Being captured was a misfortune that could happen to just about anyone in the medieval Mediterranean, regardless of ethnicity, gender or wealth. People who lived in coastal communities were vulnerable to piracy and those inland vulnerable to wars and raids. Sometimes, captives could count on the help of governmental or religious institutions to help pay ransom money to their captors and thereby obtain their freedom; often, however, captives and their families had to do much of the fundraising themselves. Christians, Muslims and Jews are all known to have used forms of testimonial letters to help them gather cash donations. These were issued by authority figures, usually religious leaders, and then carried around as a form of assurance of good faith for the attention of potential donors. The aspect of assurance was important, since cases of real or suspected fraud are recorded in numerous contexts.

The texts below are two examples of such testimonial letters, in this case coming from a Greek-speaking, Christian context in the late medieval eastern Mediterranean. Both examples were copied on Crete, then ruled by Venice, but the first is of unknown provenance and the second originally written in Byzantium’s capital, Constantinople. In Greek, these testimonials are sometimes called aichmalotika, or texts ‘pertaining to captives’, aichmalotos being the basic term for a captured person. Around a dozen of these letters survive, always as copies and never as originals, usually anonymised and always following the same general pattern. They all contain an address to clergy and laymen (the intended audience and expected donors), details of the instance of captivity itself, and admonitions to pious and generous acts that draw on biblical passages for precedent. The person who bore the letter was usually a senior household figure, ordinarily male, who had either evaded captivity or else ransomed himself already; this man, or sometimes woman, would then wander around soliciting donations to ransom the rest of the family from captivity.

Captivity was an acute threat in the late medieval Greek context. Turkish expansion in Asia Minor and subsequently the Balkans involved raiding on land and at sea as well as the full-scale conquest of Byzantine cities and countryside. Some of these people remained in captivity or were sold into slavery among Turkish-speaking Muslims. Many others were sold to Italian or Catalan (‘Latin’) merchants. These Latins had built up considerable economic and political influence in the eastern Mediterranean in the contexts of the crusades, and in the Aegean especially following the Fourth Crusade of 1204, which resulted in the conquest of much Byzantine territory. The Latins traded in the coastal cities recently conquered by the Turks from Byzantium, sometimes themselves raiding for captives, and exported thousands of captured Greeks into slavery in western Europe.

The result was a crisis of captivity among Greek Christians in the two centuries between 1260 and 1460 that created a forced diaspora across the north coasts of the Mediterranean. The captives’ alms-seeking testimonials are vital sources for this phenomenon: even if they were not written by the captives themselves, they represent the perspectives of the Greek communities that suffered captivity, especially of the clergy, and shed light on the mechanisms of ransom.

Document 1: Letter from a Metropolitan

Model of a letter for raising funds, from a metropolitan [senior bishop], about a captive:[1]

Reverential and orthodox Christians[2] found everywhere: most all-holy and highly honoured metropolitans; most longed-for masters in the Holy Ghost; brothers and fellow-ministers of my Lowliness [i.e. a bishop, the letter’s author];[3] most honourable hieromonks [monks ordained as priests] and spiritual fathers; most holy monastery superiors; most esteemed archons [secular officials]; those serving as priests and monks; and the rest of the people bearing Christ’s name; beloved children in the Lord of my Lowliness: grace and charity be with you, and the peace of God.

Know that the man So-and-so[4] here was captured some time ago by the heathen and godless Hagarenes,[5] along with his family. And his family was being held to ransom for so-and-so many thousand aspra,[6] which quantity we have been fully assured of, and know precisely. Therefore, since a Christian man has desperately suffered misfortune of such a kind and does not have any way by which to give the aspra to someone and to free both himself and his family from slavery, under great pressure, he has sought refuge after God in the sympathy and philanthropic compassion of you all and he prays and pleads to receive charity and help. For this reason, we have written <this letter>, and we deem <his case> worthy and implore you to act charitably towards him and help him, each <of you> according to <your> means, out of what wealth-conferring God has provided to you in kindness – one a lot, another a little – however much each chooses and is able, according to the brotherly love of our shared master and saviour, Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for our sakes, and who has freed us from the slavery and bitter captivity of the enemy [i.e. the devil].

Therefore, be charitable, so that you might be treated charitably by God. For he says: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’,[7] and ‘be merciful that you may obtain mercy’;[8] and ‘be merciful, just as our father in heaven is merciful’;[9] and ‘he that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord’.[10] And you who gives into the hands of the poor will find this in the hands of Jesus. For if such things are according to Christ helpful for the poor generally, how much more for those who have been taken captive and borne such misfortune. For as truly, over unction, over memorial, over feast, over the church authorities, and over all such things generally, is charity towards our brother captives. May we display among them all the ordinances of Christ, thus: ‘For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me’.[11] Therefore ‘provide yourselves’, as the masterly voice says, ‘bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth, for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’[12] Because of this, we should invest in the Heavens, so that you might become worthy of the blessed and desired sound of him who has said, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’.[13]

Thus, beloved brothers of mine, may you enact good works and assist as much as you can. Be charitable to the man here, both from your house and from those known to you, and rouse your well-off friends, according to those helped reciprocally by God through the ages, in the Kingdom of Heaven: may you, my beloved brothers, meet with it. In Christ Jesus the merciful God of all, by the prayers of the Theotokos[14] and of all the saints, amen.

[1] This is not part of the letter itself but a rubric added by a copyist. A metropolitan is a senior bishop.

[2] Here, ‘orthodox Christians’ simply means ‘of right doctrine’, rather than referring to the Eastern Orthodox Church of today. In the later Middle Ages, the prospect of reuniting the Churches of Rome and Constantinople was frequently discussed and several times (unsuccessfully) attempted.

[3] Greek bishops and metropolitans habitually used formulaic self-designations of modesty such as ‘lowliness’ (tapeinotes) and ‘moderation’ (metriotes) to describe themselves. Considering the modesty of the biblical Christ, any self-aggrandisement had to be tempered by this kind of language.

[4] Personal details tended to be excised from medieval Greek letters at the time of copying. This was particularly the case with texts like these, which were copied to serve as reference templates for later scribes.

[5] ‘Hagarene’ is a term for a Muslim that derives from the notion that Muslims were descendants of Hagar (an enslaved woman) and her son Ishmael, in contrast to Christians, who were understood as descendants of Sarah (a free woman) and her son Isaac. Abraham was the father of both sons. In this context, the term should be understood as polemical, emphasising the difference between Christians and Muslims.

[6] An aspron, pl. aspra, was a name for the silver (literally ‘white’) coins in use in Byzantium and the Turkish principalities of the later Middle Ages. Here, the amount has been removed by a copyist. In another aichmalotikon, perhaps dating to around 1320, two children were put up for ransom for a total of 550 aspra: ‘Κυπριακά καὶ ἄλλα ἔγγραφα ἐκ τοῦ Παλατινοῦ Κώδικος 367 τῆς Βιβλιοθήκης τοῦ Βατικανοῦ’, ed. S. Lampros, Νέος Ἑλληνομνήμων 15 (1921): pp. 337–56 (pt. 3), at 339, No. 60 = Griechische Briefe und Urkunden aus dem Zypern der Kreuzfahrerzeit. Ed. A. Beihammer. Nicosia, 2007, pp. 232–3, No. 100.

[7] Matthew 9:13 and 12:7.

[8] A reference based on Matthew 5:7. ‘Be merciful’ (eleeson) could also be read in this context as meaning ‘be charitable’.

[9] Compare Luke 6:36.

[10] Proverbs 19:17.

[11] Matthew 25:35–6. This chapter was particularly popular among the compilers of the aichmalotika.

[12] Luke 12:33–4 and Matthew 6:20–1.

[13] Matthew 25:34.

[14] ‘God-Bearer’: the standard Greek (today Greek Orthodox) term for the Virgin Mary.

Document 2: Letter from a Patriarch

From the patriarch.[1] Archpriests, greatly honoured priests and spiritual monks found everywhere; laymen, archontes [secular officials] and the rest of God’s people in Christ’s name: grace be with you all, and the peace of God Almighty.

Demetrios So-and-so, the man from Thessaloniki[2] present here, was captured by the Turks along with his father, when the Turks seized their boat <which had set out> from Thessaloniki. <Demetrios> has been freed with God’s <grace>, but his father is still detained in captivity. On account of this, therefore, he has come to you <who are> God-loving and charitable Christians, so that he might seek and find charity among you and might also free his father.

Therefore, help him with what God has granted you, knowing precisely that all that he receives from you is more acceptable to God than sacraments of unction and liturgies and the other things that men do in the name of their own souls. For, He says, ‘I desire charity and not sacrifice’. And ‘he who shows charity towards the beggar lends to God’,[3] and again: ‘blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.’[4] Therefore be merciful too, so that you are shown mercy and obtain it a hundredfold in this world and become inheritors of His Kingdom of the Heavens in the next. And the grace and mercy of God be with you all.

[1] This letter was written by an unnamed patriarch of Constantinople or, more likely, by a member of his chancery. He was the most senior clergyman in the Greek-speaking world, and no other known aichmalotikon claims such a lofty attribution.

[2] After Constantinople, Thessaloniki was the second most important city of the late Byzantine Empire. A port city, it faces onto the Thermaic Gulf, which is in turn part of the Aegean Sea.

[3] Proverbs 19:17.

[4] Matthew 5:7. Both these biblical references are found in the previous letter, too.

Discussion Questions

  1. What sorts of groups are envisaged as the target audience for these letters, and hence the potential donors to the captives? What does your answer tell us about the nature of this society?
  2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of these letters as sources for the history of captivity? In particular, how useful are they for studying experiences of captivity versus methods of redemption?
  3. What do the pious admonitions at the end of these letters tell us about the image and societal significance of captives in a medieval Greek Christian setting? Look up the biblical citations and consider their context to inform your answer.

Related Primary Sources

Related Secondary Sources

  • A. C. Grant, Greek Captives and Mediterranean Slavery, 1260–1460. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2024.


Captives, Men, Raiding, Ransom, Religion