gisli (OSw) gísl (ON) noun

The concept of hostage occurred in three contexts: 1 a) when war was imminent, and b) in wartime or war-like situations; 2) when guarantors were needed to secure payment of debts etc.; 3) in connection with royal elections.

1 a) According to the Leb of GuL (ch. 312) the king was allowed to take some of his men as hostages when war was imminent and he had reason to doubt the loyalty of his men. If a man refused to let himself be taken as hostage he was eo ipso guilty of treason (GuL ibid.). However, if people remained loyal and provided good defence, the king had to return the hostages unhurt, at the latest when a hostile fleet had been out of sight for five nights.

b) If people had been taken prisoners they were often treated as hostages, who could only be released by ransom (see, e.g., GuL ch. 201). The size and character of the ransom varied and was the subject of discussion, including questions about who was to pay, and how, etc. See the lengthy description in GL (A 28).

2) The OSw laws contained provisions about borghan and gilzl (bail, security, etc.). A person functioning as a hostage was to guarantee that certain obligations were met, be it offences, deals, or debts. An offender had to provide hostages to secure the execution of punishment (personal, social or economic) if he himself was not capable of paying the penalty. If a man had contracted debts, he was in his capacity as debtor also a hostage. Hostages enjoyed a special protection by the law (cf. OSw gislingabrut, ‘captives’ crime’, and gislingalagh, ‘law of captives’) against abduction. On hostages in law texts, see Olsson 2016, 35−36, 206−09, 281−88, 347−68.

3) The procedure prior to royal elections in Sweden implied the use of hostages. On his journey through the central provinces, the so-called eriksgata, the prince who was to be elected king had to be escorted by four men, chosen anew from one province to another, so as to secure that the right person was elected king.

hostage ONorw GuL Leb
OSw ÄVgL Rlb
OSw KrL Kgb
OSw SdmL Kgb
OSw UL Kgb, Mb
OSw YVgL Rlb

KLNM s.v.v. borgen, eriksgata, gisslan; Olsson 2016; RGA2 s.v.v. bürgschaft, geisel; Schlyter s.v.v. gisli, gislingabrut, gislingalagh

  • ‘gisli’. A Lexicon of Medieval Nordic Law.