Historical Antecedents Of The Order Of Mercy

1. Captivity in the Thirteenth Century

Between the eighth and the fifteenth centuries, medieval Europe, the champion of Christianity, was in a state of ongoing war with the expanding Moslem world. The followers of Jesus Christ and his cross were forced to take up arms to defend Christian people and places before the conquering advance of Mohammed’s disciples. In what they called a holy war, with their scimitars, Arabs subjugated North Africa, most of Spain, Southern France and they took over Sicily making the Mediterranean look like a Moslem lake. In Christian lands, in the daily conflicts of this secular struggle, Saracens plundered all that could be transported: animals, provisions, fabrics, precious metals, money and especially men, women and children who would be sold for a good price. Privateering and piracy on the Mediterranean sea were aggressive and violent means used by Moslems to harass their Christian enemies and, above all, to obtain large profits and easy gains.

For over six hundred years, these constant armed confrontations produced numerous war prisoners on both sides. These prisoners who all believed in Christ or Allah received the legally acknowledged name of captives as can be seen in the first law of Title XXIX of Las Siete Partidas of Alfonso X the Learned. Islam’s captives were reduced to the state of slaves since they were war booty and submitted to the absolute dominion of their Moorish owners. As a result, Christian captive and Christian slave were synonymous. Such was the sad condition of countless Christians in the Southern European countries in the thirteenth century.

Captivity as a Social Problem

It is obvious that in lands of Visigothic Spain, both Christian and Moslem societies, in reciprocal tolerant and intolerant deeds had constant skirmishes to reconquer in the case of the former and to keep what they had been conquered in the case of the latter. Both sides had become accustomed to a sociological situation which appears inhuman and repugnant to modern people: that is to say, the phenomenon of captivity with forced labor, exchanges, buying and selling captives. In all the territories under their rule, Saracens used the great contingent of captives to force them to do the most arduous tasks and they used them as exchange money for their commercial transactions. So much so that when captives escaped in wars, razzias, privateering and piracy, tenth-century Andalusian merchants formed caravans to cross the Spanish March established by the Franks to purchase slaves in Eastern Europe. In the thirteenth century, in addition to spices, slaves constituted one of the goods of the flourishing trade between Christian and Moslem ports.

In thirteenth-century Islamic kingdoms, there was a sizable number of Christian captives in Saracen hands. A glance at a fact reported by the Arabian historian, Abenalabar, and a letter from James II, king of Aragon, are sufficient to give an idea of the number of captives in the Moorish taifas (kingdoms) of Majorca and Granada.

Abenalabar relates what happened in 1185, in Majorca where many Christian captives promoted a rebellion which ended up with the capture of the fortress and with the death of Emir Abdala. In its reference to the same event, the Cronicón of San Salvador of Marseilles specifies: “In the year 1185, Christians took over the palace of the city of Majorca and they were liberated from captivity.”

A letter which James II addressed on December 1, 1311, to Pope Clement V, is by itself an eloquent and authorized testimony of the number of renegades and Christian captives present in those days in the kingdom of Granada: “Trustworthy people—according to the letter—are saying that in the city of Granada where more than two hundred thousand people reside, you will not find five hundred native Saracens. They were either Christians or they had a Christian father, mother, grandfather, grandmother or great grandparents and in the kingdom of Granada, five hundred thousand renounced their Catholic faith and embraced the Mohammedan sect locally. And we firmly believe that in said kingdom, there are more than thirty thousand Christians who are wretched captives.”

Captivity as a Political Problem

For the interior policy of Christian nations and that of their international relations with Moslem kingdoms of Southern Spain and North Africa, the phenomenon of captivity was always a serious problem and thus also in the thirteenth century, because of the spectacular development of trade by land and sea between the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon with Arab countries and because of the need to regulate the accepted fact of captivity by juridical norms.

The Laws [Códigos] of Christian kingdoms (Las Siete Partidas, El Fuero juzgo and El Fuero real) and the laws of Moslem countries (the Muhtasar or compendium of Malequita Law and the Koran itself) regulated the different aspects of captivity: manumission, exchange, the way captives were to be treated, punishments for escapes or attempted escapes, redeemers and redemption. Regarding the domain of international relations, in the thirteenth century, Christian and Moslem kings signed commercial treaties, truces and pacts always including explicit references to captives.

The Koran recommended to Allah’s worshipers to treat their slaves well. However, this recommendation for fair treatment was frequently ignored and violated especially with Christian captives who hurled insults against Mohammed’s law or attempted to convert a Moslem believer to Christianity. In those cases, such audacity was ordinarily punished by the death penalty. When Moors found out that some of their captive coreligionists in the power of Christians had been mistreated, they had Christian captives pay dearly for that as Saracens unleashed the fury of their revenge on Christians through all kinds of torture.

In the thirteenth century, especially after the battle of the Navas de Tolosa, the policy of commercial treaties, truces and pacts between Christian and Moslem kingdoms, had favorable repercussions on the rescue of captives. However, the redemptive mission in that century was not without serious risks both on land and sea due to the precariousness of these treaties and truces, to bands of uncontrolled bandits who attacked caravans, to pirates and privateers sailing where they wished and according to their plundering plans, to religious fanaticism and due to the greed of slaves’ owners and of authorities.

Until the official abolition of slavery, the phenomenon of captivity in Saracens’ hands was a problem without a political solution because it was one of the firm pillars supporting the economy of Moslem society. Even cities like Tetuán, practically founded by Moslems who had fled from Spain before the advance of Christian armies, had the sale of Christians captured at sea or on Spanish coasts as their main source of stable income.

Captivity as a Religious Problem

In the thirteenth century, as in all the previous and subsequent centuries, the scourge of captivity was seen from the Christian perspective as a very serious matter because of the religious implication that such a social evil entailed for people who professed the only true faith. Without interpretative violence, this is what can be inferred from the definition of captives by King Alfonso X the Learned. He says they are “those men who fall prisoners into the hands of men from another faith.”

In the thirteenth century, the real problem of Christians in the power of the Saracens was not persecution or harassment because of their faith. Normally, this did not occur as demonstrated by the historically proven fact of the usually peaceful co-existence among Moslem, Christian and Jewish communities in Spain. Neither was it economically profitable for Saracens to make Christian martyrs since they would lose captives and their possible ransom. In the eyes of medieval Christian society, the fundamental problem of captivity was neither the loss of freedom nor the physical or moral sufferings which owners inflicted on their slaves.

The real risk of captivity for a Christian captive in the power of the Saracens was the danger of renouncing the true faith. Therefore, captivity was basically a religious problem. The very circumstances of captivity were a real, ongoing and serious temptation for Christians whose faith was not very strong. The lives of Christian captives in Moorish power were certainly not comfortable because, in addition to their loss of freedom, they were subjected to all the hardships inherent to slavery: forced labor in construction and in the fields, the infernal torment of rowing in galleys, lack of food, diseases, dungeons, the conquerors’ scorn, the mistreatment “on purpose in order to obtain a greater ransom from them” and the tempting offers of the advantages they would have if they converted to Islam. These hardships and the expectation of a life without problems and even a pleasant life here on earth and after in Allah’s paradise had as their counterpart the serious danger of renouncing Christian faith as experience confirmed daily and as documents of the time verify.

The words of King James II to Pope Clement V, in 1311, quoted above, capture the real problem of the captivity of Christians in Saracen hands in stating: “In the kingdom of Granada, five hundred thousand renounced their Catholic faith and embraced the Mohammedan sect locally.” And the king of Aragon was not exaggerating since he had, at his disposal, direct information from ransomed captives and from contemporary Mercedarian redeemers.

Attitude of the Church vis-à-vis Captivity

Faced with a problem with such fateful consequences as captivity was, the Catholic Church. It could not remain insensitive and indifferent to the painful reality of many of its children since liberating visits to prisoners are a Gospel imperative not limited to times or places.

The idea of liberation, recovery or redemption of Christianity’s holy places and of Christians, temples of the most Holy God, in the power of Moslems, stirred up the conscience of medieval Christianity.

From Urban II and his most immediate successors, Roman Pontiffs fleshed out this idea by creating and encouraging an impressive redemptive movement called The Crusades which mobilized Christian princes and believers spurred on by their faith and by the Christian shame of seeing places, lands and countless brothers and sisters under the dominion and power of the enemies of Jesus Christ.

At the same time, in this atmosphere of Christian fervor and with the Apostolic See’s approval, Military Religious Orders emerged. Their purpose was to defend the faith and they took up arms to fight infidels. They formed army corps which were professional, well-supplied, militarily disciplined and most effective in the struggles for the Spanish Reconquest. The main ones were: Saint John of Jerusalem (1113), the Templars (1119), Calatrava (1158), Saint James (1170) and Alcántara (1176).

The third and most important liberating institution of the medieval Church was the emergence of Redemptive Religious Orders. They resolutely placed themselves at the service of the faith, not through arms but rather with the fervor of charity, with their own wealth and funds obtained from alms. Two orders stand out in this group of redemptive religious institutions, the Order of the Most Holy Trinity, founded in France by Saint Jean de Matha and the Order of Our Lady of Mercy founded in Spain by Saint Peter Nolasco.

Attitude of Civil Society vis-à-vis Captivity

The civil society of medieval Spain did not turn a deaf ear to the call of human feelings regarding the social phenomenon of captivity. Cities, towns, guilds and confraternities of fishermen always tried to rescue their fellow countrymen, neighbors, artisans and brothers who were captives with the special funds they had for this purpose and through merchants who traded in Moorish lands and, who were occasionally asked to rescue captives.

In the thirteenth century, civil society had official organizations working for the redemption of captives in the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile. In Aragon, their members were called exeas [scouts] and in Castile, they were called alfaqueques [officers in charge of ransoming captives or prisoners of war].The exeas of Aragon were leaders of groups who transported merchandise and cattle to Moorish lands and who were authorized by the king to ransom captives. The Castilian alfaqueques were “honest men assigned to redeem captives” and they were forbidden from taking any goods not intended for redemption.

In his second Partida, King Alfonso X the Learned regulated the appointment and the action of alfaqueques stipulating the following: they had to be chosen by twelve electors designated by the king; they had to be honest, brave and vigorous men of irreproachable conduct and familiar with the language of the places where they went; they had to have assets in order to be responsible for the harm which, either through their fault or negligence, might happen to captives; for safe traveling, they had to bring the document of their appointment and the raised royal banner; they could not trade with Moors unless such a trade might serve for the ransom of captives.

Captives’ Paths to Freedom

To complete the picture of thirteenth-century captivity, we are indicating below the different paths or procedures that captives followed to recover their lost freedom. These ways can be grouped in two sections: strictly personal procedures and those in which the Christian community participated through intermediaries. These distinct ways of recovering freedom are briefly explained.

Escaping. This was the procedure of captives who had lost all hope of being liberated, either because of the high price of the ransom imposed by their owners or because of the extremely painful conditions of their situation which had broken their ability to resist and they preferred to risk their lives in trying to recover their freedom by escaping rather than continue to die slowly as captives. This was obviously the most dangerous way because if the attempt failed, captives were punished by death unless greed tempered the owners’ indignation.

Apostasy. Good Moslems had the duty to proselytize in order to convert captives to Mohammed’s faith. However, the missionary fervor of Moslems usually cooled off at the prospect of losing the ransom money since captives who converted to Islam became, by that very fact, free within Moslem society. In this situation of captivity and in the context of medieval Christianity, we have more than sufficient motives to doubt the sincerity of a Christian captive’s conversion to Islam. In fact, the circumstances of captivity more than theological reasons prompted many unfortunate captives, far from home and from their people, to look for a liberation which would enable them to shake off, at least temporarily, the unbearable yoke of a captivity without hope for ransom.

Self-liberation. This was the case of captives who obtained their own freedom by their own means. They were normally rich, powerful and prominent people who solved the problem of their captivity on their own. This was the case of Boemondo who arranged his own liberation with his owner, Nur al-Din, in exchange for a large sum of money and for the freedom of a determined number of Moslem captives.

Exchange. Christian society freed captives in exchange for Moslem captives. This system was frequently practiced in Spanish border areas during the thirteenth century and even more in the following centuries.

Handing over Hostages. The process of recovering one’s freedom by handing over a relative, a servant or a vassal as a guarantee of the stipulated price was also used as of the ninth century and it was still in use in the thirteenth century.

Redemption. Starting with the last thirty years of the twelfth century, the most usual procedure for the liberation of large masses of poor Christian captives was redemption: it involved payment of the ransom in hard cash or in kind, previously arranged with the captive’s owner through a third party (alfaqueque, exea, religious redeemer). This third intermediary party acted in the name of the Christian community (family, confraternity, guild, town, city or kingdom) who voluntarily contributed the amount of the ransom in determined, concrete cases and who generally gave alms for the redemption of captives.

Finally, manumission or the release of a captive by a free decision of the owner or by a judge’s pronouncement, in a few cases considered by laws, was also practiced by Moslems although not very generously when dealing with Christian captives.


Peter Nolasco’s Place and Date of Birth

The first written reference to Saint Peter Nolasco’s birthplace is found in the codex Speculum fratrum (1445) of the Master General of the Order, Nadal Gaver, a man of outstanding human and ecclesial culture. In its Spanish translation, the faithfully copied phrase from the codex reads: “certainly as the very holy man, Peter Nolasco of Mas of Santas Puellas, Saint Paul Diocese, near Barcelona where he had established his residence…” In this phrase from Speculum fratrum, Mercedarian tradition has understood that Nadal Gaver was referring to Mas Saintes Puelles (Saint Papoul Diocese), a village located in the Toulouse county in Southern France, between the cities of Carcassone and Toulouse, in lower Languedoc. In 1446, Father Pedro Cijar said the same thing in his Opusculum tantum quinque. Father Francisco Zumel, a professor at the University of Salamanca, confirmed the data in his De vitis Patrum. Since then, all writers, Mercedarian or otherwise, who have dealt with the subject, have always been unanimous in maintaining that it was Peter Nolasco’s hometown. However, more recently and based more on texts’ interpretations than on reliable sources, an opinion has come up according to which Peter Nolasco was born in a masía [farmhouse] located in the vicinity of Barcelona.

As to Peter’s birthdate, there is no reliable exact date. However, taking into account an old codex from which Francisco Zumel drew enlightening data, according to Canon Pedro Oller’s judgment by arbitration, it seems that Peter Nolasco was already redeeming captives in the year 1203. From this, it is inferred that, in order to be involved in such an undertaking in that year, the Founder of the Mercedarians had to have reached a certain mature age and that he had an enterprising spirit born of the impulse of his youth. This is why it is safe to state, with many trustworthy historians that Peter Nolasco was born between 1180 and 1182. As Zumel wrote, Peter had lived in Barcelona since his early years.

Peter’s Profile and Work before the Foundation of the Order

Presenting the charismatic figure of Peter Nolasco to twenty-first century readers already in the third millennium is definitely an exciting task because Peter Nolasco appears as a man for today at the crossroads of two centuries: the century that is ending and closing its doors to past experiences and the coming century opening the doors of the future to stimulating and new realities.

For young Peter, the twelfth century was dying with its wars, its institutions, its civil and religious organizations, its forms of captivity, its anguishes and problems. The thirteenth century was born with an aura of renewal, with rejuvenating hopes and certain omens of revolutionary novelties in religious, political, social and cultural spheres. Already in the first twenty years of his life, the fundamental and distinctive aspect of his personality—conveyed by reliable documentation—is that of a determined youth starting his journey through the thirteenth century on a direct course toward the liberation of Christian captives because of their faith.

After the Nolasco family had settled in Barcelona, from a very early age, Peter learned the art of trading from his father, Bernardo. Father Cijar calls Peter Mercator optimus and Gaver himself confirms that Peter Nolasco was a merchant before he founded the Order. In fact, from the time he reached adulthood, his forthcoming charismatic mission in the Church and society was already manifest in him. He would keep on being a merchant, except that he would not buy goods but would instead dedicate his life to purchasing human beings. Peter associated with a few companions who shared his concerns for captives and as Zumel stated, “after persevering first in praying to God, they dedicated themselves daily to collecting alms from the pious faithful throughout the Province of Catalonia and the kingdom of Aragon in order to carry out the holy work of redemption. This was done so that the saintly man and his companions would carry out quite a few deeds of liberation and redemption… All these things took place in the year 1203.”

Peter Nolasco’s profession as a merchant was very useful to the group of redeemers he led in the first period since merchants had easy access to Moslem countries. They were known and for centuries, they were almost the only intermediaries in the settlement of Christian captives in Moorish lands and of Moors in Christian lands. This group of Peter Nolasco’s companions was solely made up of laymen who, as James II said to Boniface VII in 1301, “had a great devotion to Christ who redeemed us by his precious blood.” This fitting phrase points to the characteristic note of the group’s spirituality: their devotion and following Christ the Redeemer. With admirable youthful generosity, they gave up their own assets and gave away everything for redemption.

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