Interview with Guy Geltner

Medieval prisonGuy Geltner is a Lecturer in Medieval History at University College, Oxford.  His latest book is The Medieval Prison: A Social History, published by Princeton University Press.  We interview Dr. Geltner about his book, which is one of the first studies of this kind of institution during the Middle Ages.

1. How did you become interested in researching medieval prisons?

I have a standing interest in marginality, deviancy, and the relations between space and social control, but I cannot recollect exactly how I got into pre-modern prisons other than waking up one day deeply immersed in the topic. I suppose that the subject emerged while writing a paper for Peter Brown on late-antique prisons as focal points for early Christian communities. Ancient prisons were not supposed to be punitive facilities, yet many of the sources I came across posed a serious challenge to the modern distinction among custodial, coercive, and penal incarceration. In any case, I was drawn to a later period, where archival records could be tapped, and soon found myself sifting through French and, later, Italian documents.


2. Your book focuses on three Italian cities – Florence, Venice and Bologna.  What kind of sources were available to you from these cities?

The wealth of relevant sources was probably the nicest surprise of the initial research stage. The archives of the cities you mention (and many others as well) still contain documents and registers produced by prison administrations and urban governments in the 13th and 14th centuries, from inmate traffic records, to reports composed by supervisory committees, to court proceedings and city-council minutes. They tell us about virtually every aspect of prison life, finance, and administration in that period: who went to prison, what for, and for how long; what did it cost a city to found and run a prison; who governed and supervised a municipal prison; and what contemporary attitudes to this new institution were like. There are also chronicles, some material remains, and even some poetry and prose. Jointly they enabled me to write a book well grounded in documents of practice but which also incorporates prescriptive and narrative sources.


3. Your book exposes a lot of misconceptions about prisons in the Middle Ages.  What do you think would be the most surprising aspect of medieval prisons to the modern reader?

Medieval prisons have a pretty bad reputation even for a period that is (alas) synonymous with brutality and backwardness. However, what the records tell us is that medieval incarceration was a fairly tolerable experience, in medieval and certainly in modern terms. Much of this had to do with their size and physically central location and the inmates’ access to the outside world, which helped them avoid or significantly reduce many physical and psychological pains of incarceration.

4. Your book also touches on pre-modern institutions that were emerging in urban areas of the Later Middle Ages. Could you tell us more about the role prisons played in the civic growth of cities like Florence, Venice and Bologna?

Prisons accompanied political centralization. Without relatively strong governments and a broad consensus over what their civic role should be, prisons would have been useless as coercive, let along punitive facilities. But rather than linking their foundation with growing state brutality or general intolerance (a closing of the ranks that R. I Moore and Norman Cohn called the birth of a “persecuting mentality”), I try to show that as a technique of social control incarceration parallels the creation of other “marginalizing” institutions: leper-houses, hospitals, and brothels, and to a lesser extent Jewish quarters. Jointly these can be seen as an attempt to expand civic society, not limit it. These institutions did not define deviancy in order to cast people out; they actually mitigated tensions in an increasingly heterogeneous urban society. In this sense, prisons were typical of an emerging “rough tolerance” (a term I borrow from Christopher MacEvitt), which was a pragmatic solution at the time.


5. Now that this book is published, what issues and topics regarding pre-modern prisons still need to be explored, by yourself or other scholars?

It’s the irony of every research project, I suppose, that publication is followed by new discoveries that help refine and even challenge the original findings. So I am constantly coming across more material in the archives and in printed sources. But more broadly, my research is limited to Italy, even if it considers the findings of scholars working in other areas. But apart from one earlier book dealing with England and Wales (Pugh, 1968), there is no other comparable regional study. It would also be important to know if and how these institutions functioned in other pre-modern cultures, such as under Islam (there are many Arabic poems written in medieval prisons, and it would be important to have a better context). My colleague Megan Cassidy-Welch is working on a cultural history of the medieval prison, which will include a nuanced discussion of carceral spaces and their representations in various media. It would be a very welcome addition to this small but growing field.

We thank Dr. Geltner for answering our questions.