Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 1-2 (November 2009)Liesbeth Troubleyn; Frank Kinnaer; Anton Ervynck; Luk Beeckmans; Danielle Caluwé; Brigitte Cooremans; Frans De Buyser; Koen Deforce; Konjev Desender; An Lentacker; Jan Moens; Gaston Van Bulck; Maarten Van Dijck; Wim Van Neer; Werner Wouters: Consumption patterns and living conditions inside Het Steen, the late medieval prison of Malines (Mechelen, Belgium)

7 General conclusion

The excavations at Malines’ Grote Markt have shed more light upon the nature of a 14th-century town prison in the Low Countries, and upon aspects of daily life within its walls. In general, the finds and interpretations are in agreement with the information from later, 16th-century, local written sources and with what is known of the social history of the late medieval Italian prisons described by Geltner (2008a, 2008b), and the concept of a medieval prison in general (Puch 1970, Dunbabin 2002).

The location of Het Steen indeed shows that a late medieval prison was not constructed with the exclusion of the prisoners from town life in mind. The building was part of the economic and political centre of town, enabling the inmates to stay into contact with families, friends and business partners. At the same time, for the late medieval town, the prison was a symbol of independence, to be seen by everyone. For the citizens, it was a daily warning, but also a reassurance: in case of trouble, they would be judged by their equals.

The various find categories give some information about the social status and purchasing power of the inhabitants of the tower. In general, it is clear that varied food items (meat, fish, fruits, etc.) entered the prison but no real luxury products. Of course, behind this general view, an underlying social differentiation could have been present, although this could not be discriminated through the study of the finds. Moreover, the composition of the consumption remains could have been influenced by complex ways of food provisioning (both organised from inside and outside the prison complex) and garbage disposal. In any case, with some redistribution of food leftovers organised to help the poorest inmates, no member of the prison population would have had to survive on bread and water alone.

The living conditions within the prison rooms may have differed significantly per prisoner, depending on the services one could pay for, but apparently everybody had to cope with some general unpleasantness, such as food remains that were not cleaned away immediately and the presence of commensal rodents and insects.

The regime within the prison was possibly rather lax. The abundant finds of gaming pieces in the cesspits suggest that they were thrown away before or during controls, but at the same time demonstrate that violations against the rules forbidding gambling were daily events.

Finally, the fills of the cesspits provide proof that they were probably abandoned towards the end of the early 14th century, while the building to which they belonged continued in existence until much later (see supra). Whether this indicates a period of abandonment of the tower, or a change in the management of garbage disposal, remains unclear.