Vampires and the Age of Chivalry


I have already mentioned in an earlier blog that Willow the Vampire and her friends are likely to find some crucial weapons for their battle against evil among the artefacts and treasures brought back by fictional crusader Edwin Strongarm, who made his fortune during the First Crusade. Willow’s friend Eddie is the last in a long and illustrious line of Strongarm descendants, inheriting not just the title but also the lands and all that comes with it from his crusader forbearer.

Death duties forced Eddie to part with the ancestral home, but in Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove the friends discover the old crusader had a few tricks up his sleeve when it came to providing against future death duties and taxes.

So how exactly did crusaders and other knights make their fortune in medieval times? If they were landed gentry, they could command rent and taxes as well as men in arms. During the various battles and successful sieges knights managed to ransack wealthy cities, making considerable fortunes in the process. If they were put in charge of the government of conquered cities, knights could also profit from taxes and various privileges that came with their new position.

Français : Mort de Bertrand Du Guesclin Grande...

Français : Mort de Bertrand Du Guesclin Grandes Chroniques de France, enluminées par Jean Fouquet, Tours, vers 1455-1460 Paris, BnF, département des Manuscrits, Français 6465, fol. 456 (Livre de Charles V) Lors du siège de Châteauneuf-de-Randon en Lozère, Bertrand Du Guesclin tombe malade et meurt le 13 juillet 1380. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, there were other ways to get rich during the Middle Ages. Captors often kept their wealthy prisoners of war, until they were ransomed for as much as their families could manage to pay. In England a prisoner of war might spend months or even years in captivity before he was released. Essentially, a prisoner had two choices: either yield and become the “property” of the captor or forfeit life and be slain immediately.

Where an aristocratic son was not the main heir, taking office with the church or at court was one way of rising to fame and fortune. This option was not open to those who were born of lowly descend. It is therefore even more remarkable that Bertrand du Guesclin, who lived in the 14th century, should eventually be awarded one of the highest honours in France. As one of the Ten Worthies, a hero of the nation according to the Old French epic (Grandes Chroniques de France), he was enshrined among kings in the royal basilica of Saint-Denis.

Bertrand had been born as a lowly squire; he could not read or write and was not much to look at either. After fighting for twenty years in various skirmishes in his native province Bretagne, he rose through the ranks and was finally made a knight and Charles V saw in him the very military leader the country needed.

Oddly enough high born prisoners of war could also be released on oath, swearing to return after a certain period of time to repay their ransom in person. Their word was their bond and in an age of chivalry they wouldn’t have dreamed to break it, as their honour and their good name meant everything to them. Prisoners, who could not be released upon giving their solemn undertaking to return, were kept in good condition according to the laws of chivalry and, if they were relatively high born, might even get an invite to a jousting event or festivities held by their captors.

There was usually some hard haggling over how much ransom a prisoner would have to pay to regain his freedom; even the exchange rate might be discussed, if a prisoner was French for example. Larger ransom sums could be paid in instalment at fixed dates to allow for the harvest to come in.

This allowed prisoners to write home and find out first, how rich the harvest pickings were going to be. If the condition of their estates was good and the harvest was rich, the prisoner would be in a position to raise the required ransom money more quickly.

It is likely that ransom money wasn’t always money in the strictest sense – coins in part most certainly, but there would have horses and other livestock, land and artefacts handed over to make the payment in full. Once the haggling was over, a document would be drawn up that had to be signed by both parties. It gets more complicated where a prisoner was deemed to be the property of a group of men rather than one individual, as was often the case in the Middle Ages. Once the ransom is paid the members of a group of such masters was entitled to sell their individual shares of the ransom.

Reading of these practices during medieval warfare made me think how odd it was that men should slay each other with such ferocity and horrendous weapons on the battlefield and then turn to civilised haggling afterwards. It also struck me that goods and chattels must have been travelling frequently from one part of Europe to another – even within England, where local squabbles broke out frequently, there must have been whole caravans of ransom goods traversing the country back and forth.

I love the idea of injecting some treasure hunt into my vampire stories. Vampires in the age of chivalry must have had a great time. They could mingle with knights on the battle field and munch on a few people, before grabbing some prisoners for the purpose of holding them hostage. As long as the vampires could either prove or pretend they were of noble birth, no squire or knight would question their intentions.

Vampires could even keep hostages alive, sucking their blood in the interim, until the ransom arrived and then slay both captives and those who brought the ransom. This was legitimate, if political complications of the times meant that a prisoner, even though he had paid the ransom, could not be released after all, because his release might pose a political or strategic threat to the overlord.

Merlin dictating his prophecies to his scribe,...

Merlin dictating his prophecies to his scribe, Blaise; French 13th century minature from Robert de Boron’s Merlin en prose (written ca 1200). (Manuscript illustration, c.1300.) Arthur Cotterell, The Encyclopedia of Mythology, Lorenz Books/Anness Publishing Limited, 1996-1999, p. 114. ISBN 1-85967-164-0. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As history is the educational element of my Willow the Vampire stories, the Middle Ages provide excellent ground for inspiration. In a modern world of chaos we often think how wonderful a realm filled with chivalrous knights in shining armour might be; knights who help the poor and punish wrong doers.

We conveniently forget medieval people felt exactly the same about their world as we do: they saw violence, injustice, poverty and want everywhere they looked and waited in vain for a hero…seems nothing has changed so very much since the days, when King Arthur and his knights allegedly sat around their table at Camelot, scratching their heads, wondering which damsel they should rescue next.

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