This story is taken from the Ecclesiastical History of the Franks by the Merovingian bishop and historian Gregory of Tours (c.538-594). It describes an event that occurred during the lifetime of his maternal great-grandather, Gregory of Langres (c.446-539), an important Gallo-Roman from a family of senatorial rank. Gregory of Langres served as Count of Autun and then, later in life, as Bishop of Langres.

In about 530, toward the end of Gregory of Langres’ life, his nephew Attalus was chosen along with the sons of other men of senatorial rank to be exchanged as a hostage to seal a non-aggression pact between Theoderic I of Austrasia and Childebert I of Neustria. When the pact was subsequently violated, the hostages were enslaved. Attalus ended up as a slave in the household of a Frankish noble near Trier in Austrasia. Although his uncle managed to locate him and offered a generous ransom, the Frank who owned Attalus refused to accept it. It was therefore necessary to find another way to help Attalus, and Gregory of Tours tells the dramatic story of his escape.[1]

The grant or exchange of hostages to secure political agreements was common practice throughout the medieval period, in Europe and beyond.[2] Hostages were detained to guarantee that an obligation or commitment would be fulfilled. In order to be effective, a hostage should be important to the person who handed him or her over. Sons were most frequently given as hostages, though other family members, as well as close friends and followers, could fulfil this role. In theory, hostages should be treated well, since the threat of harm was what incentivized hostage-givers to fulfill their obligations. In practice, the living conditions of hostages varied. If the agreement or obligation was violated, hostages were then vulnerable to a range of punishments, including enslavement and death.

Some hostages were given to secure a particular action or goal, such as a truce with a specified deadline, safe passage to a specified place, or a ransom payment for an elite captive. If the goal was met, these hostages could expect to be released. Other hostages were given to secure an open-ended or ongoing commitment, such as a military surrender, an alliance, or a promise of loyalty. Those hostages could not necessarily expect release. They might serve as intermediaries between the two parties for as long as the commitment lasted. The exchange of hostages between both parties to an alliance, rather than a one-sided grant of hostages, was relatively unusual. This was the type of open-ended commitment between near-equals into which Attalus was drawn as a hostage.

[1] This story was reworked as a novel in the nineteenth century by Charlotte M. Yonge, a member of the Oxford Movement. The Cook and the Captive, or Attalus the Hostage. London: National Society’s Depository, 1895.

[2] Adam Kosto, Hostages in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), chapter 2.

Book III, Section XV of the Ecclesiastical History of the Franks

Theoderic and Childebert entered into a treaty, and having taken an oath to each other, so that neither might move against the other, they received hostages from each other by which the things that had been said might be more easily confirmed.

Many sons of senators were then given as hostages, but when a cause of offense arose between the kings again, they were handed over to public slavery.[1] Whoever had accepted them to guard them, [now] made slaves out of them. Many of them, having escaped through flight, returned to their home. A few, however, were retained in slavery. Among them Attalus, nephew of the blessed bishop Gregory of Langres, was sold into public slavery and designated as a stable boy. In fact he was below the territory of the Trier border, serving a certain barbarian. Then the blessed Gregory sent slaves[2] to search for him. Having found him, they offered gifts[3] to the man, but he rejected them, saying: “This one, of such a lineage, ought to be ransomed for ten pounds of gold.”

Upon their return, a certain Leo from the kitchen of his master[4] said: “If you would permit me, perhaps I could lead him out of captivity.” While the lord rejoiced, he came directly to the place, and he wished to draw away the boy stealthily, but he could not. Then arranging with himself a certain man, he said: “Come with me and sell me in the house of that barbarian, and may my price be a profit for you; I will have a much freer approach for doing that which I decided.”  Having received an oath, that man went out, and, having sold him for twelve gold coins, he departed.[5]

But when the buyer asked the rough servant[6] what he knew about work, he responded: “In all things which ought to be eaten at the tables of lords, I am very knowledgeable, nor do I fear that someone can be found [who is] similar to me in this knowledge. I tell you the truth, because if you wish to prepare a feast for a king, I can put together regal meals, nor is anyone better than me.” And [the buyer] said: “Look, Sunday[7] is here” (for so barbarians were accustomed to name the Lord’s day). “On this day my neighbors and relatives will be invited to my home. I ask that you make a luncheon for me which they will admire, and they will say ‘we have not beheld better in the home of a king.’” And [Leo] said: “Let my master command that a multitude of chicken-like poultry be gathered, and I will make that which you order.”

The things which the slave[8] had said were prepared, the Lord’s day dawned, and he made a feast great and filled with delights. After all had feasted and praised the luncheon, the relatives of [the master] left. So the master gave thanks to his slave, and he received power over everything which his master had at hand. And he prized him very much, and he dispensed food and sauces to everyone who was with him.

After the circuit of a year, now when his master was unconcerned about him, he went out with Attalus the slave and stable boy into a meadow which was near the house. Getting down onto the ground with him, after a long time, having turned their backs so that what they were saying might not be recognized at once, he said to the slave: “Indeed it is now time that we ought to think about home. And so I advise you that, this night, when you have led the horses away to hobble them, you should not be weighed down by sleep, but you should be present when first I call you, and we will walk [out].”

That barbarian had called many of his relatives to a feast, among whom was his son-in-law who had received his daughter. However, in the middle of the night, after he had arisen from the dinner party and taken a rest, Leo pursued the son-in-law of his master with a drink and handed it to him to drink in his room. The man said to him: “Say you, O creditor of my father-in-law, if you are able, when will you employ free will so that, having been accepted by his horses, you may go to your home?” He said this as if delighting in a joke. And he, responding in the same joking way, said: “I will consider [it] this night, if it is God’s will.” And he said: “Would that my servants guard me, lest you take something of mine.” And they departed laughing.

However, when everyone was sleeping, Leo called Attalus. Having spread out the horses, he asked if he had a sword. [Attalus] responded: “There is nothing for me except only a small lance.” But [Leo], having entered the house of his master, grabbed his shield and spear. To one asking who he might be or what he might want, he responded: “I am Leo, your slave, and I am waking up Attalus so that he can get up quickly and lead the horses out to pasture, for he is delayed by sleep as if drunk.” That person said: “Do as you please.” And saying this, he fell asleep.

Leo, having gone outside, fortified the slave with arms and found the doors to the atrium, which at the beginning of the night he had seen struck with wedges by a hammer for the protection of the horses, unlocked by divine influence. Giving thanks to God, having taken the remaining horses with him, they departed carrying only one bundle of clothes. Coming to the Moselle River, as they crossed, when they might have been delayed by something, they left the horses and clothes behind, swimming above a shield placed in the stream, and got out on the other bank. Having entered the woods in the shadows of night, they kept out of sight.

The third night had come. They were wearing out the journey because they had eaten no food. Then, by the will of God, having found a tree full of fruit which the common people call a plum, they ate. Sustained for a short while, they embarked on the journey to Champagne. Proceeding, they heard the footfall of galloping horses, and they said: “Let us lay low on the earth so that we may not appear to the approaching men.” And look! The big root of a blackberry bush was there unexpectedly. Passing after it, they stretched themselves out on the ground with their swords unsheathed, so that if [the horsemen] turned towards them, they could immediately defend themselves as if from the wicked. But even so, when [the horsemen] had come to that place, they paused before the thorny root; and one said, while the horses threw down their urine: “Woe is me, because these abominable men flee, nor can they be found. Truly I say, by my health, if they are found, I pray one to be condemned to the gibbet and the other to be torn in pieces by the blows of swords.”He really was a barbarian, their master who was saying these things, coming from the city of Remois and seeking them; and he certainly would have discovered them on the road, if night had not provided an obstacle. Then, the horses having been disturbed, they departed.

That night [Leo and Attalus] themselves arrived at the city, and having entered, they found a man whom they asked where the home of Paulellus the priest might be, and he showed them. While they passed by through the street, the sign had been moved to Matins.[9] It was the Lord’s day. Knocking on the priest’s door, they entered, and the slave explained about his master. The priest said to him: “Indeed my vision is true; for I saw two doves flying this night, and they settled in my hand, one of which one was white but the other was black.” And the slave said to the priest: “May God be kind to you on His sacred day, for we ask that you provide us some food. The fourth day has dawned that we have eaten no bread or sauces.”

Having hidden the slaves, he provided them bread soaked in wine, and he went out to Matins. The barbarian followed, asking again about the slaves; but, ridiculed, he turned back from the priest, for the priest had an old friendship with the blessed Gregory. Then the slaves, having recovered their strength with a feast and remaining in the home of the priest for two days, departed. Thus they were carried through all the way to holy Gregory. The bishop, delighted at having seen the slaves, wept on the neck of Attalus, his nephew. Releasing Leo with all his lineage from the yoke of servitude, he gave him his own land, in which he lived free with a wife and children for all the days of his life.

[1] The terms used for slavery and slave in this passage are servitium and servus.

[2] Pueri. Since the term is used to refer to Leo and Attalus as slaves, I am also translating it as ‘slaves’ here.

[3] Munera could be translated as ‘gifts’ or as ‘bribes.’

[4] Dominus could be translated as ‘lord,’ implying that Leo was his servant and subordinate, or ‘master,’ implying that Leo was his slave.

[5] Knowingly selling a free person into slavery was a crime under the Roman law code. It is not entirely clear if Leo was a free servant or a slave belonging to Gregory of Langres. In either case, whether the anonymous man thought he was selling a free person or a slave belonging to someone else, his action was legally dubious.

[6] Famulus.

[7] Literally ‘the day of the sun,’ dies solis.

[8] Puer, meaning ‘boy.’ From this point on, both Leo and Attalus are called boys. Attalus may in fact have been young, but referring to adult slaves like Leo as ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ was a common form of disrespect associated with slave status. It appears across slaveholding cultures in many historical contexts.

[9] Matins is a morning prayer normally performed very early, after midnight but before dawn.

Discussion Questions

  1. What kinds of labor did slaves perform in sixth-century Frankish society? Do you think gender or age might have been a factor in the types of work that Attalus and Leo were made to do?
  2. Attalus and Leo came from different classes within Gallo-Roman society. How did Attalus become a slave, and how did he stop being a slave? How did Leo become a slave, and how did he stop being a slave? Comparing the two, how did each person’s background shape his experience of slavery?
  3. What does this story tell us about the distinctions between hostageship, captivity, and slavery in the sixth century?
  4. How did the religious beliefs of the author (Gregory of Tours) shape the way that he told this story about his ancestor’s experience of slavery? 

Related Primary Sources

Related Secondary Sources

  • Kosto, Adam. Hostages in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Rio, Alice. Slavery After Rome, 500-1100. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Sommar, Mary. The Slaves of the Churches: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.
  • Williard, Hope. “An Introduction to the Histories of Gregory of Tours,” Middle Ages for Educators, April 17, 2020.
  • Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751. London: Longman, 1994.


captive narrative, children, flight, labor, ransom, religion