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The Byzantine Women's Crusades

Updated on May 23, 2013
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Simonis Angelina Antiochina


There is a person forgotten when reviewing the Crusades, nay, during the whole period of the Byzantine Empire, one who few scholars will ever concentrate. That is, the Byzantine woman, who because of her culture was confined to her home and her only access to society and the world in which she lived was living vicariously through the men in her family or attending the baths, festivals or church.Perhaps the lack of understanding of the Byzantine woman comes from the male emphasis on the Crusades. However, it is because of the Byzantine woman’s lack of access to the world outside of her immediate home, that scholars fail to realize her importance in the Crusades. While she may have been confined to her home, and many times to her own living quarters, she may have been taught to read and write.If she was taught to read and write, there is no doubt that the Byzantine woman was also thinking about issues such as religion and politics, albeit, not out loud. It stands to reason, however, she could have influenced both her husband and her sons in the more subtle way that many women do in various cultures around the world then and today. The Byzantine woman’s status, because of Christian ethics, was quite high, in spite of her seemingly subservient role. She was mistress of her house, regardless of her social status.

The character under exploration in this essay is a young Byzantine woman, age fourteen, who was to be married soon, but because of the Franks coming in to save the city from the Seljuks, her wedding was delayed. Her name was Simonis Angelina Antiochina, and there was pride in her family name, being traced as far back as 382 c.e. The meaning of the name Antiochoi is “rebel family” and it suited her family and her heart well. Simonis’ father was a merchant, trading with Venetians and doing quite well financially. Her family had begun trading with the Venetians before it was acceptable or barely possible to do so and; therefore, had the edge of being the first in the market on virtually every good provided. Because of the social, economic and ancestral status of the Antiochoi family, it was overlooked by their neighbors when Simonis’ mother would volunteer in the woman’s ward of the Hospital of the Pantocrator, which had been built by Emperor John Kommenos II.Though unacceptable on many levels, this charity did meet the Byzantine’s continued Greek concept of charity for the polis and also met with basic Christian ethics. Simonis, however, dreamed of becoming an entertainer or scholar. Though her family was more lenient with some women’s roles than the typical Byzantine family, becoming an entertainer or a scholar was out of the question for Simonis, but she did dream. Other than this dream, Simonis spent her time dreaming of her wedding, reading the Bible (having been tutored at home as a child), and continuing to learn to take care of her own home she would someday live in. As most Byzantine people who did not work in government did, Simonis spoke Attica Greek; however, she was familiar with Koine Greek from reading the Bible.

Simonis’ betrothed was a professional soldier named Falkon. Though this was an arranged marriage, Simonis’ parents had allowed her some decision in the matter. Of course, Simonis could not have argued with her parents’ choice, but she was grateful that they had at least considered her feelings in the matter. In some ways, marrying a soldier was marrying up in status and it could do her merchant family well to have a soldier in the family. He was pleasant to look at and had a good future as a soldier, hoping to save his money to buy estate land and with receiving pronoiai, tax revenue, Falkon would be able to properly provide for his family and perhaps, as her father hoped, purchase that land near the ports. Also an Eastern Orthodox Christian, Simonis hoped that Falkon truly believed in God and did not beat her unnecessarily.

The Byzantines had always believed that anyone who was not Greek was a barbarian. This notion became even more apparent after the time of Charlemagne when the Byzantines were not acknowledged as inheritors of the Western Empire. While by the middle of the twelfth century, most Europeans defined themselves as Christian rather than by ethnic or cultural means, the Byzantines had held onto their cultural roots. The majority of Byzantines referred to themselves as Roinaioi, being from the Roman Empire. Other Byzantines, such as Simonis’ family, referred to themselves as Groikoi, Greek. Simonis’ father took the stance that they were Greek first, Roman Christian second. To him, this was evidenced by Constantinople’s toleration of Jews. Though Greek paganism was illegal, it made sense to Simonis’ father that if there was toleration of others who were not Christian, such as the Jews, it was because they had not a Roman heritage but a Greek heritage that all of the citizens of Constantinople shared. He did not factor in the New Testament and Roman rule, considering the Romans to have been occupiers of Jerusalem.

Simonis had never been outside the walls of Constantinople. She often lay in bed at night, wondering what was beyond the Theodosian Walls. Simonis knew that there was a smaller wall, micron teichos, on the other side of the great wall, mega teichos and she contemplated what lay in between. The micron teichos seemed more familiar to her than the beyond, which she could not comprehend. She wondered if it all looked like Hierousalem and if everyone looked like the Khristos. She knew, of course, from the tales of her father and brothers that there were Venetians and Franks, but she had never seen one and had no idea what they looked like, other than they were barbaroi, non-Greek speaking “babblers”. Though the walls surrounding her city had partially collapsed during earthquakes, Simonis knew that no enemy had ever penetrated those walls and in spite of constant warfare with surrounding Muslims, Simonis lived in a happy, safe environment.

Constantinople was a bustling, growing city during the 1140s. Under the Komnenian Dynasty, restoration had occurred and there was a strong military and strong economic system in place. In 1095, Byzantine Emperor, Alexius I, had asked Pope Urban II for help against the Seljuk Turks who were invading Anatolia. Pope Urban II agreed, calling for not only helping the Byzantines but deciding to free the Holy Land of Levant Jerusalem and freeing the Eastern Christians from Islamic rule as well. However, many citizens of the Byzantium Empire were not Christian and were not happy with this because if they were under Islamic rule, they would be able to practice their ancient pagan rites and rituals. In Politics 1.8 , Aristotle wrote that war was just if the ends were just, it was in self-defense, it expanded the Greek Empire, or it enslaved the barbaroi. The concept of freedom and the ability to maintain it was paramount to the Greeks and they would rather die than lose that freedom. But, by the twelfth century, many non-Christian Greeks were willing to live under Islamic rule, perhaps for certain freedoms, that the Byzantine Empire and Eastern Orthodox Church did not allow or that would not be allowed under Roman Catholic Church rule.

Carl Erdmann, a Generalist, saw the Crusades as holy wars and that any war associated with furthering the cause of Christianity would fall under these holy wars. He included Pope Gregory VII’s call fort a militia Christi to come to the aid of the Byzantines after the Byzantine defeat at Manzikert in 1071 against the Seljuk Turks. Erdmann did not think that the reconquest of Jerusalem was central to Pope Urban II in the beginning of the First Crusade, but rather a taking of land and the unification of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, to fight under the banner of Christianity, and for other social and economic reasons. However, HEJ Cowdrey argued that Jerusalem was central to the First Crusade because without the desire to free Jerusalem from the Muslims, the crusade would not have taken place. Pluralists, Jonathan Riley-Smith and Norman Housley, suggest that the crusades were a phenomena that occurred over a long period of time and had farther reaching historical roots than the time of Pope Gregory VII and went beyond the Fourth Crusade, including many other similar campaigns such as the Spanish Reconquest. Christopher Tyreman, replacing Sir Steven Runciman’s hypothesis that the crusades had little to do with religious motives, rather economic gain through money and land, stated that the crusades did not exist before Pope Innocent III because he instituted the crusades. Most historians disagree with Tyreman, and it is a pretty good bet that the typical twelfth century Christian, whether from the West or the East, would have as well. Many Westerners went into debt and lost their lands in order to go on crusade. However, with the providing of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church, Tyreman may not be entirely wrong, if one considers the receiving of indulgences on a status level rather than simply religious level.

Looking from the perspective of the typical Byzantine, there is little doubt that the historical roots of the crusades were laid out over centuries of orthodox divisions between the Roman Catholic Church, Westerners, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, Byzantines. In addition, there were cultural disputes. Yet, until The Great Schism of 1054, both sides had remained somewhat loyal to each other. By the time of the Council of Clermont in November of 1095, the Byzantine Empire had lost one-half of its territory to the Seljuk Turks. Byzantine faced its other enemies as well, the Normans on the West and the Franks on the East. In order for the Byzantine Empire to request help from the Roman Catholic Church against the Seljuk Turks, it had to swallow its pride and accept that it needed help from its enemies, specifically from Italy and Germany. Being a prideful people, this was no small feat for the Byzantines.

In the twelfth century, the not-so-common Simonis, represented the common Byzantine citizen, the one for who little thought would have been given for the consequences of continued crusading. Of course, Simonis was not born during the First Crusade, but she remembered the tales of her grandparents and how when the Franks (lumped into a group of barbaric folks from the West) behaved on their journey and once they had reached Constantinople on August 1, 1096. Tales that Peter the Hermit of Amiens had preached the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and had advanced a group of men, women and children to fight the Turks were absurd and unbelievable to the Byzantines. Peter had preached in Northern France and Flanders for the pilgrimage and after leaving, went to preach in Germany and gather more people. When they arrived in Belgrade, it is said that the Belgrade commander had refused entry into the city by Peter’s pilgrims. This resulted in violent squirmishes, thefts and pillaging food around the countryside. There was the burning of Belgrade and eventually, Peter and his people numbering around 40,000, arrived in Constantinople around August 1st. The Great Emperor Alexius I had begged Peter to wait in Constantinople for the remaining army that Pope Urban II was sending, but Peter refused and headed to Jerusalem. Most Byzantines refused to believe that Alexius I would have sent Peter and his pilgrims out of Constantinople to be taken by the Turks, but there was some whisper of that in the West.

Peter’s pilgrims, simple common folk with no military training, pillaged towns throughout Asia and finally a fight broke out between the Germans and Italians against the French in Nicomedia. The Germans captured Xerigordon and the Turks, led by Kilij Arslan, retook Xerigordon and began to slaughter Peter’s pilgrims. Soldiers from Constantinople had to come to their aid and only a few thousand of Peter’s pilgrims survived to be brought back to Constantinople.

This is just one example of why the Byzantines felt the way they did about the Franks, which included the French, the Italians, the Germans, the Hungarians and the English. It was not just ancient history, or even the Great Schism of 1054 that gave the Byzantines their viewpoints of Franks. They saw the Franks as rash, mindless, violent barbarians with no culture or ethics. While Byzantines were consistently in war-like conditions, for them, it was seen as self-defense or for other just reasons. It appeared in their minds that the Franks simply did not live up to their expectations and there was no real reason to believe that the Franks would actually be able to help them. Simonis saw her own, weathered, elderly merchant father as having more honor than these barbarians.

As early as 1139, there had been rumors that the Franks were again going to come through Constantinople in an attempt to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims. Though Simonis generally was not allowed to speak or be in the room when the men were discussing such things as politics and religion, she would sometimes sit at the top stairs of the women’s quarters and listen. If she heard her mother coming, she would quickly pretend that she had dropped something. Simonis was frightened that the Franks might come back through Constantinople. She reasoned that if they had pillaged, killed and burned cities before, what would stop them from sacking Constantinople? She knew that a double wall protected them, but in her mind, it was only a matter of time before someone found a way to get through. How ironic, she thought, that the enemy of the Byzantines could possibly be their own Christian brothers. But, what did she know? She was uneducated and could not freely speak of these matters. Even if her mother or father listened to her, they would probably laugh at her naiveté.

Simonis was also scared for her betrothed. Could he count on such unruly soldiers as a group of Franks to protect him or fight alongside him? And what could possibly happen if a group showed up without any form of military leadership, as had happened with Peter’s pilgrims? A handful had already begun to trickle through. Was it possible that there were others who had missed the crusade and would show up on their doorstep, seeking food, shelter and Byzantine women? What if Constantinople was seized by these unruly Franks? Could that be worse than the Seljuk Turks? Could Simonis’ dreams of marriage and raising a family be taken away and she could end up on the streets, a Koine, used and worth nothing, shamed before God? Dare she think! She was not supposed to know the meaning of that word. For the fourteen-year old girl looking forward to her life, life in Constantinople, with all its glory, looked pretty dim when she considered life surrounded by barbarians and Muslims. Simonis knelt and said the Lord’s Prayer, asking him to work in spite of his people.

What happened to Simonis? At age 76, though Byzantines rarely lived beyond 40, God had truly blessed Simonis for her faithfulness. She had many children, one daughter of whom she was able to marry to Romanian aristocracy. When Simonis died, her tombstone read, “If God is with us, who can be against us?” Her family remained faithful Eastern Orthodox Christians for centuries. Even her daughter, Vladia, who had married into aristocracy, was faithful to God. However, that is where that line of faithfulness ends. For the Ottomans ruled and Vladia was killed after being taken a slave and sold to Muslims in Egypt, who in turn sold her to France. Her son Mircea the Great, King of Romania from 1386-1418, misled by propaganda against Muslims, vowed revenge and taught all of his sons to hate Muslims and kill them through the most horrid of means. His son, Vlad Tepes in 1431 joined the Knights Order of the Dragons and raised his son, Count Dracula to impale his enemies for Christianity’s sake. Of course, Count Dracula, because of his mixed blood, enjoyed impaling just a little too much. He became famous long after his death and today, there is a cereal named after him as well as a character on the famous PBS Sesame Street show for children. He took his great, great, great, great grandmother’s words to heart, and now rules the world. -- Karre.

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