New Worlds: Hostages and Ransoms

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Place one million dollars in unmarked bills in a duffel bag and leave it in a locker at the bus stop . . .

When we think of hostages and ransoms nowadays, we tend to think of terrorists, bank robbers, and kidnappers. Criminals who despicably use other people’s lives as bargaining chips to get what they want. The part about them being bargaining chips certainly has a long pedigree, but the “criminal” and “despicable” part wasn’t always the case.

What are you doing when you take someone hostage? You’re making an implicit threat: this person is in my control, and if you don’t do what I say, I will hurt or kill them. The “what I say” part may be a simple payoff (i.e. ransom), or it may be an action (letting me and my fellow bank robbers flee), or it may be an ongoing state of affairs (keep voting the way I tell you to). For this to work, you have to believe I will make good on my threat . . . which isn’t hard in a society or a subculture where violence against other people is a commonplace occurrence.

Ransoms used to be a common feature of European war. Because the aristocracy there was military in origin, noblemen were regularly out on the battlefield, seeking to prove their manly courage and prowess. And sometimes they died there, to be sure — but it was also common for them to be captured instead. Why? Well, for the same reasons the Vikings liked to rob monasteries instead of just burning their contents to the ground. Killing someone or destroying a place doesn’t gain you anything except satisfaction and probably the enmity of the dead man’s surviving kin. But if you steal the monastery’s valuable possessions, or if you take prisoner a noble of the opposing side, then you can offer it up for ransom. Now you get satisfaction and profit (and often less enmity).

And because this was a game played between aristocrats, it was often quite gentlemanly. A baron taken prisoner on the battlefield wouldn’t be chained to the wall in a dank cellar; he’d be given a nice room and would dine with the family. (If the man who captured him wasn’t aristocratic himself, then the baron might get sold off to someone of rank, who could hold him in suitable conditions while the ransom was arranged.) There might be guards or chains on him, but then again, there might not be — because that baron was often expected to give his word of honor that he wouldn’t try to escape, in exchange for being treated in a courteous fashion. One’s word of honor being a big deal in that kind of society, this was as good as chains for keeping him there, and far more dignified.

Depending on the rank of the prisoner, the ransom could be enormous. When Richard I of England was captured in Europe — not because of a war, but because of complex interpersonal politics that got one of his captors excommunicated — the Holy Roman Emperor demanded a ransom that amounted to two or three times the annual income of the English Crown. It took nearly a year for Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, to scrape the money together by any means she could. A mere knight would not be worth nearly that sum . . . but his relatives might find it equally difficult to raise the funds, and he might cool his heels in captivity for a very long time. (One imagines the cost of providing room and board to a prisoner acted as a countervailing factor in how ransom amounts got calculated.) In other cases the man himself might be released, while his extremely valuable horse and equipment stayed in hock until he could redeem them.

Hostages could serve a larger purpose than mere profit, though. Like I said above, while they can be used to extract money or a specific action, they can also be used as insurance for ongoing behavior.

There’s a sense in which marital alliances can be thought of as handing over a hostage. Not that the family your daughter has married into is threatening her (at least, one hopes not) — but her fortunes are tied to theirs now, so if you want her to do well, you may need to provide financial assistance, political support, or aid in battle to her new kin. Same with a child you send off to be fostered in the household of your social superior.

Remove the friendly valance of marriage or fosterage, and what’s left is a political hostage. You might take captives of this kind at the outbreak of hostilities, imprisoning whatever merchants, guests, or diplomats from the opposing land you can get your hands on, then using them as leverage to try and make your enemy back down. Meanwhile your enemy is doing the same thing, and then it becomes a game of who’s holding the more valuable pieces — or who’s more determined to prove their resolution by killing those captives. This kind of thing often ends badly for whoever has the bad luck to be in hostile territory when things go wrong.

Or the hostages might be taken in battle (like the above-mentioned prisoners of war), or even in its aftermath. When Side A wins out over Side B, the terms of the peace settlement may include B providing A with hostages. So long as B keeps their side of the treaty, those prisoners are safe. But the moment that breaks . . .

Being a hostage of that kind must have been an incredibly peculiar way to live. There’s no leverage value in a random peasant, so the hostages were generally important people, like the children or even heirs of the defeated leaders. And like the high-ranking captives held for ransom, they might be treated very well, to the point where you could mistake them for an ordinary guest or foster-child. They might play with the children of their captor, learn from their tutors, take meals with the family, and so on.

But underlying that would be the awareness that all those nice things can transform into bloodshed if the political winds shift. And even if they don’t, there’s a cultural tension: living for years with a foster family can make the hostage feel more sympathy with their captors than their own family. In the happy version of this story, that sympathy helps bridge the divide between the two groups (especially if the hostage situation is a two-way street mandated by a higher authority, such that both groups wind up seeing the other side). In the tragic version, you wind up with an heir completely disconnected from his native land and so thoroughly acculturated in the customs of his captors that he might as well be a foreigner, sent back to rule over a people not his own.

At which point there may be another war — the very thing the hostage trade was meant to prevent. But in the interim, it may have bought years of peace.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Hostages and Ransoms — 3 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Hostages and Ransoms - Swan Tower

  2. Agincourt and the ransoms thereafter — a surprising proportion of which ended up in the hands of commoners, primarily archers who ventured onto the field after the French “army” broke — ended up equalling for the entire English war effort from some time in the 1390s to 1415. That’s just the ransoms actually paid; one French noble (I recall it was the duc d’Orleans, but I’m away from my references) lived the remaining three decades of his life as a “guest” of the English Crown.

    Then there were the currency problems in other battles of that war; is that ransom in livres Tournais or livres de Paris? Coin or credit? And so on.

  3. Ransoms were also common in tourneys, where the defeated knight owes the victorious knight his horse and armor, which he gains back by paying him a sum of money.

    Hostage exchanges could be horrible for the hostages as well. I think of William Marshal, who as a boy of 5 was almost hanged because his father refused to surrender his castle. King Stephen of England saved him, despite that making him seem weak… then again, Stephen had been a hostage himself, captured after the Battle of Lincoln, and at some point possibly even chained for trying to escape, so perhaps that was a factor? On the other hand, people sometime talk about the cruelty of John I for executing the Welsh hostages, most of whom were young boys.
    I think the worst story about hostages has to be that of Henry I, though. His daughter (illegitimate) and her husband rebelled, there was an exchange of hostages, but Henry’s son-in-law Eustace blinded his hostage. In retaliation Henry ordered the two hostages he had blinded – those were his own granddaughters!