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How to Ransom Captives in Medieval Spain

How would you ransom captives? Money? Threat of war? Let them rot?

In a previous post (Abduction Leads to Slavery in the Iberian Frontier), I listed some examples of how captives were taken in Medieval Spain along the Christian/Muslim border.

But what happened to them after they were taken?

european slave trade routes 8th to 11th century AD
European and North African slave trade routes 8th to 11th century AD

A Constant Threat

Raids and abduction were not new to medieval life or restricted to religious warfare. Abduction for ransom or slavery was “a constant in the life of the western Mediterranean from antiquity until the demise of the Barbary pirates in the nineteenth century” (James William Brodman, Ransoming Captives in Crusader Spain: The Order of Merced on the Christian-Islamic Frontier, 1863). But where cultures collided along the border in Medieval Spain and down the coast of the Mediterranean and its islands, raiding and abduction increased.

The Slave Market, Constantinople, Paining by William Allan, 1838

A Slave’s Options

Before 1150 AD in this region, prisoners of war expected death or slavery after capture. Held in chains and on the verge of starving or dying of thirst, slaves had little hope. They could:

  1. Escape – Few attempted this. The price of failure, usually the loss of a nose or an eye, was higher than most were willing to risk.
  2. Convert – Slave owners did not always offer freedom after conversion.
  3. Keep calm and carry on.

If a slave could do none of these, he or she would have to rely on outside help. No one would physically rescue him or her because the slave owners typically kept them deep within the country. Only one option remained for outside help: REDEMPTION.

Ransom Captives in Medieval Spain - Christ Centered

The Concept of Redemption

Around 1150, the charters of Aragon and Castile stressed the obligation to try to redeem Christian captives. They did this by keeping Muslim captives whom they used to trade for their Christian counterparts. (A Society Organized for War, James F. Powers, Ch. 7.) 

Let’s define redemption as ransom through (1) the payment in coin or in kind, or (2) the exchange of a suitable captive held by the other side.

Redemption was an ancient practice according to both Roman and Visigothic law.

For the Romans, the law of Diocletian stipulates that anyone who buys a captive must free him upon repayment of the purchase price or the completion of not more than five years of servitude (Silvo Romano, Redemptus ab hostibiis, Rome, 1930 as cited by Brodman).

For the Visigoths (who the Spanish kingdoms of the time descended from), Visigothic law allows a commission of 20 percent of the ransom for anyone who frees a Visigoth from captivity. (“Collectionis iuris Romano-Visigothici capita VII-XX (Fragmenta Gaudenziana),” in Leges Visigothorum, ed. Karl Zeumer, vol. 1 of Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Legum, Sectio I, Leges nationum germanicarum (Hanover and Leipzig, 1902), 471 as quoted by Brodman).

How to Ransom Captives

In the Christian North, ransom usually came through three channels:

Ransoming Captives in Medieval Spain
  1. The King
  2. Their Hometown
  3. The Church

The King

In Medieval Spain, the quartermaster on duty rewarded those who brought a Muslim commander (adalid) to the council (concejo). Should a Muslim high-ranking official such as a captain survive capture, the king maintained the first option to claim the captive and pay the town one hundred maravedís. The monarch would typically use this high-ranking official to bargain the release of his own subjects.

Their Hometown

Towns felt a particular responsibility toward their own captive militiamen. As an act of charity, they offered captured Moors, livestock, or shares of the booty as contributions toward their ransoming. These frontier towns helped negotiate redemption. Town councils hired Christian and Muslim merchants engaged in the flow of trade across the military frontier. The towns of the Aragonese and Castilian frontiers paid the merchants a twenty percent commission to transfer ransoms to Muslim captors and safely return Christian captives to their hometowns.

The Church

The family of the captured typically helped raise funds for the ransom, but when they could not raise enough even with the town’s aid, the church typically stepped in. The church elevated ransoming from a work of civic importance to an act of religious charity that was meritorious in God’s eyes.

“One of the first efforts to apply the institutions of religious charity to ransoming grew out of the initiative of Alfonso VIII of Castile and of Alfons I of Catalonia-Aragon to entrust this work to the military orders of their realms. But the initiative for them actually to undertake the task came from Alfonso VIII (1158- 1214), who established a number of religious ransoming centers in the trans-Tagus region of Castile and entrusted these to the knights of Santiago. The first so-called Hospital of Mercy was founded and royally endowed at Toledo in 1180.”

James William Brodman,
Ransoming Captives in Crusader Spain: The Order of Merced on the Christian-Islamic Frontier
Ransoming Captives in Medieval Spain

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