With something of a shock to the system, my seminar reports are now only a bit more than a term behind as I hit the beginning of 2012, when Adam Kosto presented to the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford on the 16th January with the title, “Free men made bond: finding hostages in the medieval sources”. Adam is another of those people who could obviously have done my thesis – there seem to be more than you’d think – and indeed has come a lot closer than some,1 but he has been busy for the last few years partly with Lay Archives stuff, even now in production with CUP I understand, and mostly with investigating the ways that hostage-taking in the medieval West worked, and that, as you can see, was what he brought to us in a whirlwind trip to this side of the Atlantic. This was good, as despite our overlap of interests, we’d never managed more before than to wave at each other, so the chance to actually talk with him was very welcome. On, however, to the paper!
The first problem was definitions; the potential from taking someone as a hostage, in terms of aims and outcomes, varies a lot depending who it is and whose behaviour you’re trying to coerce, and a lot of the categories one might apply prevent certain uses of the term applying. Adam opted for a restricted definition of a hostage taken by a second party who was in some way a guarantor of behaviour by a third party; that hostage was not to be ransomed, which is something different, was physically constrained, and was given not taken, albeit under duress. There’s a lot of people conventionally thought of as medieval hostages, from Richard the Lionheart to Galla Placidia, whom this excludes but one can see that there is a difference. Whether it’s a difference the writers, from all over Europe, of documents and narratives both, from whom Adam was trying to glean sense from saw, however, is harder to discover: the word obses covers basically any meaning for ‘hostage’ you might want and then some, including some who would only become hostages in Adam’s sense if something went wrong, and meanwhile fideiussor, usually ‘surety’, has some semantic overlap, if that surety has to hand themselves over to be confined.2 Adam excluded fideiussores, but these criteria of inclusion and exclusion were what generated most of the discussion in questions.
Adam’s findings, other than that much to his chagrin the first reference to a conditional hostage as described above comes from the year 1000, was that this sort rose to mostly replace other sorts over the course of the following century, although never to exclusion. Ultimately, he figured that the thing that made all these cases the same in some way was the sense of guarantee, and that it was legal guarantee, and ways that you could do that where the parties didn’t share a legal system, a superior arbitrator, or just much trust, that formed the framework in which medieval hostages (in his sense) should be seen. One of the other things that was raised in questions was whether this wasn’t so desperate as to be marginal, given how often it could go wrong, but of course that didn’t stop people resorting to trial by ordeal, and just as there, there’s a possibility that the proposal might be made as part of a game strategy in negotiations, and that one may not necessarily have been making a proposal that was meant to be useful to both parties. Sometimes, however, it seemed to me, it must have been the best way to build a bridge between two parties in a dispute separated by more than they were united by, whether they liked the option or (as Adam stressed was often the case) not. In that respect, though Adam has greatly widened his spread, he’s still interested in how people make agreements, and that’s always a good thing to look for.
1. True story: when I was in the closing stages of writing up my Ph. D., my supervisor, a collaborator of Adam’s, said at one meeting that I’d probably better have a look at Adam’s newest paper, his “Laymen, Clerics, and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: The Example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74, as it probably touched on my stuff to an extent that needed to be taken into account. That was putting it mildly: we’d started with the same example charter! (That charter deserves a blog post of its own really, but I have no image of it, and besides, Adam’s kind of covered it…) Happily for me Adam usually works the other side of the year 1000 from me and his excellent Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: power, order, and the written word, 1000-1200 (Cambridge 2001) really only crosses with me a little bit, where we mostly agree.
2. For sureties, I at least am used to resorting to the work of Wendy Davies, most obviously her “Suretyship in the Cartulaire de Redon” in Thomas Charles-Edwards, Morfydd Owen & D. B. Walters (edd.), Lawyers and Laymen. Studies in the History of Law presented to Professor Dafydd Jenkins on his seventy-fifth birthday, Gwyl Ddewi 1986 (Cardiff 1986), pp. 72-91, repr. in Davies, Brittany in the Early Middle Ages, Variorum Collected Studies Series 924 (Aldershot 2009), VIII, but now also her “On Suretyship in Tenth-Century Northern Iberia” in Julio Escalona & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages: exploring landscape, local society, and the world beyond, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 133-152, but obviously that only covers early and one of the interesting things about Adam’s work is that it will carry this idea later, where I know of no literature except on Old Norse material.