14.04.01, Ambühl, Prisoners of War

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Jarbel Rodriguez

The Medieval Review 14.04.01

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. ISBN: 978-1-107-01094-9.

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 activity.

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 imprisonment.

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 Aragon (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007); Guy Geltner, The Medieval Prison: A History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

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Author Biography

Jarbel Rodriguez

San Francisco State University