Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Prisoners in the castle: dungeons and oubliettes

The oubliette at Warwick CastleMedieval castles and dungeons tend to go together in people's imaginations and I have set important scenes in A Knight's Enchantment in a dungeon, where the heroine Joanna's father is being held. What we imagine as a typical dungeon, however - dark, underground, no windows, lots of chains - was less common in the Middle Ages than is assumed.

Take the word 'dungeon'. Its earliest form, donjon, meant a keep or tower, a strong defensive position. Over time that tower has been taken to mean a prison, often
underground in a castle. This form of prison was in fact an oubliette (meaning 'forgotten place') and was far darker and more grim than a dungeon, as can be seen in the photo of the oubliette in the castle at Warwick.

Famous dungeons include the Tower of London and those at Pontefract Castle and Alnwick Castle, though true dungeons in castles were not usual until later in the Middle Ages.

Often noble prisoners, captured and held for ransom in the dungeon, would be kept in a secure, comfortable place within the host's castle: certainly the room would be well-guarded, but we should not picture a Richard the Lionheart or Charles of Orleans languishing in the rat-infested, damp stone cell of imagination. Life expectancy in an oubliette would be short, and bad for the ransom business. 'Common' prisoners might be kept in gate houses, while those considered undesirable and disposable but not to be actually murdered could end up down with the rats in the oubliette.


Serena Shay said...

Gulp, I would very much vote nay on any sort of stay in an oubliette. :(

Great blog, Lindsay!

Celia Yeary said...

LINDSAY--there goes another myth shot down. Still, I'd bet writers would choose to use the dungeon for their captive--how can "languishing in a bedroom" make us fear for the subject? Interesting bit of history, and thanks! Celia

Lindsay Townsend said...

Hi Serena - I agree! No way would I want to be flung into an oubliette!
Thanks for commenting.

Hi Celia - thanks.I admit, dungeons do have a gothic appeal!

Bekki Lynn said...

I had wondered about this, thanks for clearing it up.

I'm looking forward to the new book.

Savanna Kougar said...

Lindsay, fascinating. I always wondered at the Hollywood version of a dungeon.

In the Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood, he's not held in an underground dungeon, but in a room like you say, though, he isn't fed.

Savanna Kougar said...

Your new book looks wonderful!

Lindsay Townsend said...

Thanks, Bekki!
Many thanks, Savanna - I love the design for A KNIGHT'S ENCHANTMENT.

Linda Banche said...

I've seen the word "oubliette" before, but no one ever defined what it meant, and I wasn't sure from the context. Now I know. Thanks.

By the way, I like your cover!

Lindsay Townsend said...

Thanks, Linda - I like it, too. My hubby, who does quite a bit of photography, talked about the 'strong vertical' that the sword makes. I just like the guy holding the sword (grin)