In light of International Women’s Day, I wanted to share the story of a little known medieval heroine. Melisende of Jerusalem became the focus of my PhD thesis and is the subject of some of my forthcoming articles! I absolutely adore the
By trade, I am a medieval gender historian. In my academic career, I explore the roles of both men and women in the past. In my work, I seek to obtain a better understanding of what it was to be masculine and feminine in the medieval period.
I have a profound interest in the history of women. I love the notion of International Women’s Day. The purpose of this day is to remind society of the inequalities that still exist between the sexes. I have written a number of pieces on the experience of medieval women as a guest blogger. I have also been asked to write for Women With Gifts about my own life experiences.
My Medieval Heroine – Melisende
The Crusades were one of the biggest events of the medieval period. Once the Christians (mainly comprising of French noblemen) had captured Jerusalem in 1099, they established a Christian kingdom complete with its own monarchy.
Melisende was born in Jerusalem around 1108 and was the daughter of King Baldwin II. Baldwin had no sons, only 4 daughters and so the crown was to be passed on to Melisende, his eldest daughter. However, women inheriting property was far from straight forward in the medieval period. Melsiende was required to marry so that she and her husband could rule Jerusalem together. Naturally, as the male, her husband was expected to take the lead in this joint rulership. Melisende would then have performed the somewhat ceremonial role as Queen regent (in effect, the wife of the king rather than holding power in her own right).
It was decided that Melisende would marry Fulk V of Anjou, a French nobleman of considerable wealth. Melisende likely had very little say in the arrangement, but (as far as we can tell) seemed happy enough to marry the man of her father’s choice. The couple had 2 sons – Baldwin (born 1130) and Amalric (born 1136).
Melisende and Her Struggle for Power
Melisende vs Her Husband, Fulk
Melisende’s father died in 1131. Rather than leave the kingdom to his son-in-law Fulk (as was expected) the dying King Baldwin II instead left the kingdom to Melisende, Fulk and the couple’s eldest son, the little infant Baldwin. (I know, Baldwin was a popular family name!) By making this decision, Baldwin II tried to ensure that Melisende would fulfil a prominent role in the monarchy and would not be pushed aside.
We have no information regarding Melisende’s childhood, or indeed little about her personality. What we can assume however is that Melisende was a rather strong-willed woman. When Melisende and Fulk (and their baby son) came to the throne, people expected Melisende to take a back seat and allow Fulk to take control. This was not the case!
Fulk tried to push his wife aside and exert his masculine authority, but Melisende would not be a submissive wife. The harder Fulk tried to rule without his wife, the harder Melisende worked to establish her position as rightful heir to her father!
The conflict between husband and wife continued for 5 years until some of Melisende’s supporters revolted. They forced Fulk to allow his wife to exert her rightful power. After this time, Melisende ruled with an iron fist and would not allow Fulk to take any action without her say so! She had established her right to rule.
By way of apology for his previous behaviour, Fulk had a beautiful book made for his wife. (The medieval equivalent of flowers or shoes and handbags!)
Melisende vs Her Son, Baldwin III
When Fulk died in 1143, Melisende continued to rule, this time alongside her son, Baldwin III (yet again, women could only really rule alongside men). The mother and son duo seemed to work rather effectively for almost a decade. But, as Baldwin grew older, he wanted to rule alone and without his mother. Under the normal course of things, Baldwin would have ruled alone from the time of his coronation, but his mother was in fact still a ruling Queen. This complicated matters greatly and he could not simply push her aside.
Almost all other medieval women would have submitted to male authority and handed over power to a male ruler. But not Melisende – she was made of strong stuff!
In 1152, Baldwin tried to rid
Melisende held out for a number of days but was eventually forced to relinquish he role as joint ruler. She had not been without supporters though. Indeed a large percentage of the nobility had publicly shown support for her and her right to rule. However, the politics of the day meant that in situations such as these, the male almost always won in the battle for power.
A Fall from Power?
It was expected that following her fall from power, Melisende would retire from politics and fulfil more traditional feminine roles. Nevertheless, she continued to involve herself in politics. She would often be seen advising her son on important matters of state. Melisende adviced her son even in military matters (a realm strictly dominated by men).
The Queen died in 1161 aged 56. She had been a force to reckon with throughout her life. She had held the reigns of power in a war-torn kingdom (an achievement in itself and all the more remarkable given the obstacles she faced because of her sex).
What we can Learn from the Past
Melisende will always be my medieval heroine. The self-confidence she possessed is quite remarkable. As International Women’s Day reminds us, it can be difficult for women to establish themselves in many different careers in a patriarchal society. The fact that Melisende had managed to exert power 900 years ago is rather remarkable. She is rather unique in the medieval world.
This incredible woman remains a model and an inspiration to all women today.8