of the most interesting inhabitants of the city could be worded as a group of “northern” mercenary soldiers who were later assigned as the personal guards of the Byzantine emperor. Several primary sources from the tenth and the eleventh centuries tell about their military and socio-political activities in the Byzantine empire in general and in Constantinople in particular. Although the Byzantine historians and chronicles regarded them as the “axe-bearing” barbarians who descended from the freezing regions of the northern countries, they also had an implicit—and sometimes explicit—admiration for these soldiers regarding their “unshakable courage” and “strong loyalty” to their patron, the Byzantine emperor.

The earliest records about the presence of the Varangian guards in the Byzantine army date back to the end of the ninth century. In this period, the Kievan Rus tribes, which crossed from Scandinavia to Northern Russia and then poured into the Dnieper region, established their first settlements north of the Black sea. Although they came into conflict with the Byzantines by besieging the city of Constantinople on two separate occasions, as time went by, these northern warriors also built political and merchandise ties with the Byzantines. As a result of growing political relationships, the Byzantines began to import a considerable number of Kievan Rus soldiers who were gradually employed as the personal bodyguards of the emperor.

The Varangian guards’ functions differed in times of war and in times of peace. It is possible to see in tenth and eleventh century Byzantine sources that these units were often used in campaigns against the Muslim political entities in the east. In a campaign season, since they were the most valuable and important military units in the Byzantine army, they intervened in a battle during the most critical moments. In times of peace, however, they stayed mostly in the capital and at other strategic points, serving as a police force to provide security.

The Varangian guards who were employed in Constantinople as security forces appear to have left their remarks in the city. Today it is possible to encounter the vestiges of their existence in the former Greek Orthodox Christian Patriarchal Cathedral, later an Ottoman imperial mosque and now a museum, Hagia Sophia. In Hagia Sophia, there are two partially readable inscriptions, written in runic form. The first one is called the Halfdan Inscription. Unfortunately, the inscription is so worn down that only a portion of the name can be clearly read. In her article, Elisabeth Svärdström deduced that the readable part “-ftan” must indicate the Nordic name “Halfdan”. She further noted that the remainder of the inscription is illegible, but it probably followed a common formula such as “X carved these runes.”

Transcription of the recognizable Halfdan runes.
Transcription of the recognizable Halfdan runes. Public domain.

A second inscription was discovered by Folke Högberg in 1975. An article regarding this new discovery was published by Mats G. Larsson in his article “Nyfunna runor i Hagia Sofia.” According to Larsson’s interpretation, the inscription could be identified as follows: “Ari m(ade these runes).” Later, an archeologist from the University of Bergen, Svein Indrelid, announced the discovery of five other Runic inscriptions in Hagia Sophia, although these have not yet been published. She further stated that it is within the boundaries of possibility that there may well have been more inscriptions in Hagia Sophia that await discovery.

Hagia Sofia runic inscription
The “Halfdan inscription,” photographed by Hermann Junghans, 2014.

With the relative weakening of the Byzantine political, economic and military systems throughout the thirteenth century, we encounter the traces of the Varangian guards rarely compared to the previous periods. It is known that the Varangian guards were the main components of the defensive army which was employed by the Byzantines in Constantinople during the siege of 1204. Although it has been argued that the Nicaean emperors, who took refuge in the west of Asian minor after the 1204 catastrophe, tried to raise up a Varangian unit to boast their legitimacy against other rival Greek states such as the Despotate of Epirus—if it genuinely existed—it might have been just a mere ceremonial company since they played no important role in ongoing military encounters. Unfortunately, we know very little about the structure of the royal guard units in the Byzantine Empire after the recovery of the city from the Latins in 1261; however, several scholars including Savvas Kyriakis assert the idea that the some of the Cretan refugees, numbering less than 500, who escaped from Venetian rule and took refuge in Byzantium in the fourteenth century, were employed as royal guards who protected city gates and strategic locations in the capital. Also, there are several reliable reports that these troops were employed in the defense of Constantinople against the Ottomans in 1453. Further, in the late 1300s and the early 1400s, some people still identified themselves as Varangians in the city of Constantinople.

Image of the Hagia Sofia

In conclusion, the runic inscriptions in Hagia Sophia still stand as witness to the existence of the Varangian Guards in Constantinople. Located on the parapet on the top floor of the southern (the first one) and the northern gallery (the second one), these inscriptions gives their visitors an exclusive opportunity to perceive Istanbul’s unique cosmopolitan and cross-cultural historical heritage.

Theodore Metochites’s “Lament on Human Life,” A Later Byzantine Perspective on the Anxiety of “Instability”

Cameo, Constantine the Great and the Tyche of Constantinople wearing her turreted crown, sardonyx, 4th century. Image: The State Hermitage Museum.

Alas, alas, Life, you monstrous thing replete with every kind of misfor­tune, breeder of misfortune, theater of misfortune, and most of all of insta­bility!

– Theodore Metochites (SG 27.1.1)

In the wake of COVID-19’s spread into a pandemic, the world has fallen into a state of collective anxiety. As a historian, I find that in such challenging times, my inclination is to look to the past. At this moment when we all contend with isolation, grief, scarcity, and the fear of contagion, we may find some solace and insight by exploring the ways in which humanity has previously coped with such feelings of uncertainty. Much of my work this year at the Medieval Institute has focused on the Byzantine statesman and polymath, Theodore Metochites (1270–1332), and his theorization of memory as expressed in his scholarship and in the iconographic program of the Chora Monastery, the renovation of which he oversaw and endowed (c. 1316–1321). No stranger to turmoil in his own life, Metochites also reflects at length on the idea of “instability” (astasia) in his writings. Several chapters of his encyclopedic work, the Semeioseis gnomikai, or “Sententious Notes,” address this recurring theme as the author himself works through the notion of uncontrollable change and fickle Fortune.

Metochites’s observations on fate draw from his own experiences of the ebb and flow of politics. In 1283, Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (1259/60–1331, r. 1282–1328) ousted Metochites’s father, George, from Constantinople for his opposing policies, and, at thirteen years old, young Theodore accompanied his father into exile. While in Asia Minor, Metochites dedicated himself to his education and, by 1290, as he writes, “the winds shift[ed] from one direction to the opposite” (SG 28.3.5). The same Andronikos II, having learned of Metochites’s reputation for erudition, called him to serve in the imperial court, where he achieved the high rank of Megas Logothetes, or prime minister. He takes care to acknowledge that his change in fortune was an external one, beyond his control: “the difficulties of my life suddenly and perhaps unexpectedly changed … although I had in no way changed, in the way it usually happens among men” (SG 28.3.4–5).

In a rather pessimistic frame of mind, he continues by pointing out that even in the grace of good fortune, the popular saying rings true: “it is impossible to find anyone living a life free of sorrows” (Hult 13). Metochites tells us that as his position and fortune increased, he felt steadily more burdened by state affairs. He writes that it was “extremely distressing … to be personally in charge of conducting and somehow administering the shipwreck of Roman world power, and many times, when I could see no way out in my thoughts and I completely lost hope, I prayed that this seeming blessing and favor from Fortune would not have fallen to my lot” (SG 28.5.4 and 6.4–5). Good fortune brings with it no guarantee of happiness.

Theodore Metochites presenting his foundation to Christ, Esonarthex, Lunette above eastern door, Chora Monastery, c. 1316–1321, Istanbul, Turkey. Image: Brad Hostetler.

In the same essay, Metochites draws an evocative comparison between the whims of political fortune and sudden changes in health:

No, we can see even the strongest and those with bodies in excel­lent condition in absolutely every respect easily lose their physical strength and confidence, struck down now and then by a chance occurrence, some­thing which others who are perhaps not equally well-endowed with bodily strength have managed to escape. And we see the man who yesterday was standing firm, indeed, who was for a long time undefeated by any kind of bodily misfortune, now lying on his back and suffering some malaise in his body, that had, until now, been extremely vigorous, or having lost all his health and now experiencing numerous difficult changes, living with all kinds of sickness—he who for many years seemed completely impervious to the vicissitudes of the body. (SG 28.2.1–3)

As easily and as quickly as the body succumbs to illness, so too do rapid shifts in fate occur in all other contexts of life, from wealth to family and career. This association amplifies points set forth in the preceding chapter of the Semeiosis. In his “Lament of human life,” Metochites opens with a description of the two sides of human reaction to fortune’s instability. Those currently experiencing good fortune constantly live in expectation and anxiety of worse things to come, while those who are struggling live with the hope of better days. With the flip of a coin (or “turn of the ostrakon” in ancient Greek and Byzantine parlance), the greatest wealth yields to poverty, robust health deteriorates to languid weakness. He goes on to say, however, that instability, though unforeseeable, should be expected. Reacting to the assertion that change is abrupt, he argues the opposite: “I unhesitatingly add that [it has been coming] for a long time, indeed from the beginning” (SG 27.2.5). Metochites follows the concept of “universal flux” put forth by Heraclitus, and elaborates on the maxim still referenced today, “the only thing constant is change” (cf. SG 29.2.1–7). He concludes that it is wisest to acknowledge, either through personal experience or observation of others, that life is inconstant; with this in mind, one must “live not unprepared for the likelihood of good things turning utterly bad and so live better” (SG 27.2.7).

Toward the end of his life, Metochites found reason to affirm his comments on misfortune’s predictably unpredictable appearance. In the margins of Paris gr. 2003, pictured below, we find a retrospective remark written in light of his second exile from the capital in 1328. Following the ascendance of Andronikos III to the throne after a long period of civil war, Metochites was forced to reside in Didymoteicho (today in northeastern Greece) before returning to take monastic vows in his foundation of the Chora two years later. To the earlier words of his “lament,” he declares, “I myself have suffered this as I foretold” (Hult xv).

Theodore Metochites, “A Lament on Human Life,” Paris gr. 2003, f. 49r (56r), 15th century. Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Metochites’s essay further deliberates on the saying that, “because of death we are living in a city without walls.” The original Epicurean context of this adage emphasized the indefensibility of the human body and inevitability of death. Building on this metaphorical meaning, Metochites states that we are, “like people living in a city without walls also because of the changes from prosperity to adversity, from perfect health to sickness, and on the whole from good fortune to bad …” (SG 27.2.1–6). Though he was writing in a much different cultural context than ours today, we might bring a critical eye to Metochites’s musings as a way of contemplating COVID-19-era insecurity. The rapid spread of illness threatens to render our “city walls” – the infrastructure of our healthcare and economy – susceptible to collapse. Anxiety arises from the permeability of these defenses. With an understanding that none of us is immune to “the attacks and sieges of Chance,” we can reassess the way we conceptualize and respond to drastically new realities.

While Metochites reflects on Fortune from the viewpoint of a privileged Byzantine elite, the current pandemic has laid bare the shared, but uneven vulnerability to “fate” in our society. In many ways, the virus’s dismantling of our “city walls” has lead to an exposure of inequality, and the situation thus demands that we reconstruct societal concepts of space and community. As we grasp to control contagion through worldwide self-isolation, the “fate” of the individual is inextricably tied to the many. Risk and instability, however, are not experienced equitably. Indeed, the necessity of social distancing has demonstrated just how few “walls” had been erected to fortify the health and well-being of all in the first place. Metochites reflected on his personal experiences to assess the nature of fate and life’s inconstancy. When this crisis is behind us, perhaps we will not forget the diversity of individual experiences in the face of uncertainty. Only then might we rebuild a fortress of collective action better equipped to sustain the many against the next unpredictable, inevitable turn of fate.

Nicole Paxton Sullo
2019–20 Byzantine Studies Postdoctoral Fellow at the Medieval Institute
Ph.D., History of Art, Yale University (2020)

All translations based on:

Karin Hult, ed. and trans., Theodore Metochites on the Human Condition and the Decline of Rome: Semeioseis gnomikai 27–60, Studia Graeca et Latina Gothoburgensia 70 (Gothenburg: Kriterium, 2016). DOI: 10.21524/kriterium.4.