Ransoming Captives in Crusader Spain:
The Order of Merced on the Christian-Islamic Frontier
James William Brodman


    The Order of Merced (or the Mercedarians)(1) was one of the hundreds of caritative associations that sprang up in Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These institutions consisted of hospitals, hospices, and houses of charity of various sizes and varieties. Some were operated under the aegis of communities of canons, cathedral chapters, or religious orders. Others were inaugurated by less-formally constituted bodies of laymen and laywomen or by confraternities organized by groups of town residents. Most were entirely local in their origin and purpose, but some were affiliated with larger groups, such as the Knights of St. John or the Brothers of Aubrac.(2) The overwhelming majority of such caritative associations, because of their local interests and sometimes transitory character, have altogether escaped the notice of historians. Even where an historical literature has been developed, as it has for the Order of Captives, this has tended to be narrow in its focus upon the particular activities of the individual organization.(3) Consequently, the social and religious significance of the Brothers of Ransom -- and of the myriad of other orders, associations, and confraternities that constituted the medieval opera caritatis -- has been obscured amid a plethora of generally institutional or hagiographical studies. Only recently have scholars begun the investigation of caritative movements like that of the Mercedarians, so the impact of organized charity upon the religious values of the High Middle Ages has yet to be fully estimated. At the very least, however, this new and productive avenue of research must begin to challenge long-held assumptions concerning the primacy of the contemplative and evangelical principles in the life of medieval Christians.

    The present study is an examination of one such caritative order during the tumultuous years of its foundational era. It is obvious that the Mercedarian Order, given its work of ransoming captive Christians, has a unique character imparted by its origin along medieval Catalonia's frontier with Muslim Spain. This redemptionist order, however, in its discipline, organization, spiritual values, and religious appeal, also had much in common with other contemporary caritative movements. Consequently, an investigation of this particular [x] exemplar should reveal something of the broader phenomenon of organized religious charity.

    In other respects, the Order of Captives was not typical of most caritative associations. With a geographical base that eventually encompassed much of Mediterranean Europe, it grew to be relatively large, and the uniqueness of its vocation lent it a prominence beyond its mere size. Consequently, the medieval order generated a significant body of documentation from its foundational period, 1229-1317, of which a substantial portion has survived. Over six hundred extant charters afford the modern historian a rare opportunity to explore the values and mode of operation of this heretofore little-known order. This reconstruction of early Mercedarian history will generally ignore the accounts and studies of pre-twentieth-century writers, so as to eschew the parochial controversies that have colored much of Mercedarian historiography. Instead, this history will be based almost entirely upon those materials that survive from the medieval era itself. The largest extant collection of Mercedarian documents is currently housed at the Arxiu de la Corona d'Aragó in Barcelona. Originally the archives of the Order's motherhouse of Barcelona, this body of material consists of a few original parchment rolls and of a large collection of folio volumes, most from the eighteenth century, that contain copies of medieval charters. Parchments from the house at Gerona are found in the archives of the Biblioteca de Catalunya in Barcelona and in those of Gerona's cathedral. Other parchrnents from the houses at Tortosa, Huesca, and Olivar, and from those houses located in the Balearic Islands and in the Kingdom of Valencia are housed at the Archivo Histórico Nacional in Madrid. A few charters of Valencian provenance can be found at the Archivo General del Reino de Valencia in Valencia. A small collection of parchments, consisting of papal bulls and constitutional documents, is preserved at the Arxiu Capitular de la Catedral de Barcelona.

    My especial appreciation and gratitude for guidance and for assistance in the preparation of this study go to Charles Julian Bishko, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Virginia; and to Rev. Robert Ignatius Burns, S.J., Senior Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. I also want to thank Professor Jill Webster of the University of Toronto for her help in locating materials from mendicant and testamentary sources, and for the expert guidance that she gave me in the preparation of an English translation of the Mercedarian Constitutions. I am also grateful to Professor [xi] Giles Constable of Princeton University for enhancing my understanding of medieval religious movements. Several archivists helped to guide me through the medieval collections; among them are Antoni M. Aragó, Maria Mercé Costa, and Maria Dolores Mateu lbars of the Arxiu de la Corona d'Aragó, and Josep Baucells i Reig of the Arxiu Capitular de la Catedral de Barcelona. Partial funding for my research was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities and by the faculty research fund at the University of Central Arkansas, both of which have my appreciation. Finally, I thank my wife, Marian, for her editorial assistance, advice, and patient good cheer, without which this project would never have been completed.


1. The following designations for the Mercedarians were common in the thirteenth century: the Order of Captives, the Brothers of Ransom (or Mercy), the Order of Santa Eulàlia, and the Order of Santa Maria of Ransom (or Mercy).

2. An excellent introduction to the hospitals of the medieval era can be found in Timothy  S. Miller, "The Knights of Saint John and the Hospitals of the Latin West," Speculum 53 (1978): 709-33.

3. The most comprehensive bibliography of works relating to the Mercedarian Order and to its saints is Bibliografía mercedaria, ed. Gumersindo Placer Lopez, 3 vols. (Madrid, 1968-84).