3 Identification of the building
It would be surprising that a large building in the centre of the town would never have been mentioned in the written records. At the same time, all large public buildings appearing in the archives, and situated in the town centre, can be located precisely because they (or their successors) still exist (e.g., the Aldermen’s House), or because remains have been found during excavations (e.g., the large Market Hall) (see Troubleyn et al. 2007). There is one exception: the late medieval town prison. The oldest mention of such a building dates back to 1280 (‘le commune prison dele vile de Maelines’, Bormans & Schoolmeesters 1895, 318-324). On the basis of the historical data available, the exact location of this building could not be reconstructed although the hypotheses published always situate the prison in the very centre of town (e.g. Schoeffer s.d., 365; Eeman et al. 1984, 446; Installé 1997).
Historical indications, and especially the political situation at the time, put the building of a town prison in connection with the erection of the second town wall. During the 13th century, the local noble family of the Berthouts enforced their influence in the growing town, against the prince-bishops of Liège, by stimulating trade and economy in general, while exercising rights on the management of markets, promoting the construction of quays and wharfs, and collecting urban tolls and staple rights. Their most ambitious project, however, was the construction of the second town wall, between 1264 and 1268 (Eeman & Vlieghe 1991, 75; Troubleyn et al. 2007), the first one most probably being erected around 1200 (Lettany 2003, 30-31) (fig. 3). The erection of the second wall made Malines a large fortified town, of which the thriving economy made the inhabitants gradually more and more independent from the external feudal and ecclesiastical powers. One of the signs of this 13th-century evolution was the permission the citizens obtained to build a town prison. That this prison was built in the centre of town, is quite logical, because it was close to the place where justice was exercised, i.e. where the law-court (the Vierschaar, a court of justice typically residing in open air) met, and where the Aldermen’s House was situated. At Malines, justice and government were indeed organised in the centre of town, along an open space known as the Markt van Mechelen, a location that would later become the Main Square (Grote Markt). The building of their own prison was perceived as very important for the citizens of Malines. It meant that they could organise jurisdiction for themselves and were no longer subjected to an external penalising power, i.e. that of the prince-bishops of Liège. The prison thus became a symbol of the town’s freedom.
In a written source dating back to 1424, the prison is named Het Steen (‘The Stone Building’): ‘Prisoniam Machliniensem dictam Den Steen’ (Stadsarchief Mechelen, Fonds Berlemont, map 45, p. 46, Berlemont 1975), suggesting a large construction built of natural stone. The name Het Steen, however, is already mentioned many times earlier, first in 1287 (Beterams 1957, 799, nr. 6578), albeit without a formal identification as prison (while, however, evidence for another function is equally lacking). Historical sources indicate that the building was demolished between 1483 and 1492 (based on Stroobant 1897, 76-77), or possibly somewhat later, during the 16th century (Schoeffer s.d., 363). In late medieval sources, Het Steen is used as a landmark when describing the location of houses along the Grote Markt. This again confirms that the prison must have been located close to that place. Moreover, a detailed interpretation of the location of the late medieval houses along the Grote Markt, situated (by written sources) nearby or next to Het Steen (i.e., their relative position towards another: see Troubleyn et al. 2007), proves that the building was indeed located at the north-eastern corner of the present Main Square.
It can thus reasonably be assumed that the building excavated, the late medieval town prison and the building known historically as ‘Het Steen’ are one and the same, and have always been so, since the construction date (late 13th century) until its abandonment (end of the Middle Ages). The chronological frameworks provided by the archaeological and the historical data certainly fit together and the nature of the construction excavated does not contradict the interpretation. It must also not be forgotten that the construction in natural stone is the only one of that kind near the location excavated, making confusion with another building improbable. Of course, definitive proof for the interpretation put forward will never be available (or is hidden in the – still partly unsorted – late medieval town archives of Malines). It remains possible, although highly unlikely, for example, that the building was not used as a prison in the earlier part of its existence, i.e. the period the fills of the cesspits date back to. Hence, in what follows, the identification of the building as the late medieval town prison will be treated as a probability, but not a certainty.
It is beyond the scope of this study to present an inventory of comparable sites from other towns in the Low Countries. Still, it is worth mentioning that also at Delft, the town prison was originally located in a single standing tower erected in the centre of town (Het Oude Steen: De Groot 1984). Of course, other possibilities also existed, since the local political situation determined the location and organisation of detention. This could result in prisons being part of the old feudal castles (e.g., Antwerp: Het Steen, Gent: Het Gravensteen), or being located in the towers and gates of the town defences.