Aichmalosia: Captivity, Ransom, and Letter-Writing in Byzantium and Its Neighbors, c. 1204-1453

Alasdair Grant, University of Edinburgh

One major Christian-Muslim interface in the medieval Mediterranean was forced movement and incarceration, often in the context of wider conflict: in Greek, aichmalosia (‘captivity’). Such taking of captives usually occurred as a consequence of naval raiding. In the eastern Mediterranean after the Fourth Crusade, Christians also commonly detained fellow Christians.

The large-scale, imperially directed prisoner exchanges of the MacedonianAbbasid conflicts are widely appreciated. Likewise, captivity and ransom in ‘Reconquista’ Iberia and Crusader Palestine have received recent attention. In sharp contrast, the late Byzantine context is virtually unstudied. Political fragmentation made aichmalosia less visible in chronicles concerned with high politics. The sources that do exist are disparate in character and language, but despite their limited volume, many remain under-appreciated, some unpublished.

This paper will analyse a group of three Greek letters and one sermon concerning aichmalosia from late mediaeval Cypriot and Cretan manuscripts. These texts were carried around and/or read aloud as pleas for financial help. This body of sources will be read comparatively with the two thirteenth-century Arabic papyrus letters of the Great Mosque of Damascus that appear likewise to have been carried around as pleas for alms.

The paper will then set these letters in their wider context through the more plentiful Latin archival documents and treaties. It will ask why captives were taken, what their conditions were, and how the mechanisms of redemption differed between Latins, Greeks, Turks, and Arabs. The paper will suggest that in a world of political and cultural fragmentation, captivity and ransom remained a major channel for forced migration and crossconfessional contact, but that only for Latin colonists was there commonly an administrative infrastructure for redemption. The help of clerics was often sought for this task, which became increasingly localised and personalised with the growing importance of individual pleas: something mirrored in Arab Syria.