Tuesday, April 01, 2014

A review of "Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War: Ransom Culture in the Late Middle Ages" by Rémy Ambühl

From  the Medieval Review.

Ambühl, Rémy.  Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War: Ransom
Culture in the Late Middle Ages
.  Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2013.  Pp. xiv, 301.  $99.00.  ISBN-13: 9781107010949.

   Reviewed by Jarbel Rodriguez
        San Francisco State University

Rémy Ambühl's Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War: Ransom
Culture in the Late Middle Ages
offers a valuable contribution to
the study of imprisonment and captivity in the medieval period.  The
last few years have seen numerous additions to what was once a rather
neglected area of study, particularly book-length examinations. [1]
With Ambühl's work our knowledge of medieval bondage increases
substantially, particularly since it addresses the Hundred Years' War,
a period obviously replete with the prospect of captivity and the
attendant sources necessary for its study.

Building on the work of earlier historians, notably Chris Given-Wilson
and Michael Jones, Ambühl's purpose is "to fill the gap in the
historiography left in the absence of any research monograph on
prisoners of war covering a broader chronological framework such as
the Hundred Years War" (16).  But the book goes beyond this ambitious
goal as it makes a strong argument for the private nature of
ransoming.  Indeed, as Ambühl makes consistently clear, the options
available to the unfortunate soldiers who fell prisoner were largely
limited to their own close circles of family, friends, and associates
(16-17).  When public institutions, such as the crown or the towns,
intervened in a ransoming it was often due to a personal connection
with the captive or royal interest and not a matter of public policy.

Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War is divided into nine
chapters, loosely arranged in three distinct sections.  The first part
lays much of the groundwork for what is coming.  This includes an
excellent chapter on the laws of ransom, as they were understood in
France and England.  "What were the rights and responsibilities of the
soldiers who fell into the hands of the enemy" (19)?  This simple
question had a complex answer as Ambühl identifies six elements that
bound and protected the prisoner during his time in captivity:
traditional law of arms, royal ordinances, honor, contract law, the
prospect of retaliation, and money (both the prisoner's and the
captor's).  Moreover, every prisoner seems to have experienced his
rights and responsibilities differently based on their own personal
connections and circumstances.

Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the political interference that prisoners
experienced, as princes often demanded prisoners for their own agenda,
sometimes ruining chances for redemption.  Princes were entitled to a
portion of all captives and they often demanded the most important
noble prisoners for themselves.  But they were not beyond taking an
interest in lesser captives.  Princes used their prisoners to bring
about prisoner exchanges, for economic gains, diplomatic efforts, and
sometimes for vengeance as was the case with Henry V's harsh treatment
of a handful of lower-ranking prisoners captured during the Agincourt
campaign in 1415.  Henry's decision to keep these seemingly
unimportant prisoners puzzled even his contemporaries.  Ambühl argues
that Henry was retaliating against an affront to his royal dignity
(they had defied him by refusing to surrender).  The prisoners were
not released until after Henry's death, victims of an angry monarch
who used them for his own vindictive agenda (71-77).  These chapters,
in particular, show clear evidence of how disruptive princely
interference could be on timely and effective prisoner exchanges
predicated on the six elements outlined in chapter one.  The whim of
the monarch was enough to shatter any hope of release built on
tradition, law, or honor.

The next three chapters analyze the process of imprisonment from
capture to ransom.  Chapter 4 begins by looking at one of the driving
forces in the capture and exchange of prisoners: a simple profit
motive that saw masters/captors financially rewarded when ransoms were
paid.  This was enough of an incentive to ensure that almost all
warriors, from the lowest archer to the highest noble, were active
participants in the dangerous game of taking prisoners.  The chapter
then proceeds to detail conditions in captivity, with much emphasis on
the prisons themselves.  One would have liked a fuller treatment of
prisoner conditions, but the chapter already offers a lot and this is
an area in which sources are often not very forthcoming.

The next chapter looks at the economics behind ransoming.  The
eventual price that a prisoner paid for his release was based on a
complicated calculus that included the captive's status, his social or
political function, his connections (those with favorable connections
typically had to pay higher ransoms), as well as his wealth and
ability to pay.  Moreover, any costs incurred during the imprisonment
augmented the final tally.

Chapter 6 focuses on merchants and trade and their role mediating
exchanges.  Merchants were a critical part of the ransom process as
they helped with monetary exchanges, money transfers, and loans.  As
Ambühl notes, merchants were necessary due to the absence of an
organized ransoming system (181).  I would argue that merchants would
have played a vital role even if an organized ransoming system
existed, as was the case in Spain, where merchants were critical cogs
in the local ransoming networks.  It was merchants who turned silver
coinage into the gold that many transfers required.  They also helped
prisoners move money raised by family members, friends, and associates
into the hands of the masters; an activity that often entailed cross-
channel transfers.  Merchants also functioned as moneylenders, helping
prisoners to reach their ransom amount.  One final impact that
prisoners had on commercial activity was the granting of trading
licenses to prisoners so that they could use the profits for ransoms.
In many cases, the grantees simply sold the valuable trading licenses
to merchants, but numerous others used them for profitable mercantile

The last section examines the various groups that helped prisoners
negotiate a ransom and pay for it.  Likely the first to be petitioned
for aid were vassals and subjects.  In an earlier age, vassals and
subjects would have been responsible for the ransom of their lord.  By
the time of the Hundred Years War, as Ambühl shows, this system of
customary aids had been supplanted by provincial levies and,
ultimately, royal taxation (200-201).  Royal taxation, in particular,
appears to have disrupted a customary form of ransom revenue as moneys
raised for prisoners from their communities could be transferred to
other royal needs (202).  This often meant that revenue provided by
subjects and vassals was often not enough to raise the entire ransom
amount, leaving prisoners to depend on multiple sources of income to
raise the large sums that were needed.

Kings may have funneled revenue earmarked for ransoms to meet other
demands, but they could also be sources of assistance to prisoners in
need.  Chapter 8 examines royal aid to prisoners.  Princes had little
legal obligation to offer assistance to those who fell into captivity,
yet appear to have done so at times and, in some cases, abundantly.
This should not obscure the fact that a prince could not ransom all of
his imprisoned men--it was financially impossible--but when feasible
and under the right circumstances, the prince could make the
difference between a successful ransom effort and a lengthy

The last group that Ambühl explores, and perhaps the most important,
included the family members and close associates of the prisoner.  In
keeping with the private nature of ransoms, the prisoner's inner
circle served as his most reliable form of assistance.  Wives,
parents, siblings, friends, and even former comrades-in-arms could be
asked for sums of money and it was this group that often undertook the
grueling work of negotiating all the details of a ransom or prisoner
exchange.  As in other societies in which captivity and ransom were
common, it was kin and friends who provided the prisoner with the most
important forms of assistance.

My own research on captives in the Crown of Aragon made reading
Ambühl's work an intensely familiar experience as there was extensive
overlap with the conditions I encountered in Iberia.  But there were
also some noteworthy differences.  Indeed, if I have one criticism of
his otherwise excellent work is that it fails to show any connections
to ransoming and imprisonment south of the Pyrenees (or anywhere else
in Europe, for that matter).  This is particularly puzzling since
Castile was one of the side theaters of the Hundred Years War and one
would presume that those English and French soldiers and commanders
who fought there were exposed to some of these regional differences.
It is understandable why the author kept his focus on the north, but
the absence of a more comparative perspective (with the exception of a
brief mention on ransoming in the Holy Land), raises some bigger
questions than this work can answer.  Did the absence of a religious
divide between combatants in France keep it as a private and largely
ad-hoc process as opposed to the very public and institutionally
organized system we see in Aragon and Castile where religion often
determined if a person fell into captivity?  Or was this the result of
differing feudal and legal traditions?  Was there a similar system in
place for ransoming non-combatants or were they a non-issue in France?
One of the notable aspects of the ransoming system that evolved in
Aragon was that it mostly sought to ransom non-combatants (sailors,
travelers, merchants).  Moreover, in Aragon we see an entire society
enlisted to aid captives raise their ransoms (by providing begging
alms, leaving money in wills, supporting civic efforts to raise
funds).  This was a public problem with public solutions.  For the
combatants captured during the Hundred Years War, their effort was, as
Ambühl correctly points out, a largely private one.  Why such a
difference?  Clearly, some of the answers lie in regional differences,
but a fuller comparative study of captivity is still to be written.

This is not to say that the work will interest only those who work on
France, England or the war.  Indeed, one of the strengths of Ambühl's
work is that by giving us such a detailed study of imprisonment and
captivity during the Hundred Years War, the book can serve as a
cornerstone of any future comparative research on the plight of
prisoners and captives in medieval Europe.

1. See Yvonne Friedman, Encounter Between Enemies: Captivity and
Ransom in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem
(Leiden: Brill, 2002);
Jean Dunbabin Captivity and Imprisonment in Medieval Europe, c.
1000-c. 1300
(New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002); Jarbel
Rodriguez, Captives and their Saviors in the Medieval Crown of
(Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press,
2007); Guy Geltner, The Medieval Prison: A History (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2008).

1 comment:

  1. That sounds like it would make an interesting read. I also appreciate the reference to Geltner's book - going to try and snag that on interlibrary loan!