Ancient military custom regulated the behavior and treatment of hostages; originally a hostage was a person who had been delivered by one authority to another as a token of good faith, and was generally treated as an honored guest. However, he might be imprisoned or even executed if the agreement guaranteed by his person was broken. The code of honor was often very strictly observed in feudal times; thus, during the Hundred Years War, when the hostages sent to England in exchange for the release of John II of France escaped, King John felt bound to return to captivity in England. Until the 18th cent., hostages were often exchanged when treaties were concluded.
A hostage is a person or entity which is held by a captor. The original definition meant that this was handed over by one of two belligerent parties to the other or seized as security for the carrying out of an agreement, or as a preventive measure against certain acts of war. However, in modern days, it means someone who is seized by a criminal abductor in order to compel another party such as a relative, employer or government to act, or refrain from acting, in a particular way, often under threat of serious physical harm to the hostage(s) after expiration of an ultimatum.
A person or party which seizes hostages is/are known as (a) hostage-taker(s); if the hostages are present(ed) voluntarily, then the receiver is known rather as a host.
The practice of taking hostages is very ancient, and has been used constantly in negotiations with conquered nations, and in cases such as surrenders, armistices and the like, where the two belligerents depended for its proper carrying out on each others good faith. The Romans were accustomed to take the sons of tributary princes and educate them at Rome, thus holding a security for the continued loyalty of the conquered nation and also instilling a possible future ruler with ideas of Roman civilization.
The practice continued through the early Middle Ages. The Irish High King Niall of the Nine Hostages got his epithet Noígiallach because, by taking nine petty kings hostage, he had subjected nine other principalities to his power.
This practice was also adopted in the early period of the British occupation of India, and by France in her relations with the Arab tribes in North Africa. The position of a hostage was that of a prisoner of war, to be retained till the negotiations or treaty obligations were carried out, and liable to punishment (in ancient times), and even to death, in case of treachery or refusal to fulfil the promises made.
The practice of taking hostages as security for the carrying out of a treaty between civilized states is now obsolete. The last occasion was at the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, when two British peers, Henry Bowes Howard, 11th Earl of Suffolk, and Charles, 9th Baron Cathcart, were sent to France as hostages for the restitution of Cape Breton to France.
In France, after the revolution of Prairial (June 18, 1799), the so-called law of hostages was passed, to meet the royalist insurrection in La Vende. Relatives of migris were taken from disturbed districts and imprisoned, and were liable to execution at any attempt to escape. Sequestration of their property and deportation from France followed on the murder of a republican, four to every such murder, with heavy fines on the whole body of hostages. The law only resulted in an increase in the insurrection. Napoleon in 1796 had used similar measures to deal with the insurrection in Lombardy (Correspondence de Napoléon I. i. 323, 327, quoted in Hall, International Law).
In later times the practice of official war hostages may be said to be confined to either securing the payment of enforced contributions or requisitions in an occupied territory and the obedience to regulations the occupying army may think fit to issue; or as a precautionary measure, to prevent illegitimate acts of war or violence by persons not members of the recognized military forces of the enemy.
During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the Germans took as hostages the prominent people or officials from towns or districts when making requisitions and also when foraging, and it was a general practice for the mayor and adjoint of a town which failed to pay a fine imposed upon it to be seized as hostages and retained till the money was paid. Another case where hostages have been taken in modern warfare has been the subject of much discussion. In 1870 the Germans found it necessary to take special measures to put a stop to train-wrecking by parties in occupied territory not belonging to the recognized armed forces of the enemy, an illegitimate act of war. Prominent citizens were placed on the engine of the train so that it might be understood that in every accident caused by the hostility of the inhabitants their compatriots will be the first to suffer. The measure seems to have been effective. In 1900 during the Second Boer War, by a proclamation issued at Pretoria (June 19), Lord Roberts adopted the plan for a similar reason, but shortly afterwards (July 29) it was abandoned (see The Times History of the War in S. Africa, iv. 402).
The Germans also, between the surrender of a town and its final occupation, took hostages as security against outbreaks of violence by the inhabitants.
Most writers on international law have regarded this method of preventing such acts of hostility as unjustifiable, on the ground that the persons taken as hostages are not the persons responsible for the act; that, as by the usage of war hostages are to be treated strictly as prisoners of war, such an exposure to danger is transgressing the rights of a belligerent; and as useless, for the mere temporary removal of important citizens till the end of a war cannot be a deterrent unless their mere removal deprives the combatants of persons necessary to the continuance of the acts aimed at (see W. E. Hall, International Law, 1904, pp. 418, 475). On the other hand it has been urged (L. Oppenheim, International Law, 1905, vol. ii., War and Neutrality, pp. 271-273) that the acts, the prevention of which is aimed at, are not legitimate acts on the part of the armed forces of the enemy, but illegitimate acts by private persons, who, if caught, could be quite lawfully punished, and that a precautionary and preventive measure is more reasonable than reprisals. It may be noticed, however, that the hostages would suffer should the acts aimed at be performed by the authorized belligerent forces of the enemy.
Article 50 of the Hague War Regulations provides that no general penalty, pecuniary or otherwise, can be inflicted on the population on account of the acts of individuals for which it cannot be regarded as collectively responsible. The regulations, however do not allude to the practice of taking hostage.
In May 1871, at the close of the Paris Commune, took place the massacre of the so-called hostages. Strictly they were not hostages, for they had not been handed over or seized as security for the performance of any undertaking or as a preventive measure, but merely in retaliation for the death of their leaders E. V. Duval and Gustave Flourens. It was an act of maniacal despair, on the defeat at Mont Valrien on the 4th of April and the entry of the army into Paris on the 21st of May. Among the many victims who were shot in batches the most noticeable were Georges Darboy, archbishop of Paris, the Abbé Deguery, curé of the Madeleine, and the president of the Court of Cassation, Louis Bernard Bonjean.
Hostage taking is still often politically motivated or intended to raise a ransom or to enforce an exchange against other hostages or even condemned convicts. However in some countries hostage taking for profit has become an "industry", ransom often being the only demand.
In old Germanic peoples the word for "hostage" (gīsl and similar) sometimes occurred as part of a man's name: Ēadgils, Cynegils, Gīslheard, Gīslbeorht, etc; sometimes when a man from one nation was hostage in another nation, his position as hostage was more or less voluntary: for example the position of Æscferð son of Ecglāf, who was a Northumbrian hostage in Wessex; he fought under Byrhtnōð against Vikings in the Battle of Maldon on 10 August 991 AD (ref. lines 265 etseq), and probably died in battle there.