The Medieval Prison: A Social History.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Moore, R.I.
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: The Medieval Prison: A Social History (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Geltner, Guy
Accession Number: 230778716
Full Text: The Medieval Prison: A Social History. By G. Geltner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. xviii plus 197 pp.).

Prisons and imprisonment were, of course, ubiquitous at all periods of European history since antiquity. Geltrter's real claim is actually not that it was the 'medieval' but that it was the modern prison that emerged in the fourteenth century as a functioning institution with dedicated accommodation, administration, and financial arrangements (though with earlier roots), and that the practice of employing imprisonment as a punishment in itself, as opposed to detention for other purposes, became regular and established, despite the continuing refusal of jurists to approve or acknowledge it as such. It is not the least merit of this useful, study that it points firmly, though not for the first time, to the years after 1250 or so for the beginning of developments too often assumed to belong to a much later period. It is a pity that the author diminishes a title that in other ways claims rather too much by enshrining in it an adjective that all of us, but social historians in particular, would be much better off without.

Geltner's work is based on close archival examination of prisons in Florence, Venire. Siena and Bolopna in the fourteenth century. It shows that they emerged gradually and piecemeal as part of the social and administrative fabric of the evolving city state.

The ad hoc use in the thirteenth century of miscellaneous premises, often temporarily appropriated turri, gave way in the fourteenth to permanent, and even in the case of Florence purpose-built accommodation, necessary to house growing numbers of prisoners with reasonably effective supervision and control. Suitable quarters were most conveniently available, generally speaking, in municipal buildings and therefore centrally located, part of the public fabric of the city. The growing number of prisoners required not only efficient custodial attention but an increasing range of legal, medical and administrative services, budgets, records and so on. In principle prisoners were maintained at their own expense, and therefore must remain in touch with their families and communities outside; they were not isolated or excluded from the community at large.

An important corollary of this general development is that the authorities assumed and accepted responsibility for the safety and to a degree for the welfare of the prisoners. The point is strikingly made in an arresting preface describing the safeguarding of the inmates of Florence's Le Stinche from a flooding of the Arno in 1333, and developed in an especially interesting chapter on prison life which effectively dispels the stereotype of the dungeon whose inmates were left to rot in verminous solitude.

Of still greater value in correcting prevailing impressions is Geltner's account of the reasons for the growth of the numbers of prisoners, and with it of the use of imprisonment as a punishment in its own right. As he rightly points out, the view that it was not treated as such until very much later (increasingly questioned in recent decades) rested on the discussions of jurists, or lack of it. Real life was different. More use of accusatorial procedures, of witnesses and of torture, increased and prolonged pre-trial incarceration. The use of fines to punish a growing range of offences raised the problem of those who could not pay them; as early as 1303 Venice adopted a standard tariff to commute fines into terms of imprisonment, which made almost all crimes effectively punishable in that way; others followed the same path less formally. Debt itself was a large and growing grounds of arrest. For those imprisoned because they could not pay their chance of doing so now vanished, and their debt was compounded by the cost of being in prison. All this not only increased the size of prison populations but impoverished them, making prisons, never a source of more than modest profit, increasingly a charge on the public purse.

All of this Geltner documents in careful and interesting detail, rightly insisting on the differences both in the occasions of development and their outcomes in his four cities, the specific development and experience of each. The placing of his conclusions in wider contexts, it must be said, is less successful. Comparisons with modern penological developments in the US and UK (e.g. in the current tendency to remove prisons from urban centres) would, if they were capable of being illuminating at all, need to he a good deal more systematic and more penetrating than they are here; the relevance of a chapter on 'The Prison as Place and Metaphor'--i.e. in a random selection of literature, largely modern--escaped the present reviewer. The author's attempts (not helped by a prose sometimes more concise than lucid) to relate his findings and conclusions to the issues of marginalization and socially constructed deviance which have attracted some attention in recent years, in relation to such groups as Jews, lepers and prostitutes, are badly confused. Some people, certainly, became prisoners because they belonged, or were perceived as belonging, to such categories, though Geltner does not see that as substantial, commenting (p. 80) that "urban prisons were far from being dumping grounds for dissidents." But even if they had been, prisoners as such did not constitute a socially constructed category in this sense, or indeed, until after they had been imprisoned, a category of any kind. If we were to seek any addition here to the list of the demonised and excluded in European history from the thirteenth century onwards it would surely be that of ex-prisoners - and that, one suspects (though it would make a worthwhile study) is a very much more recent development.

In insisting that he is not proposing any general model Dr. Geltner perhaps protests too much, for his suggestion that the conclusions outlined above typified fourteenth-century Europe amounts to little less. But that is no heinous offence. On the contrary, while that contention undoubtedly requires, and deserves, much more extensive investigation and corroboration than Geltner has been able to give it here, his account constitutes an admirable point of departure, absorbing in itself and suggestive in its implications.

R I Moore, professor emeritus

University of Newcastle upon Tyne
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