The Medieval Prison: A Social History.

Author:Bowdre, Paul
Position:Book review

The Medieval Prison: A Social History by Guy Geltner, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 2008, 224 pp.

Author Guy Geltner, a post-doctoral fellow in mediaval history at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, presents a careful and thoughtful reconstruction of life in medieval prisons and challenges previously held views of the life inside such institutions. Those with interests in penology, sociology, social anthropology and history will find The Medieval Prison, which recreates the life of medieval prisons in Venice, Florence and Bologna, a valuable reference on the often neglected fields of medieval penological and legal history.

The text of this book is divided into three key elements; the first looks at three unique Italian prison profiles the next addresses aspects of medieval imprisonment, and the third is a careful examination of prison life. The book concludes with an examination of the medieval prison both as a place and as a metaphor. The scholar interested in medieval penology will find the 39 pages of chapter notes and the 23-page bibliography an outstanding resource of manuscripts, published material, and research studies examining a range of medieval life issues.

Geltner acknowledges that although modern incarceration is a complex penal measure, its features were already developed and operating in 14th century prisons, including an administration, financial issues, and the development of an inmate classification system. The prisons of Venice Florence and Bologna were developed between mid-1200 and mid-1300. Although all three cities employed their prisons with different missions, they essentially all built them in centrally located and highly visible spots, developed staff conduct regulations and guidelines, and established staff selection. This period also saw and inmate base that was growing, while activity that would support and improve the welfare of prisoners was taking off. Inside prisons there were frequent visit by local magistrates, legal representatives, families, friends, and those offering particular services such as physicians and religious leaders. Outside of prisons, local festivals would occasionally be held along with the regular gathering of community vendors. Inmates were often permitted to leave prison walls to purchase or beg for food, meet with legal representatives and attend to family maters.

The book truly provides an outstanding look at life inside a medieval prison. The author discusses the...

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