Simon Barton

title.none: Rodríguez, Captives (Simon Barton)

identifier.other: baj9928.0801.001 08.01.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Simon Barton, University of Exeter,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Rodríguez, Jarbel. Captives and Their Saviors in the Medieval Crown of Aragon. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007. Pp. xxiii, 225. $64.95 (hb) 978-0-8132-1475-7 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.01.01

Rodríguez, Jarbel. Captives and Their Saviors in the Medieval Crown of Aragon. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007. Pp. xxiii, 225. $64.95 (hb) 978-0-8132-1475-7 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Simon Barton
University of Exeter

Contrary to what is sometimes imagined, the military struggle between Christians and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula was dominated not by large-scale campaigns of conquest inspired by ideas of Reconquista, crusade or jihad, but rather by low-intensity cross-border warfare, in which hit-and-run raids and piracy were very much the order of the day. In the course of this sporadic military conflict several thousands of individuals on either side of the religious divide had the misfortune to fall into captivity. Many of them were soldiers, of course, but others were merchants, fishermen, sailors, pilgrims and other travellers, or simply those who dwelled in coastal settlements vulnerable to raiders and found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. For most of those who were carried off as prisoners in this way a life of grinding poverty awaited. Living conditions were often desperately harsh, with many captives being forced to wear chains, to labour long hours in the fields or on public works, and to sleep in damp, crowded underground grain silos, known as mazmorras. Food was in short supply and, as a consequence, malnutrition and disease were rife. The perennial concern on the Christian side of the frontier was not simply that their co-religionists were suffering in captivity, but that the women among them were in danger of being raped or forced into marriage against their will, and that some among the captives might even seek to improve their pitiful living conditions by renouncing their faith and converting to Islam. The cumulative effect of these fears was to galvanise individuals, officials of the crown and religious orders into action, with the result that a huge amount of time, effort and money was devoted towards ransoming captives.

Focusing on the experience of the Crown of Aragon in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Jarbel Rodríguez has produced a marvellously illuminating study of the experience of captivity and of the efforts that were made to liberate captives from Muslim hands. It should be noted that this is not entirely uncharted territory. Other scholars have explored this topic, notably José María Ramos y Loscertales, author of El cautiverio en la Corona de Aragon durante los siglos XIII, XIV y XV (1915), and more recently Maria Teresa Ferrer i Mallol, María Dolores López Pérez and Andrés Díaz Borrás, while the work of the ransoming orders--the Trinitarians and Mercedarians--has been thoroughly examined by James Brodman and Bruce Taylor respectively. What Rodríguez has done--clearly, thoroughly and systematically--is to consider the phenomenon of captivity "in the round," so as to place these captives, as he puts it, "in their proper context within Aragonese society at the center of a complex web of social, economic, religious, and diplomatic networks" (xx). In Part One, "Captives" (chapters 1-3), he explores the circumstances that typically gave rise to capture, the harsh conditions that many Christians had to endure, the difficulties captives faced as they sought to maintain their faith, and the motivation and experience of those renegados who converted to Islam. In Part Two, "Saviors" (chapters 4-6), he examines in detail the attempts that were made by individuals, families, communities and institutions (religious and secular alike), to liberate the captives. He is undoubtedly right to emphasise the key role played by merchants in the ransoming process, since such men were as a rule far more swift and efficient in negotiating a captive's release than the well-meaning ransoming orders, even if the financial cost of their services could be high.

Drawing on a wealth of primary material, much of it unpublished, including wills, letters, begging licenses and diplomatic correspondence, as well as legal texts and collections of miracle stories, Rodríguez has produced a research monograph which is balanced, critically astute and commendably readable. The book is packed with a wealth of startling statistics and thought-provoking insights. Rodríguez estimates that as many as 2300 Christians may have been held in captivity in any given year in Iberia and North Africa, but that only a tiny minority, perhaps less than ten per cent, were ever released. His detailed analysis of the finances of ransoming--one of the most striking and original features of the book--demonstrates that captivity often spelled economic disaster and hardship for all but the very wealthiest and well-connected families. It is sobering to be told, for example, that it might have taken an unskilled labourer up to 25 years to pay off his debt if he borrowed money to ransom a loved one, or if he himself were ransomed. In such cases, captivity was all too often replaced by financial servitude of a very different kind. For their part, rulers such as King Martin the Humane might occasionally have harboured doubts about the desirability of ransoming captives, in that the payment of ransoms simply seemed to encourage new raids, but all were alive to the propaganda opportunities that were offered by the diverse rituals and ceremonies that greeted the newly released on their return to their homeland.

The book does not tell the whole story, of course. Inevitably, one is led to ponder the fate of the Muslims who were themselves the victims of raids and were carried off into captivity in Christian lands, but whose story is not told here. But as Rodríguez reasonably notes (xxii), to have done so would have made for a much bigger book and the gestation period of writing and research would have been all the longer. As it is, Rodríguez's book represents an extremely important contribution to our understanding of a distinctive facet of Christian-Muslim relations in the West during the later Middle Ages.