Hostages in the Middle Ages

By Bachrach, Bernard S. | Cithara, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Hostages in the Middle Ages


Bachrach, Bernard S., Cithara


Hostages in the Middle Ages. By Adam J. Kosto. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xvi, 281. $110.00.

In modern English usage dealing with contemporary matters, the term hostage generally denotes a person who has been taken captive illegally and likely by force by a person or persons who want to extract something of value to the hostage-takers from those people who have an interest in maintaining the health and well-being of the hostage. Kidnapping, obviously is the most common form of hostage-taking, concerning which we tend to use the word victim, as in the victim of the crime, rather than hostage. We are particularly aware that contemporary "terrorists" are prone to take hostages, and the 1979 Geneva Convention makes all taking of hostages illegal under international law. (One might think, however, that the nuclear strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction [MAD] maintained by the US and the USSR well beyond 1979 amounted, in fact, to holding the people of each nation hostage.)

It is the thrust of Hostages in the Middle Ages by Adam Kosto, professor of history at Columbia University, that during the Middle Ages, the terms used to denote hostage in Latin and in various vernacular languages generally meant something rather different from modern usage. Simply put, terms for hostage, it is argued, were applied to people who were handed over by their allies or friends or families to a third party in order to guarantee some sort of behavior by the hostage-givers in relation to the hostage-receivers. However, as numerous examples provided by Kosto make clear, hostages were in fact taken, demanded, and extorted, regardless of the words used to describe the situation, by those with a superior military position from those in an inferior position. The aim of the hostage-takers, by and large, was to guarantee the appropriate behavior of the hostage-givers, who, by and large, sought to avoid a fate even more drastic than that of handing over their brethren. This pattern of behavior is largely the same as that used during the pre-medieval era in the West.

Kosto's monograph is divided into seven chapters of unequal length: 1. Hostages in the Middle Ages: Problems and Perspectives; 2. Varieties and Logics of Medieval Hostageship; 3. Hostages in the Early Middle Ages: Communication, Conversion and Structures of Alliance; 4. Hostages in the Later Middle Ages: Representation, Finance, and the Laws of War; 5. Conditional Hostages; 6. The King's Ransom; and 7. Hostageship Interpreted, from the Middle Ages to the Age of Terrorism. There are two maps, six tables that provide "quantitative" evidence, an exceptionally lengthy and useful bibliography of both sources and scholarly works, and a helpful Index.

Kosto sets himself two basic tasks. First, he recognizes that medieval hostage-taking, as alluded to above, has a diverse history, and the author's aim is to trace that history. His second task is "a study of the way people employed hostages over time," which he believes "illuminates the changing ways people settled conflicts and made agreements in a legal and political environment very different from our own." He suggests that "on a very basic level, the changing ways medieval societies assigned importance and value to relationships and people" are illustrated through the institution of hostage- taking (1-2).

In support of the two basic points noted above, Kosto intends to defend "three central claims." First, "medieval hostageship is best understood as a guarantee." But he goes on to claim that "Hostageship is rarely, however, simply a guarantee, and in that fact lies the institution's political power and utility." Secondly, Kosto claims that during "the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries" medieval hostageship changed. He goes on to imply that this has some relation to other "well-studied changes in society" during this two-century-long period. Third and finally, Kosto argues that the "persistence of hostageship through the later Middle Ages" leads him to suggest that "in its various forms [it] is characteristic of medieval political life.

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