In recent years a number of impressive studies have been published on how ransoming was conducted in the Middle Ages when the war was one between Christian and Islamic powers, notably James Brodman’s Ransoming Captives in Crusader Spain: The Order of Merced on the Christian-Islamic Frontier (1986) and Giulio’s Cipollone’s Cristianità-Islam: cattività e liberazione in nome di Dio. Il tempo di Innocenzo III dopo ‘il 1187’ (1992). Yvonne Friedman’s new study of how ransoming operated in the Latin East in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is a welcome addition to this literature.
Issues relating to imprisonment and ransom form the solid core of the book, but the author addresses a range of broader questions which she spells out on p. 2: ‘Did the need to deal with an unknown enemy on his home territory in order to free one’s captives influence the relations between enemies? Did the belligerent sides learn modes of behavior and ethics from their adversaries? Or did they remain two totally divorced alien forces, untouched by each other’s culture and mores? Did the norms and readiness to take responsibility for the vanquished soldiers one had sent into battle develop during two hundred years of almost constant warfare? What was the role of religion as a restraint upon the atrocities of war? What contributions did chivalrous ideals make to the everyday conduct of war?’ The book’s overall structure is sound, though the sequence of the first three chapters seems curious: the author plunges straight into the First Crusade and then provides two contextual chapters on the pre-1095 background in the Levant and in the West. There follows a series of full and highly informative chapters on the way the situation developed between 1099 and 1291, on life in captivity, on the various ways in which captives regained their liberty, on the experience of female captives, on the role of the military orders, and on the way the captive was depicted in the Old French Crusade Cycle. The final chapter draws an explicit comparison between the situation in Spain and in the Latin East. Throughout the argument is clearly documented. The religious dimensions are broad: a sustained attempt is made to deal with both Christian and Muslim captives, and when possible the experience of Jews too is brought into the discussion.
Although armchair commentators like William of Tyre preferred the ‘knights of Christ’ to choose death rather than the shame of captivity, in practice capture was a fact of life on both sides from the First Crusade onwards. Very quickly norms and procedures evolved relating to ransom payments and they are well described here. What was striking about Latin Syria, especially in comparison with Spain, was the absence of any infrastructure for negotiating ransoms and, on the Christian side, of any public responsibility for meeting ransom demands. Friedman points out that late-twelfth-century assises in the kingdom of Jerusalem mention compensation for horses lost in battle but are silent on responsibility for captives. In effect the captured Christian soldier was thrown back on his own resources and those of his family and friends. In these circumstances, it is extraordinary that the Trinitarian Order, founded in 1198 to help ransom captured Christians, made little impact on the situation in the Latin East, where captives in the thirteenth century continued to face their plight to a large extent without assistance. This is the more remarkable because the Trinitarians were a response to the large number of Christians who were captured at the battle of Hattin in 1187. More than any other event, Hattin triggered a slow change of attitude towards captured Christians, who came to be seen as unfortunate men and women to be pitied and assisted rather than as cowards to be despised. The image of the Latin East’s backwardness which Friedman depicts in this respect confirms the overall picture of ‘arrested development’ which historians have drawn in its political, constitutional and cultural spheres. Precise and well-grounded on the theme of ransom, Friedman loses her grip to some extent when she comes to the broader issues outlined above. Perhaps this is inevitable: the evidence is rich and lively but it is also patchy in nature, anecdotal or rooted in topoi, and inconsistent. Past debates about castle building and the alleged influence of the Islamic ribat on the Christian military orders have left us extremely wary of drawing any conclusions about the flow of ideas and techniques either between the Christian and Muslim worlds, or between the Latin East and Europe. Friedman is probably right (and far from alone) in saying that once the initial ferocity of holy war had died down, warfare in the East developed its own norms and patterns, in effect a ius in bello, in which accommodation and restraint played important roles. Yet there were occasional outbursts of savagery, such as Richard Lionheart’s massacre of several thousand Muslim prisoners outside Acre in 1191. These were not necessarily due to the religious divide: Friedman points out that in 1198 first Richard and then his enemy Philip Augustus treated Christian prisoners with great brutality in tit for tat reprisals.
Establishing whether the conduct of warfare in the Latin East was different from elsewhere is a formidably difficult task in a period when ius in bello was at best semi-developed anywhere; and proving that the religious divide was responsible for any differences which did exist would be an even greater one. Yet the task is one of the most fascinating ones currently confronting historians of the Crusades, one which should not be shirked. It is not to be expected that a single book could make much of a dent on such a challenging agenda, and Yvonne Friedman has made a laudable contribution to the subject.