Hostages: An Early Medieval Form of Insurance

Kim Rendfeld

Hostage is one of those words that can cause confusion to people new to historical fiction set in the early Middle Ages. After capturing the Saxon fortress of Eresburg and destroying the Irminsul in 772, Charlemagne took 12 hostages, an event recounted in my second novel, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar.

Today we think of a hostage as someone held against their will to extort money or some other demand, but the word’s meaning was slightly different for Charles and his contemporaries. To them, hostages were a means of making sure an enemy kept a commitment they made.

The vanquished took an oath of loyalty to the Frankish king, but swearing to a saint was not enough to reassure the monarch – or anyone else with sense. The vanquished party also surrendered hostages, often the young sons of important men.

As long as the vanquished behaved themselves and kept…

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