Women as Cultural Emissaries

Consider Pilgrims


The urge towards pilgrimage was shared by women as well as men, even when it involved journeys to distant lands. On a pilgrimage, ideally all were to be equal, kings with beggars, women with men.

Example #1:  In Christian Europe, making a pilgrimage to Rome, Compostela de` Santiago, and, if possible, the sites of the Holy Land, were powerful expressions of ones religion. In the middle and late 300s, Christian emperors were urging pilgrimages to Jerusalem and the "Holy Land" around it. Constantine, encouraged by his mother, Empress Helena, already had begun a building program in the area to provide all that pilgrims would need.

The earliest account of a pilgrimage is the partial manuscript written by a Spanish nun, Egergia, who made a three year pilgrimage to the Holy Land, including Constantinople, in 381 - 384. Her detailed description of Christian practices in these places seems to have been written for her sister nuns at home.

Example #2:  Egergia’s account, however, is rare; women seldom left written narratives of their religious visits. Margery Kempe's lengthy 15th century memoir, “The Book of Margery Kempe,” is thus unusual. Dictated about 1436, when probably illiterate Margery was an old woman, and based on events she recalled during the past thirty years before, it describes her eccentric wanderings and passionate expressions of devotion. She traveled to sacred sites within England, to Rome, and, deserting her family, to Jerusalem. Margery’s memoirs tell us not only about her life, but the hardships travelers faced in the early 15th century.

Example #3:  A more engaging tale is that of Margaret, who went on pilgrimage from England to the Holy Land during the last years of the second crusade. She found herself in Jerusalem on the eve of the siege by Saladin, which ended with the city’s surrender, and her capture. This adventure, plus subsequent others, were told to her brother, a monk at Froidmont in France, who wrote them down upon her return.

Excerpt: The Siege of Jerusalem, 1187:

“During this siege, which lasted fifteen days, I carried out all of the functions of a soldier that I could. I wore a breastplate like a man; I came and went on the ramparts, with a cauldron on my head for a helmet. Though a woman, I seemed a warrior, I threw the weapon; though filled with fear, I learned to conceal my weakness. It was hot, and the fighters could have no rest. I was giving the soldiers at the wall water to drink, when a stone, like a mill wheel fell near me; I was hit by one of its fragments; my blood ran. But my wound quickly healed, because someone immediately brought medicine, though the scar remains. Your feast day, O St Michael, came and went sadly, without song. What could we offer in your honour, when we were so filled with fear? An unlucky treaty took me in the Holy Places into the hands of the enemy. I was taken prisoner.....”

Example #4:  Eleanor of Acquitaine, one of the most powerful and peripatetic personalities of feudal Europe, at age nineteen, and attended by 300 of her ladies, set out for the Holy Land with her husband, French King Louis VII. Both had raised crusading armies intent on rescuing Christian holy sites from the threat of the “Saracens.” While in the East, Eleanor apparently developed a taste for Byzantine clothing, and helped introduce eastern fashions upon her return to France, including red damask roses, and silkworms and mulberry bushes to be planted in Acquitaine. The eastern-influenced luxury of the Sicilian court also left an impression on her.

Details of Eleanor's conduct on the Second Crusade rely on two main primary sources, both written by men hostile to Eleanor. William, archbishop of Tyre, was one source; John of Salisbury’s memoirs, an observer at the Papal court at this time, is the other. Although neither was an eye witness, they record the acrimony between Eleanor and Louis, and the unproven stories of a sexual relationship between her and her uncle, Prince Raymond of Antioch.

Excerpt from William of Tyre:

“He [Raymond] resolved also to deprive him [Louis] of his wife, either by force or by secret intrigue. The queen readily assented to this design, for she was a foolish woman. Her conduct before and after this time showed here to be, as we have said, far from circumspect. Contrary to her royal dignity, she disregarded her marriage vows and was unfaithful to her husband.”

Example #5:  Since it is the pious duty of every Muslim to make at least one pilgrimage, called Hajj, to Makkah (Mecca) if they are able, women have always been encouraged to undertake it. Women’s early participation in the pilgrimage necessitated reserving one entrance into the sacred area for women alone, as well as scheduling certain days for their attendance at the Ka’ba sanctuary.

People got to Makkah with great difficulty. Some women of high status played influential roles in easing the way for other pilgrims. Queen Zubaydah (died in 831 A.D.) was one. Wife of Harun al-Rahid of Baghdad, she expanded and eased the route of the pilgrims by having an aqueduct constructed to carry the water to Makkah - some 12 miles away - and she increased the depth of the Zamzam well. She also had wells and caravanseries built along the 900 mile road from Mecca to Kufa, a route that became known as the Zubaydah Road.

Example #6:  In the sixteenth century another royal figure, Gulbadan Begam, was one of a surprisingly large number of elite women who went on the Hajj from India during the Mughal period. She was the last daughter of Babur, and niece of the powerful ruler, Akbar. Given the fact that the Mughal emperors were themselves in too venerable a position to travel such a distance away from their lands, sending women of the court, who would them report back on the trip, was common. Gulbadan traveled from India on ships loaded with Indian goods, such as cloth, spices, and pepper. During her long stay in Makkah from 1576 to 1582, Gulbadan and her party formed trading alliances and brought home prized items from the east. The generosity of the Mughal women became well known, attracting people from all over Asia Minor.


1) John Wilkinson, trans. Egergia’s Travels, 1971.

2) Web site: Egergia’s Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem

3) Margery Kemp. The Book of Margery Kempe.

4) Louise Collis, Memoirs of a Medieval Woman: The Life and times of Margery Kempe.

5) Web site: Margaret of Jerusalem/Beverly

6) Andrea Hopkins, Most Wise & Valiant Ladies: Remarkable Lives of Wmen of the MIddle Ages.

7) Alison Weir, Eleanor of Acquitaine.

8) D.D.R. Owen, Eleanor of Acquitaine: Queen and Legend.

9) Lyn Reese, Women in the Muslim World , stories and accompanying activities and discussion questions about Gulbadan and Zubaydah.


Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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