Ransoming Captives in Crusader Spain, a study of the foundation and growth of the Order of Merced in the thirteenth century, treats a subject that has been much neglected and yet is of great importance for the social and religious history of medieval Spain. The author views the activities of the Mercedarians within the broader context of the contemporary development of popular Christian piety, which increasingly expressed itself in acts of charity. As a caritative order, Merced constituted a local adaptation of lay religiosity to the conditions of the Iberian Christian-Islamic frontier. Christian captives in Granada and North Africa came to be seen as “Christ’s poor,” the fitting object of the Mercedarians’ redemptive work.

Through a thorough and careful examination of the archival documentation Brodman pares away much of the legend surrounding the order’s founder, Pere Nolasc, and its ransoming activities (dozens rather than hundreds of captives were ransomed annually). Much of the book is a detailed discussion of the order’s early spread during the crusades of Jaume I of Aragon in Mallorca and Valencia; the evolution of its internal organization and its eventual clericalization; and the growth of a patrimony essential for the material support of its redemptive work. Unfortunately, far less space is devoted to the actual ransoming activities of the Mercedarians, but this is due to the scarcity of pertinent documentation, not to any oversight on the part of the author. Nevertheless, one is left with a sense of the hardship and danger faced by the Brothers of Ransom in their liberating work, and of the sometimes harrowing conditions of Iberian frontier life that made that work so necessary.

This work is a valuable contribution to Spanish and church history. Brodman’s illuminating analysis of the origins of the Order of Merced and the institutionalization of ransoming deepens our understanding of the formation of the medieval Spaniards’ frontier mentality. That the work of Merced remained necessary throughout the medieval period suggests the persistence of conditions conducive to the forging of that same mentality that the Spaniards would transfer to more distant frontiers.