Tag Archives: Italy

Medieval Prisons

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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Scattered Not-so-Random Thoughts

I’ve been reading quite a bit on Ostrogothic and Lombard Italy lately. I’ve never focused on the Lombards before so I’m learning quite a bit. I read some of the obvious books years ago such as Chris Wickham’s Early Medieval Italy, Neil Christie’s The Lombards and Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards.

I’ve been waiting for something to stimulate my brain to the point where I’d feel inspired to post. This has happened three times. Each time I started a post and in reviewing it realized that it had huge holes, largely due to my lack of knowledge, and was in an area where, once I look into it more, I should be able to put up something more substantial. 1

So here are my teasers; areas I intend to look at in more depth at some point (I really shouldn’t run out and buy more books right now – I have plenty to read sitting here). While these are Italy-based, they have implications for Western Europe during the period.

The nature of violence. The closest I came to making a complete post was one which would have been titled something like, The Feud and Vendetta in Late Antiquity. What stopped me was realizing that in order to do this topic justice I would have to try to place the feud in context with the role of violence overall, and based on that, how the state tried to regulate legitimate societal violence as one of its aspects of maintaining authority, and how this evolved from a recognition of a legitimate personal grievance to one where these grievances were a matter of concern for the state. 2

This arose from a discussion by Giorgio Ausenda and Sam Barnish on how feud was regulated by Liutprand where a murderer would lose everything, “They [those who developed Liutprand’s legal decrees] condemned the intentional killer to the loss of his entire substance, with the proviso that, if the murderer’s substance was less than the compensation stated in Rothari’s Edict, he was to be delivered to the victim’s relatives; if it was more, half the balance was to go to the king’s court and the rest to the victim’s heirs.” 3

One of the things I enjoy about the Studies in Historical Archaeoethnology series sponsored by the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Social Stress is that the volumes include participant discussions following each paper. One of the exchanges, initiated by Marios Costambeys, discusses how feud and vendetta were extensively mentioned in literature, less frequently in law codes, and are almost nonexistent in charters. Costambeys offers that literary mention of feuds may involve topoi and may not be representative of reality. This raises a host of questions for me, including whether one would expect to find this mentioned in charters, but also provided the motivation for my almost-post. 4

Lombard aristocracy. An area which I am intrigued by, but have never looked into, is why the city-state developed in Medieval Italy. Now every Medieval society is unique however entities such as 13th century Genoa and Venice are more unique than most. I don’t know for sure that these were factors – the temporal distance my be too great to make that connection – however the inability of the Lombards to create the sort of Romano-barbarian kingdom found in Gaul and Hispania may have something to do with it. 5

Related to this is that Lombard aristocrats did not develop the wealth possessed by the Franks and that the aristocrats were much more city-based than in Gaul. 6 Was this a precursor to the development of city-states? I don’t know but it’s an interesting question.

Literacy. Literacy and Education have always interested me, in particular evidence for lay literacy. I have never focused all that much on the development of scripts and what that may indicate. Nicholas Everett discusses the evolution of Lombard scripts from very individualistic, varied cursives to the adoption of more standardized miniscule. He argues that this development is an indication of a lower level of literacy, though possibly a broader audience. 7

This makes some sense. I’m not sure about lower level of literacy. To me, individualistic scripts may represent manuscripts intended for a limited audience – a small circle of “literate elites” – which would recognize and read it easily. It also may indicate political leadership having little influence on what was being written – an absence of the “official” centers where charters are redacted or edicts written such as are found with the Carolingians. It may possibly point to a lower literacy level at the court as well though this would require a lot of investigation before I’d be comfortable with it as a conclusion.

These three areas; the role of feud and vendetta; the structure of Lombard society and; what the development of scripts may indicate about literacy and the uses of writing, were very interesting for me. However, while I’m interested in them, I don’t know enough about any of these topics to offer them up as standalone posts.

1 I apologize for my lack of substantive posts lately. I finished a major responsibility on September 24 and thought I’d have more time. I underestimated how many projects I’d set aside to be worked on as soon as I finished this. I’m still working through “the stack” and hope to return to more regular posting in the not-too-distant future.

2 I use the term “state” very loosely here. Entities in Western Europe in Late Antiquity lacked many of the aspects we would today attribute to a state. Guy Halsall’s use of the term “polity” is more accurate but I don’t want to take the time to discuss that here – for the folks who this blog targets, I think I’ll stick with state, however flawed. There have been some interesting blog posts on this topic recently. I’d suggest one by Guy Halsall and another by Steve Muhlberger referencing Susan Reynolds. This is another area I really need to focus on – what is a state and which medieval societies fit the term?

3 Giorgio Ausenda and Sam Barnish, “A Comparative Discussion of Langobardic Feud and Blood-Money Compensation with Parallels from Contemporary Anthropology and from Medieval History,” p. 314 in Ausenda, Delogu and Wickham, eds. (2009). This seems to indicate a situation where under Liutprand, violence in the form of feuds and vendettas were no longer a crime against an individual and/or family, but a public crime, requiring that the state also be compensated. Graham Barrett gave a paper titled, “Literacy, Law and Libido in Early Medieval Spain” at Kalamazoo in 2010 which pointed out a similar evolution in 10th century Hispania.

4 Ausenda and Barnish (2009), p. 338. This is something I really want to explore. I’m for anything which further debunks the portrayal of Medieval Society, particularly immediately post-Roman, as the anarchic, people running around killing each other randomly, way it’s frequently been illustrated in older history, popular modern literature, and credit card commercials. But I need to know more before I start posting on it. Another shout-out to Guy Halsall. His Violence and Society in the Early Medieval West is extensively referenced. One more book I haven’t read which I clearly need to get to.

5 Paolo Delogu, “Kingship and the Shaping of the Lombard Body Politic,” p. 255 in Ausenda, Delogu and Wickham, eds. (2009). Delogu believes that Authari and Agiluf attempted to create this sort of entity however Roman society was too fragmented in the wake of the Gothic Wars to take this sort of role in kingdom formation.

6 Chris Wickham, “Social Structures in Lombard Italy,” p. 123 and discussion on pp. 140-2 in Ausenda, Delogu and Wickham, eds. (2009).

7 Everett, Nicholas, Literacy in Lombard Italy, c. 568-774, (2003) pp. 315-6. I am not, overall, very fond of this book. I felt he was overly given to conjecture and did not provide sufficient evidence for many of his conclusions, however this argument was pretty good. Many of his arguments are interesting but he failed to provide a discussion of the evidence in the sort of detail to convince me. Jonathan Jarrett once asked me about reviewing books I didn’t find useful. This book became a candidate (and this may still happen). A lot of good ideas, insufficient evidentiary support for many of them.


Ausenda, Giorgio, Delogu, Paolo and Wickham, Chris, eds., The Langobards before the Frankish Conquest: An Ethnographic Perspective. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press (2009). ISBN: 9-781843-834906.

Christie, Neil, The Lombards. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers (1995). ISBN: 9-780631-211976.

Everett, Nicholas, Literacy in Lombard Italy, c. 568-774. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2003). ISBN: 978-0-521-17410-7.

Halsall, Guy, Violence and Society in the Early Medieval West. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press (1998).

Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, Edward Peters, ed., William Dudley Foulke, trans. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2003). ISBN: 9-780812-210798.

Wickham, Chris, Early Medieval Italy: Central Power and Local Society 400-1000. Ann Arbor, MI, USA: Ann Arbor Paperbacks (1989). ISBN: 9-780472-08099-7.


Posted by on October 16, 2011 in Blogology


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Sixth Century Climate Change?

The new issue of Speculum showed up in the mail last week. The first article was by Paolo Squatriti titled, “The Floods of 589 and Climate Change at the Beginning of the Middle Ages: An Italian Microhistory.” I read the title and thought it would be a really good article, in part because this is an area I’m pretty familiar with. One of the things I do is when I’m at a Medieval Conference and introduce myself, when someone asks me what my field of study is, my usual response is, “I’m a pure amateur, I believe I’m the least intelligent person here.” Obviously I know there’s a difference between intelligence and knowledge but I’m shooting for humor – I don’t want people to think I’m whining about the situation. If the person I’m talking to is interested enough, I might invite him or her (humorously) to a Conference I’m presenting at and say, “Don’t worry – there are places where I’m actually fairly intelligent. Feel free to come and then I can be the smart one.”

So I read the title and thought this might be an opportunity, on my blog, to demonstrate that yeah, there are things I’m actually competent in. The first few pages of the article did nothing to alter my thoughts. Dr. Squatriti tracked how the flood event in 589 that impacted Rome has frequently been pointed to as a symptom of climate change, including statements such as, “The result [of climate change described by historians] was a post-Roman Italy of scraggly forests and soggy marshes, traversed by wild torrents that Muratori [an 18th century historian] repeatedly contrasted with the agricultural order he and his contemporaries in Modena could see around them.” (799) He continued to track the evolution of this position to “. . . the phenomenon modern historians usually call the ‘rotta della Cucca,’ or ‘the Cucca Breach.'”

The Cucca Breach is a title given to a series of alterations in the landscape of sixth century Italy resulting from heavy rains and snows. This changed watercourses, caused the abandonment of previously productive agricultural lands in the Italian peninsula and the growth of swampland. On first reading, I didn’t sense that Squatriti was going to do anything but fine tune this concept – add some details regarding the 589 event but subscribe to the overall theory. By this time I had mentally crafted a blog post in response discussing the abandonment of lands due to loss of population from the Plague, Justinian Wars, Lombard Invasion and Merovingian raids and wars. I planned to download some Italian data layers (or maybe not – I have 20 Gigs of worldwide GIS data on CD’s) including forests, soil types, waterways, throw them in ArcMap, combine them with some of my own layers related to land use, soils and drainage, and describe why some other options may be more feasible than climate change to explain the growth of swampland. This was gonna be good.

 Artificial drainage structures for a Central Indiana County necessary to keep it from being a swamp

Imagine my disappointment when I arrived at this statement, “In this essay I will . . . disengage the extreme weather events recorded for late 589 from the so-called climactic worsening of late antiquity.” (802) I then woke up, realized this article was not about me – or at least not a means by which I could demonstrate my brilliance through my blog, went back to re-read the first few pages, and regained a bit of sense about this.

The severe weather events of 589 are mentioned in multiple sources. The sources describe a massive flood whereby the banks of the Tiber were breached causing massive destruction in Rome. Some of the sources are a bit more creative. Gregory of Tours was quite analytical, describing a chain of events resulting in the election of Gregory the Great as Pope. 1

The Liber Pontificalis is less colorful, “At that time the rains were so great that everyone said the waters of the Flood had overflowed; so great was the disaster that no one could remember anything ever like it.” 2

Paul the Deacon recounted events much as Gregory did (you kind of have to assume that, writing at Charlemagne’s court, Paul had access to Gregory’s Historiae) complete with snakes, dragons, pestilence and Gregory the Great becoming Pope. 3

Gregory the Great himself refers to this event in his Dialogues though his account was much less dramatic than those of Gregory of Tours and Paul. 4

In any case, what we have here is a big flood, remarkably well-dated to the fall of 589, sometimes(according to Gregory of Tours and Paul) accompanied by rain and storms, which did substantial damage to Rome.

Here’s where this article gets interesting. After tracing the 589 Flood historiography and its mentions in sources (I haven’t listed all of them – just those I have) Squatriti enters into a discussion of whether this can be seen as an event accompanying climate change. He believes it should not. First – and I have a hard time believing a historian would do this – he restates the caution against the cardinal sin of using an isolated weather event, however severe, as a symptom of longer-term, broader climate events. He then begins to separate 589 from a series of events which could be linked to describe this broader event.

He makes several points leading up to this however his ultimate and most interesting comments related to this involve regional or micro-climates. He recognizes that there is some evidence to suggest that Europe was becoming cooler and wetter during the 6th century – but that this evidence is not from Italy but from areas to the north and west. He further discusses Italy as part of the “Mediterranean isoclimactic area” rather than continental Europe, where so much of the climate data originates. (813)

He relates several periods where climate impacting the remainder of Europe does not seem to have impacted Italy, such as the lack of tree ring alteration during the Medieval Warm Period and suggests that this indicates that a cooler wetter continental Europe in the 6th century does not necessarily indicate the same in Italy. Finally he points to alluvial deposits (deposits from flooding) and delta growth. The Tiber delta was relatively stable during the 6th century, as were its deposits from flooding, indicating that nothing remarkable was going on. (815) The Adige River is much more interesting as, south of Verona, in some areas there is evidence of increased flooding – and in some areas the flooding appears to be reduced from the norm. (816-7) Overall, Squatriti does not see evidence for major climate change in 6th century Italy, or that the 589 flood should be used as evidence of this.

What he does believe the 589 event can be used as evidence of is something I had never considered before and relates to how it was referenced by the sources. Squatriti believes the emphasis this event has received in the sources is related to Gregory the Great, not the flood itself. He argues that the flood was viewed as a direct precursor and in fact as something of a triggering event in the elevation of Gregory as Pope. “Its [the 589 flood] unusual memorialization is certainly related to the renown of Gregory the Great in the Middle Ages, much more, I would suggest, than to any sense that the floods were especially devastating.” (819)

He argues that Gregory of Tours’ account relates to his view that good may come from even the worst occurrences and that Paul the Deacon uses it to point out that the Lombards were not the enemies of God. (820-1)

One issue he doesn’t raise which I think should be considered is that Gregory of Tours would likely have considered the flood a necessary cleansing event where evil is washed out from the city, as represented by the serpents and dragon, to prepare the way for good, in the person of Gregory the Great, to lead the Catholic religion and faithful. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve recently read so many of Gregory’s miracle stories but his propensity to relate a cleansing purge; as indicated by the ejection from the body of blood, pus or vomit; with healing seems to me to have a very strong parallel with a flood washing away evil serpents in order to cleanse Rome.

In any case, though I wasn’t able to show everyone how smart I am, (grin) I found this to be an interesting article. To a certain extent I think the climate change in 6th century Italy issue is still a bit up in the air with some contradictory evidence however I found Squatriti’s argument persuasive; that the prominence of the 589 flood in sources was related to the importance with which the authors viewed Gregory the Great.

1 Historiae X.1; Gregory’s deacon, Agiulf, told him about an event on November of 589 where a flood destroyed several churches and large stores of grain. The flood was accompanied by a bunch of snakes swimming downstream, including “. . . a tremendous dragon as big as a tree-trunk . . .” The snakes and dragons washed up on shore, died, began to rot and caused a plague which killed the current Pope, Pelagius, resulting in Gregory the Great’s elevation to the papacy.

2 Liber Pontificalis 65

3 Historia Langobardorum III.24; Unlike Gregory, Paul neglects to connect rotting carcasses with the onset of disease.

4 Dialogues, 3.19; How dramatic is a bit objective. If you’re interested in the Church of the martyr Zeno, Gregory’s account had plenty of drama. If you’re into serpents and dragons, not so much.

Davis, Raymond, trans., The Book of Pontiffs (Liber Pontificalis), 2nd ed. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2000). ISBN: 9-780853-235453.

*Gardner, Edmund, ed., Warner, P. L., trans., The Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great. Merchantville, NJ: Evolution Publishing (2010). ISBN: 9-781889-758947.

Peters, Edward, ed., Foulke, William Dudley, trans., Paul the Deacon: History of the Lombards. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2003). ISBN: 9-780812-210798.

Squatriti, Paolo (2010). “The Floods of 589 and Climate Change at the Beginning of the Middle Ages: An Italian Microhistory”, Speculum 85, 799-826.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. London: Penguin Books (1974). ISBN: 9-780140-442953.

*This is not the greatest edition. I’d recommend getting the Deferrari (1939) edition if you can find it. Unfortunately it’s out of print and used copies are very high priced. I finally picked this up so I’d at least have something.

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Posted by on October 17, 2010 in Environment


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