Surrender in Medieval Europe – An Indirect Approach
By John Gillingham
How Fighting Ends: A History of Surrender, edited by Holger Afflerbach and Hew Strachan (Oxford, 2012)
Abstract: Distinguishes two phases in the culture of war in Europe. In the first, the capture and enslavement of women and children were respectable war aims; in consequence the systematic killing of adult males (especially those of high-status) was routine; for a warrior to surrender was shameful and very rare. In phase two, the demise of slavery meant that for the first time women and children came to be regarded as non-combatants, and high-status warriors treated as a source of profit (ransom). In consequence the knightly class came to recognise circumstances in which surrender was both sensible and honourable. It amounts to a shift from the Old Testament-style warfare still characteristic of the early Middle Ages to war in the ‘age of chivalry’.
Introduction: I shall have in mind the question of surrender in both intra- and trans-cultural warfare over the whole thousand year Middle Ages, from the fifth to the fifteenth century, but I shall say very little indeed about the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This is because the subjects of surrender and capture of prisoners during the Hundred Years War were admirably dealt with more than forty years ago by Maurice Keen in his brilliant and pioneering book,The Laws of War in the Late Middle Ages. His analysis has been hugely influential – and not just on scholars working on the medieval and early modern periods. Since the Mediterranean region is the focus of other contributors, I shall limit myself to Europe north of the Alps and Pyrenees.
Nor do I intend to look, except in passing, at the subject of the negotiations which led, or did not lead, to the surrender of strong-points (both towns and castles). This too has already been much studied, and with results which are familiar as well as being extremely important, in particular the long continuance of the ancient way of dealing with the inhabitants of a town which refused to accept terms and so forced a determined besieger to risk the enormous loss of life entailed in attempting to take a fortress by storm. This was with the sanction of the law of God as given to Moses: ‘And when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword. But the women and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is within the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto hyself’. My subject then is the narrower one of warfare in the field during the first seven hundred years of the ‘Middle Ages’, roughly from the fifth to the twelfth century. Some of the most fundamental developments in the history of war in this part of the world took place towards the end of these seven centuries: the discontinuance of the ancient practice of enslaving prisoners, the emergence of an effective notion of non-combatant status and the growth of the practice of ransom – all developments relevant to the still unwritten history of surrender.