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Connor Ruebusch




Location: Cincinnati
Joined: 10 Nov 2009

Posts: 97

PostPosted: Sun 18 Jul, 2010 6:02 pm    Post subject: Medieval Prisons?         Reply with quote

Hey, I'm trying to do a little research for a story I'm working on. I've got two of my characters wind up in jail (gaol?) for burglary, and I suddenly realized that I have no idea what medieval prisons were like. What would a jail cell in the high middle ages look like? How would a prison system in a given city be organized (if there was one at all)? Would people go through a period of prison time before sentencing, or what? Anybody with any information on medieval jails, I'd love to hear about it. Thanks, everybody.

Connor
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Darren B. O'Connor





Joined: 26 Aug 2006

Posts: 16

PostPosted: Sun 18 Jul, 2010 6:20 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Generally speaking, in the high middle ages, the only people who might be held captive for any great length of time would be knights or other nobles who were being ransomed, or might be "political prisoners" that the king might want to hold onto, but perhaps not wish to kill, for various reasons.

For criminal offenses, incarceration was seldom if ever used as a penalty in the middle ages. The most serious offenses rated execution. Thieves would get lashes, or for serious or persistent theft, might get a hand lopped off. Minor offenses were also dealt with via fines, lashes, time in the stocks or pillory, etc., but prisons where people were held for months or years for criminal offenses are mostly a modern phenomenon. There were exceptions, but I don't think there was anything systematic in place. Most gaols were really not much more than temporary holding areas where the prisoner was held until the trial, and until actual sentence -- hanging, twenty lashes, whatever it was -- was carried out.

Having said that, if memory serves, Anglo Saxon England did have prisons of a sort, where people might be incarcerated for certain offenses (and their families were expected to pay for their upkeep), but what conditions were like in them I'm not sure.
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Connor Ruebusch




Location: Cincinnati
Joined: 10 Nov 2009

Posts: 97

PostPosted: Mon 19 Jul, 2010 12:54 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hey, thanks a million for the info. So it is feasible that two burglars might be kept in a jail cell for a few days before being sentenced to whatever particular form of dismemberment or execution suited their crime?
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Darren B. O'Connor





Joined: 26 Aug 2006

Posts: 16

PostPosted: Mon 19 Jul, 2010 1:26 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Oh it might be longer than a few days, but they certainly wouldn't have sat for years like modern death row inmates do.
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Malcolm A




Location: Scotland, UK
Joined: 22 Mar 2005

Posts: 89

PostPosted: Mon 19 Jul, 2010 2:18 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hello Connor
Not sure if this would fit into your timescale but if you look up St Andrews Castle [as in St Andrews, Scotland, the home of golf] you will find reference to the bottle neck dungeon.
You could try the following Wikipedia page for starters.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Andrews_Castle

I recall visiting it as a young lad at school and was struck by how miserable and dark / dank it was when the lights went out.

It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom -- for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself
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Thomas R.




Location: Germany
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PostPosted: Mon 19 Jul, 2010 2:51 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Connor,

I could give you a detailed description of a german city prison, built in 1322. Are you interested? If it's not your timeline, I won't need to do the translation...

Regards,
Thomas

http://maerenundlobebaeren.tumblr.com/
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Connor Ruebusch




Location: Cincinnati
Joined: 10 Nov 2009

Posts: 97

PostPosted: Mon 19 Jul, 2010 5:38 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thomas, if you don't mind the effort, it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for the offer.

Thanks also for the info on that particular dungeon, Malcolm. Looks pretty creepy... Would most dungeons/jails be in castles or forts? Perhaps if the city was built around the keep? I know that dungeon as a word stems from donjon, which is just a keep, so is the implication that most dungeons were simply the basements of towerhouses? How about walled cities, like old Roman towns. Is it fair to say that there would be multiple jails in a very large city? Perhaps in guard garrisons or guard towers?

Sorry for the deluge of questions! thanks everyone for all the info so far.

Connor

Edit: And what about regular "cells"? People just waiting to be sentenced wouldn't be tossed in an oubliette like the bottle dungeon, would they? Not normally, I suspect.


Last edited by Connor Ruebusch on Mon 19 Jul, 2010 5:50 pm; edited 1 time in total
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Connor Ruebusch




Location: Cincinnati
Joined: 10 Nov 2009

Posts: 97

PostPosted: Mon 19 Jul, 2010 5:43 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

And wow, those St. Andrews ruins are awesome... So impressive. I hope to go to Scotland for my honeymoon when my girlfriend and I get married. With luck I can trick her into visiting places like this with me. Wink I love history, and there's just not enough of it here in the states. You Europeans take the age of your homelands for granted!

Connor
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Jean-Carle Hudon




Location: Montreal,Canada
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PostPosted: Mon 19 Jul, 2010 6:19 pm    Post subject: matrimony         Reply with quote

Connor,
a honeymoon with ruins and the odd dungeon thrown in for good measure... let's all hope that your beloved isn't overly concerned about subliminal messages or symbolism, she might get the idea that you have some reservations about the blessed institution of marriage. All the best, but do avoid expressions such as '' my ball and chain'' when visiting those ruins and dungeons... Cheers, JC

Bon coeur et bon bras
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Randall Moffett




Location: Northern Utah
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PostPosted: Mon 19 Jul, 2010 8:46 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Interesting question. At least in Western Europe during the High and Late Medieval Period cutting limbs off as punishment was not a common method. For the most part unless you did something really bad the punishment was fines. There are loads of these registers from towns, cities, counties and royal courts with these proceedings.

Now at times jail was where you sat till this money was paid. A Jail could be anywhere. In Southampton the Jail was under the town hall which was also one of the chief fortifications of the town. In York the sheriff of the town had a few different places he kept criminals. The king's steward of his castle in York had a jail (that often flooded as it was next to the Foss River) where men were kept in a hall in the bailey.

In England the stocks were brought about during Edward III's reign. Some random places had them before this but he instituted that every area have one. I guess this punishments come in part from those who could not afford a fine. There is no good holding some one till they die as you will not get paid. In the end the systems seems to rely on the desire to make money for crimes committed.

I suppose having two thieves in jail for a few days is possible... especially as they would usually have a trial of some nature in many cases, such as post Magna Carta England- at least in theory.

RPM
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Connor Ruebusch




Location: Cincinnati
Joined: 10 Nov 2009

Posts: 97

PostPosted: Mon 19 Jul, 2010 9:40 pm    Post subject: Re: matrimony         Reply with quote

Jean-Carle Hudon wrote:
Connor,
a honeymoon with ruins and the odd dungeon thrown in for good measure... let's all hope that your beloved isn't overly concerned about subliminal messages or symbolism, she might get the idea that you have some reservations about the blessed institution of marriage. All the best, but do avoid expressions such as '' my ball and chain'' when visiting those ruins and dungeons... Cheers, JC


Heheh. I'll try to avoid that. My new destinations will be St. Andrew's (not necessarily for the bottle dungeon) and the lovely Dunnattor Castle, because there's no scenery like the scenery in Scotland. The grass is so... green!

Thanks for your thoughts Randall. That really helps put it in perspective. It seems reasonable that the punishment for two thieves with no money or relatives to pay a fine might be lashing or dismemberment, right? Lashing probably... Thanks for all the helpful information, everybody. Anybody else have any insight? This is all really cool.

Connor
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Darren B. O'Connor





Joined: 26 Aug 2006

Posts: 16

PostPosted: Tue 20 Jul, 2010 12:17 am    Post subject: Re: matrimony         Reply with quote

Connor Ruebusch wrote:
Thanks for your thoughts Randall. That really helps put it in perspective. It seems reasonable that the punishment for two thieves with no money or relatives to pay a fine might be lashing or dismemberment, right? Lashing probably... Thanks for all the helpful information, everybody. Anybody else have any insight? This is all really cool.

Connor

Flogging probably. Dismemberment was employed in Europe, but generally only for either serious cases of theft (i.e. high value items), or for inveterate thieves with a history of larceny.
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Martin Francis




Location: Northumberland, UK
Joined: 27 Sep 2008

Posts: 32

PostPosted: Tue 20 Jul, 2010 4:51 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Connor

Have a look at the Old Gaol in Hexham as well, a compact smaller building, but purpose built as a prison in the 14thC

http://www.tynedaleheritage.org/Resources/GaolHist.htm

Construction ordered by the Archbishop of York in 1330, later a Royal Prison. and now a museum dedicated to the world of the Border Reivers.

As other correspondents have pointed out, prison was not regarded a punishment per se, more a remand centre where you awaited trial. In the case of Hexham, this might have been at the Manorial Court; The Wardens court in the case of March Treason or later the Sessions or Assize.

The records indicate that a 2-4 month stay was common, but periods in excess of 2 years were noted where for instance witnesses were slow to come forward for trial purposes. There were several gaolbreaks, that of 1538 being the most noteable. Prisoners were rarely restrained other than at night, and there was an effectively free association at the door through the grid or "yett" and as the post event reports show, security was hardly overt by modern standards.

Prisoners were allowed out to Church in certain instances and there are few instances of such paroles being abused. More for fear of being declared "outlaw" and thus beyond the Law's protection. The more robust individuals seem to have been immune to this fear, opting for the "leg-bail" approach of not being taken in the first place

By the 16th C, a common inmate was in the form of a pledge, an individual, effectively taken as a hostage for the good behaviour of his family as a whole or another member of his family

Post trial, whether acquited or not, you had to pay for your time and lodgings or you were not released. Accommodation varied from the 2 Oubliettes beneath the ground floor up to perfectly reasonable accommodation up stairs. (for which of course you paid more) where you could arrange to have the comforts of home brought to you . It was however noted on several occasions that Gaolers had to lodge prisoners in their own houses because of teh bad state of repair.

I've done a lot of costume presentations here over the last 10 years or so, the signature picture on the left was taken outside it.

Have fun

Martin
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Todd M. Sullivan




Location: Upstate New York
Joined: 03 Oct 2003

Posts: 69

PostPosted: Tue 20 Jul, 2010 5:41 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Here is Terry Jones discussing and visiting the prison Martin speaks about: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6eXXLH8jNs&feature=related

Martin Francis wrote:
Connor

Have a look at the Old Gaol in Hexham as well, a compact smaller building, but purpose built as a prison in the 14thC

http://www.tynedaleheritage.org/Resources/GaolHist.htm

Construction ordered by the Archbishop of York in 1330, later a Royal Prison. and now a museum dedicated to the world of the Border Reivers.

As other correspondents have pointed out, prison was not regarded a punishment per se, more a remand centre where you awaited trial. In the case of Hexham, this might have been at the Manorial Court; The Wardens court in the case of March Treason or later the Sessions or Assize.

The records indicate that a 2-4 month stay was common, but periods in excess of 2 years were noted where for instance witnesses were slow to come forward for trial purposes. There were several gaolbreaks, that of 1538 being the most noteable. Prisoners were rarely restrained other than at night, and there was an effectively free association at the door through the grid or "yett" and as the post event reports show, security was hardly overt by modern standards.

Prisoners were allowed out to Church in certain instances and there are few instances of such paroles being abused. More for fear of being declared "outlaw" and thus beyond the Law's protection. The more robust individuals seem to have been immune to this fear, opting for the "leg-bail" approach of not being taken in the first place

By the 16th C, a common inmate was in the form of a pledge, an individual, effectively taken as a hostage for the good behaviour of his family as a whole or another member of his family

Post trial, whether acquited or not, you had to pay for your time and lodgings or you were not released. Accommodation varied from the 2 Oubliettes beneath the ground floor up to perfectly reasonable accommodation up stairs. (for which of course you paid more) where you could arrange to have the comforts of home brought to you . It was however noted on several occasions that Gaolers had to lodge prisoners in their own houses because of teh bad state of repair.

I've done a lot of costume presentations here over the last 10 years or so, the signature picture on the left was taken outside it.

Have fun

Martin
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Thomas R.




Location: Germany
Joined: 10 May 2010
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PostPosted: Tue 20 Jul, 2010 9:14 am    Post subject: Nürnberger Lochgefängnis         Reply with quote

Hi all,

so now I've got the time to share my experience in the cells of the Nuremberger Holes (Nürnberger Lochgefängnis).
The prison is located below the Nuremberger city hall. In 1322 the city bought the bread's house off the cities bakers guild and turned it into a city hall. The ground level was formerly used as a medieval shopping mall but put back then to a new purpose: the city leveled up the ground around the city hall, so that the shopping area became a cellar. Then they built into it several cells, divided by stone, brickwork and wood.

There were at least 12 cells, determinated for various purposes: first of all for pre-trial confinement. The cells are about 2 square meters and completely dark. If I recall it right only some of the rooms for the guards had a barred light funnel at the ceiling. The cells are encased with wooden planks, a small bed integrated. Some of these "beds" are made like a stock (like a pillory(?), don't know the right word). The prisoners were confined there with arms and legs put into that stocks. The cells had a bucket for excrements, some prisoners got in wintertime a heating device (I don't know how this device was made, but maybe it was a bucket of hot water).

The prisoners or their families had to pay for their food by themselves. More money bought them better food. Neither cell was used for longer imprisonment. Only prisoners who were sentenced to death would stay there for a longer period of time.

Some cells were meant for special crimes: A red rooster above the entrance meant, that there is a firestarter imprisoned; a black cat symbolized a gossiper, who told lies.

Nearby the cells were a room for guards, a torture chamber and smithy, the living quarters of the prison chief (der Lochwirt) and a chamber with a well for fresh water.

I visited the Lochgefängnisse in 2008 and it was a quite claustrophobic experience. A small, narrow tunnel with wooden doors on either side, leading to the even smaller cells. I would have found it _very_ difficult up to impossible to lay myself flat down in there, but hopefully the medieval prisoners would have been not as tall as me (185 cm). The torture chamber was still intact, complete with thumbscrews, ironrings, branding devices... I recommend every Nuremberg visitor a tour through this dark pit.

Regards,
Thomas

A link to a shot of these cells. On the bed plank you can see holes for chains:
http://de.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dat...0909191754

The narrow corridor:
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nuernb...se_001.JPG

http://maerenundlobebaeren.tumblr.com/
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Lafayette C Curtis




Location: Indonesia
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Reading list: 7 books

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PostPosted: Mon 09 Aug, 2010 12:16 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

You might want to look through the archives of this blog--there was a photo feature on a medieval prison some time ago.
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