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Hostage Taking in Ancient and Medieval Times September 20, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback

When we think of hostages today we tend to think of men with pistols using some poor innocent as a human shield. But in the ancient and medieval world hostage-taking was formalised. Conquered territories would give up children of notables who would be conveyed to an enemy capital or castle and who would then be brought up according to alien traditions. A son of a Persian Emperor or a British tribal chief might, for example, find himself in Rome being educated among senator’s sons, at least prior to the second century AD. Hostage taking involved two elements: the first, the threat of violence against the hostage and the second the education of the child or adolescent in alien traditions; ideally, the hostage once he returned home would become a bridge between two peoples, preventing misunderstandings.  Here a hostage is closer to a foster child than what we would understand by ‘hostage’.

Looked at in this light hostage-taking was an institution rather than a criminal act. It was relatively rare for hostages to be killed even when their family back home welshed on a deal: in our best study on the question (Kosto 40) the author found only about thirty cases from 1500 where hostages had been killed in the Middle Ages. However, there are some gruesome examples when things did go wrong. Famously, Richard III had 2700 Muslim hostages killed at Acre in 1199: they were beheaded before the city wall. Inter-religious hostage taking often finished badly. Diarmait of Leinster gave his son Conchobhar to Ruadri of Connacht, but rebelled against Ruadri. On the first occasion Ruadri warned Diarmait that he was risking his son’s head, on the second occasion Ruadri simply sent Diarmait Conchobhar’s head. Any other ghastly hostage tales from the middle ages or antiquity? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

Diarmait was unlucky. Most generals and kings were reluctant to take the final step and kill a hostage, particularly a child. We have already in this place enjoyed Caterina Sforza defying her enemies to kill her children, she boasting that she had the wherewithal to make more. Her gamble paid off. Her enemies could not bring themselves to kill innocents and were soon themselves slaughtered. An almost identical story comes from England. In 1152 John the Marshall was defending Newbury castle against King Stephen. John handed over his son William – later the famous William the Marshall – as a hostage. However, John used the time of negotiations to fortify his castle and when Stephen threatened to kill his son he replied that ‘I still have the hammers and anvils with which to forge better sons’. Stephen was furious but couldn’t bring himself to kill the child.