Medieval Prisons

23 Jan

NOTE: My apologies to anyone who may have wondered what was going on when an earlier version of this showed up a couple of days ago. I hit the “publish” instead of “save draft” button by mistake.

Most of us have probably seen something in the movies where; Our Hero is captured by The Bad Guys, gets thrown into some dank, windowless pit where his only contact with the outside world is when a slot opens up once a day and food, usually with maggots in it (protein!) is shoved at him. This before the Hollywood/New Zealand form of divine intervention rescues him so he can save the world/girl/his companions/the day. This is our medieval prison, right?

Wrong, at least according to a book I’ve just finished, The Medieval Prison by G. Geltner. In this book Geltner sets out to dispel some misconceptions about medieval prisons, using a case study approach for Italian prisons in Venice, Florence, and Bologna. I want to mention that this will not be a book review. I don’t know enough about late medieval Italy or medieval prisons to be able to assess the soundness of the information. I can say that I enjoyed it, it’s well written and his arguments, as constructed, seem solid. What I want to do is share some of the information Geltner provides because I found it interesting.

According to Geltner, the process of developing prisons, rather than having a few cells to hold people for trial or execution, began around 1250. Initially this was through the adaptation of existing structures by adding cells, as time went on structures were built designed to be used as prisons. These first prisons were primarily for debtors. By the early 14th century they began to hold other criminals though even by the end of this survey, in the 15th century, the vast majority of prisoners either owed someone money or were being held for trial.

Painting of the 14th century Florence prison Le Stinche, likely the first facility built
specifically to be a prison in Europe. By Fabio Borbottoni, image from Wikimedia Commons.

These prisons were located in the center of cities, near administrative centers. This resulted in them, and their prisoners, not being completely removed from the urban life of their respective cities. Visitors were allowed freely, they could speak to people through windows, and the debtors were often allowed to leave the prison by day to beg to both support their prison stay and help pay down their debt. These prisons were far more open, the atmosphere much more relaxed, than today’s American prisons which have largely been moved outside of the cities and are in many ways hidden.

Prisoners were one of the classes of people which it was considered appropriate for the wealthy to support. It was expected that the prisoner would pay for food and the salaries of those who worked in the prison. Those who were too poor to do so relied on benefactors. Those with money paid to improve their living conditions and it was from these higher paying prisoners that prisons could turn a profit. There seem to have been no restrictions, other than a prohibition on weapons, on what type of personal property a prisoner could possess, including a luxurious bed.

The incidence of illness, disease, and death while in prisons was fairly low. Geltner says, “… the medieval prison’s current image as a ‘hellhole,’ a view still shared and occasionally even perpetuated by medieval, let alone modern, historians, is simply untenable.” (101) Escapes were rarely attempted even though these prisons were pretty easy to break out of. Geltner believes one reason for this is that, except for the wealthier residents, conditions within the prison were likely no worse than they would have faced outside as violence rarely occurred and they had food and a place to sleep. Additionally, if someone escaped, where would he (or she) go? If a prisoner today manages to escape, if he or she evades capture a bus ticket will take them thousands of miles in a couple of days and there are large metropolitan areas to lose oneself in. These options were not available to medievals and while these three cities were large by medieval standards, they would have been dwarfed by a medium size modern city. An escaped prisoner would have had a tough time avoiding being found.

This is not to say that prisons were paradises. Freedoms were restricted which would have been burdensome for the wealthy, boredom was a problem, and torture was a legitimate way of extracting information. While many prisoners were allowed to roam at will within the walls and some were even allowed outside, some were chained. However the vision of a dank tower into which someone was thrown and never seen again does not seem to have been the situation here.

Sentences were fairly short. There was public perception that penal or punitive incarceration was wrong and that prisons should be reserved for debtors. Authorities got around this by fining people for unlawful behavior, then jailing them when they were unable to pay the fine. However even this could backfire if the prisoner was so poor that he couldn’t pay the debt or even prison expenses such as food and employee salaries. There was some thought that it was useless to imprison destitute debtors as they would never be able to pay anyway. Unpaid debt was typically covered by a benefactor after a sentence of two years at the most and prisoners were commonly freed on religious days.

I’ve stuck with general information with this post. Geltner provides a fair amount of specific details on topics such as penalties for specific crimes, mortality numbers (which were quite low) and financial figures. I think it’s also important to remember that Geltner’s survey covers a very small portion of the medieval world and that Italy was somewhat unique in its development. I’m not convinced that what he says about Italian prisons in the Late Middle Ages can be applied to England, France, or Germany.

In any case, I found this to be an enjoyable book and I learned a fair amount from it. Medieval prisons, at least in Italy, weren’t the worst places in the world. They were located in the centers of cities where urban residents could see and interact with prisoners, and were concerned for their well-being. Prisoners remained a part of their world, not hidden away from sight, and were considered deserving of pity and assistance. Prisons had hospital wards and free legal aid was often available. This is not the image of a medieval prison found in the movies. It’s also much more interesting.

Geltner, G., The Medieval Prison: A Social History. Princeton: Princeton University Press (2008). ISBN: 978-0-691-13533-5.


Posted by on January 23, 2014 in Society and Social Structure


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4 responses to “Medieval Prisons

  1. Anonymous

    December 24, 2016 at 8:39 pm

    Thanks! this was helpful. As I’m writing a book.

  2. Anonymous

    May 31, 2017 at 9:51 am

    Hello. Appreciate knowing someone else out there is interested enough in historical research to share your articulate thoughts. It was like having a nourishing conversation. I am specifically interested in finding out the interaction between jailors and, in this case, a seven-year-old imprisoned for life by King Edward I of England in 1283 to ensure the boy would never contest his own right to the Welsh crown. Incredibly, this son of a rebellious royal lived into his 50s despite being in solitary and, later, caged! Would you know or be able to direct me to a source? Thank you. Kelly

    • Curt Emanuel

      August 27, 2017 at 8:02 am

      I’m sorry I didn’t respond to this more quickly – I saw your question but then it slipped my mind over the summer. Based on the date this is likely one of the hostages given by the Welsh at the end of Edward’s campaign. Since there are hundreds (thousands? Edward was nothing if not thorough) of them I have no idea where to specifically look, particularly if you don’t have a name. But I suppose you could start by looking at the Calendars of Rolls and other contemporary records for the period in question to see if you can find someone matching that description.

  3. Shina

    December 7, 2017 at 2:32 pm

    Hello! I too am looking for any information pertaining to jails, jailers (the terminology for them) and who was in charge of small towns in more rural areas in the French Middle Ages. Preferably in the late 1500s/early 1600s. Like, for a murder trial, would it be assigned members of the community who would serve as the judge? Or would it have been a province governor/town mayor/something else that determines the fate of the accused? I have an idea for a novel, and yet can find very little specific information on the commune of Dole, France and its law system during that time period. Anything at all will help greatly! :D


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