Medieval Prisons: Between Myth and Reality, Hell and Purgatory
By Guy Geltner
History Compass, Vol. 4 (2006)
Abstract: When were medieval prisons founded? What was life inside them like? How did contemporary observers perceive them? Addressing such questions, this article brings together over a century of scholarship that undermines the traditional dating of the prison’s “birth,” sheds light on the tolerable realities of medieval captivity, and identifies a range of contemporary interpretations of prison life and spaces.
Introduction: The creation of prisons as punitive institutions is commonly dated to the late eighteenth century, and is attributed to the influence of Enlightenment ideas about man’s ability to reform his soul and the State’s prerogative in implementing this process. The accepted chronology denies the penal role of prisons at any time earlier, at least outside ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Accordingly, the view prevails that throughout the Middle Ages prisons served as places of pre-trial custody or loci of coercion for defaulting debtors; punitive incarceration, in turn, “did not exist or represented, at best, a negligible exception.”
Perhaps the most eloquent refutation of such claims was made by Ralph Pugh in his 1968 study Imprisonment in Medieval England. Pugh began by restating what most observers of prison life (including medieval lawyers) already knew, namely, that the distinction among custodial, coercive, and penal incarceration is useful in theory, but fails to describe actual practices. Thus, to say that medieval “penology” consciously avoided incarceration would be anachronistic and misleading. Pugh then demonstrated that, even in a stricter sense, punitive imprisonment was both an articulated legal concept and a practiced penal measure in England throughout the high and late Middle Ages. As many other studies throughout the last century and a half have shown, the same argument can be applied to different European regions from Late Antiquity to the late Middle Ages.