Hey everyone, think fast!
When you think dungeons, what three words would you pick?
Mine would’ve been creepy, torture and dark and if yours is somewhere close, I wouldn’t be surprised. Because with literary works like Richard III to modern day TV shows such as Game of Thrones to popular games such as Dungeons and Dragons, we see dungeons as this important, sinister, underground facility to a castle - when, in fact, it’s not exactly true.
Aye, that I am - because while dungeons are popularised to be the quintessential dark and twisted underground labyrinths of pain and torture (we'll get to that), there is so much more to the history of medieval dungeons that we should know.
A Brief History Contrary to popular belief, dungeons were not always a part of the castle infrastructure. It only became a much more common feature in the late Medieval Ages (c. 14th-15th century). But before we get to that, let’s break down the semantics of ‘dungeon’.
The word ‘dungeon’ originates from the french word ‘donjon’ which refers to the main tower of a castle or the Great Keep. Interestingly, during the early to middle Medieval Ages (5th - c. 13th century), the ‘donjon’ used to be occupied by royalty since it was considered the safest part of the castle.
It was only during the late Medieval Ages, when the royalty started to move to more comfortable rooms in the castle, did the donjons start to house political prisoners. One example would be The Rouen Castle donjon in France that held and trialed Joan of Arc.
The Makeover So wherever did we get the idea that dungeons were underground?
Well, in the years towards the later Medieval Era, castle infrastructures began to change to reflect the kings and the prevailing culture of that time. And it just so happens that the kings of the later Medieval Era really loved two things - you've guessed it - fighting and partying.
As wars raged on, the prisoners grew and thus begin the culture of imprisoning them in dungeons. Concurrently, as the royalty begin to revel in decadence and luxury, they started to capitalise on the castles they had to host huge banquets and glamorous balls for distinguished guests. Dungeons were, thus, shifted underground to the least desirable locations in bid to cater to these ornate events.
After all, I’d reckon, no one would want to look at their castle in all of its turreted glory only to be reminded by the lowlives placed in the pinnacle of their accomplishments. It would’ve been such a party pooper.
The Makeover 2.0: Oubliettes Unleashed As dungeons grew in it’s popularity by the 1300s, structural changes to make the worst place in the castle a much more horrendous nightmare had begun.
A notable change would be the creation of oubliettes. Derived from the french term oublier, the oubliette is french for 'the forgotten place'. And true to its name, oubliettes became the worst place to house prisoners who were often forgotten and left to die.
Build to be a deep cylindrical shaft, prisoners had to be lowered in by guards. These oubliettes were often only large enough for prisoners to stand throughout their stay; they could neither move nor sit as they await death.
Escape was impossible because the oubliette is without windows and the only exit is inaccessible by the prisoners.
Moreover, while bread and water may be provided for the prisoners, they were often forgotten and left for death.
Variations of the oubliette included a funnel-shaped oubliette and a bell-jar prison where prisoners had more space and could, at the very least, be lying on the cold hard ground (oh, trouble, trouble, trouble!).
No matter, prisoners were often left for a gruesome death; never to see the light of day again. Fun Fact: there are stories that suggest two men made it out after two and a half years only to die weeks later. We wouldn't know the validity of the story for sure but that sounds really tragic.
What Happens in the Dungeons, Stay in the Dungeons Now that the kings have set up their dungeons, they put it to work. It is in these deeply entrenched enclaves that imprisonment and subsequent torture is carried out. Torture can occur for a myriad of reasons which include punishment to the extraction of information.
The most common forms included:
1. The Strappado has 3 different variations where the common basis of torture lies in having a rope be passed over a pulley so as to hang the prisoner from their arms until their limbs were dislocated.
2. The (Spanish) Donkey where the executed is made to straddle the device. Weights attached to the feet of victims will lead to a slow and painful slicing of the genital region.
3. Torture Rack where prisoners would have their ankles and wrists fastened to the device and be slowly pulled apart until joints are dislocated.
And there were many more as well.
Despite the pervasiveness of terror in torture, “torture did have some guidelines” as highlighted by Makena Bennett in her thesis Medieval Torture: A Brief History and Common Methods (p. 2). For example, during the Medieval Inquisition, bloodshed, mutilation or death weren’t allowed, but, as always, rules were meant to be broken.
Notable Dungeon: Pontefract Castle Dungeons
Location: Yorkshire, England Time Period: c. 13th century
While all dungeons, in general, have a dark reputation, there were a few in history that stood out above the rest. One of them would be the Pontefract Castle dungeons.
Occupying 35 feet (approx. 11 metres) of space underneath the castle, the network of Pontefract dungeons illustrate some of Medieval history’s darkest moments. The brutality of the place has led it to be immortalised by history as one of the most notorious dungeons with executions, imprisonments and torture being carried out especially during the Wars of the Roses. In fact, it was nicknamed 'Bloody Pomfret' for that. Prisoners included royalty such as Thomas Earl of Lancaster who was beheaded and King Richard II whose supposed brutal murder inspired Shakespeare’s play, Richard III.
Considering the number of royals executed, I guess you can say it was probably such royal pain to be convicted there (ba dum tss).
Okay, I know that's cold but it probably isn't as cold as the dungeons so... (I'll stop now). Anyway, it really is interesting to have shed some light on these medieval dungeons (okay last one) and I hope you had fun traversing its history with me. Perhaps, if you're interested, you can always tour some of these dungeons if you're ever in Europe and share your experience!
Thanks for sticking around and till next time then!