ransom, price of redemption demanded by the captor of a person, vessel, or city. In ancient times cities frequently paid ransom to prevent their plundering by captors. The custom of ransoming was formerly sanctioned by law. Soldiers, given the right to kill or enslave their prisoners, frequently preferred to free them after receiving payment. This mitigated bloodshed, for it was more profitable to hold enemies for ransom than to massacre them. One of the rights of a feudal lord was to call upon his tenants to ransom him if he were captured in battle. The amount of ransom varied with the rank of the captive; a king or a noted warrior brought a great sum. For the payment of the ransom of Richard I (Richard Cœur de Lion) a special tax was levied in England; the French sovereign paid heavy ransoms for Bertrand Du Guesclin; and Scotland was impoverished in paying for James I. Merchant vessels captured in privateering were sometimes ransomed by their owners. After receiving the ransom, the privateer sometimes furnished a ransom bill, which allowed safe conduct for the ship to one of her native ports. Today the term generally refers to the sum paid to a kidnapper for the release of an individual or to an airplane hijacker for the release of passengers, crew, and plane.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.