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)

4 Research questions, within the context of social history

In what follows, the contents of the two cesspits from phase 2 will be studied in order to reconstruct aspects of former daily life within the building excavated, during the early 14th century. Since the assumption has been put forward that the cesspits may contain material related to a population that stayed as prisoners in the tower, the question whether the small finds from the cesspits can possibly corroborate this interpretation must be the first research theme. Are we really dealing with material derived from the late medieval town prison? If so, the finds would illuminate a part of late medieval society rarely represented in the archaeological record. Most importantly, however, it should be realised that such evaluation can only be made when there is contextual historical information about the site evaluated. Before starting an overview of the find material, it is thus useful to summarise some historical data available about former prison life, first on a general scale (mainly based on Puch 1970, Dunbabin 2002, Geltner 2006, 2008a, 2008b) and then on a more local level. Eventually, as shall be demonstrated, this leads to additional, more detailed research questions.

The first aspect to deal with is the nature of the population within a late medieval prison. One of the most fundamental differences between the prison of today and that of the late Middle Ages is the reason why people were kept in custody. Nowadays, imprisonment typically represents a prolonged stay in confinement, imposed as a sentence, while formerly, people stayed in prison mostly for shorter times and for other reasons, i.e., while awaiting further acts of justice (custodial captivity: Dunbabin 2002, 98-113). Next to the group awaiting trial, the prison also kept people in debt (in order to put stress upon their relatives to help solve these financial problems), mentally disabled persons (typically before eviction out of town) and foreign soldiers (temporarily) kept as prisoners of war (Berents 1991, 85-101; De la Croix et al. 1996, 1213-1224). The practice of justice most frequently resulted in the enforcement of fines, while executions or corporal punishments were more rarely applied. Prolonged confinement or a life sentence were also not systematically used as punishment (although it did occur (punitive captivity: Dunbabin 2002, 98-113), a phenomenon first brought to the attention again by Puch 1970). Important prisoners kept as hostages (coercive captivity: Dunbabin 2002, 80-97) were probably more rare in an urban context. In general, in late medieval towns, financial problems were the main reason for imprisonment, also because acts of crime could be compensated by paying off the victims or their relatives. This implied that a (often short) stay in prison was not the fate of a small, marginal part of society but could happen to many people in town. For the town of Arras (northern France), it has been calculated that a third of the urban population stayed in prison at least once during their life (Muchembled 1992, 40-44). Since commercial problems were a common cause for ending up in prison, part of the population certainly came from the somewhat wealthier urban classes (Geltner 2008b, 152).

Although the juridical aspects of medieval incarceration have been investigated (see the references supra), social life in late medieval prisons is still not well known (or studied) from the written sources. An exception is the recently published historical study of the late medieval prisons of four Italian cities (Florence, Venice, Bologna and Siena), focusing on aspects of daily life and the place of the prison in the social network of the towns (Geltner 2008a, 2008b). All four examples concern buildings in the centre of town (‘proud symbols of a hard-won independence’, Geltner 2008a, 4), from where the inmates took part in urban life. ‘More than simply a place of detention, coercion, and punishment, an island surrounded by four tall walls, the communal prison of Florence was a central site for the negotiation of civic identity, secular jurisdiction, and popular charity’ (Geltner 2008a, xviii). This image seems to be valid for late medieval urban prisons in general. The central place for the prison building ascertained its visibility (as a warning), at the same time guaranteed some form of control (against possible bad treatment of the imprisoned citizens) and allowed access to the inmates. Visitors of all sorts indeed made frequent appearances inside the prison (Geltner 2008b, 152).

Regular visits were much needed because the most striking characteristic of most medieval prisons was the fact that the inmates were not completely supported by those who kept them in custody. One had to pay for one’s daily needs in prison: food, heating, furniture, etc. Social differentiation played an important role because of these factors and is indeed apparent from the bookkeeping of the Italian sites (Geltner 2008a). Richer people, who mainly stayed in prison because they did not want to pay, could afford the expenses of their detention. Poor people, however, who mainly stayed in prison because they could not pay, were facing increasing debt; they could not survive without charity. Some prisoners were simply not released, not only because they could not pay their debts, but also because they could not reimburse their prison costs (Geltner 2008a, 59). It must also be remembered that merchants could continue their trade while labourers were without any income. To reduce friction between such socially different groups, the prison was usually subdivided (Puch 1970, 347-373; Geltner 2008a). For comparable reasons, women were almost always kept separate from men.

In general, Geltner (2008a, 2008b) draws a picture of a prison that was certainly not a ‘hellhole’, although hygienic conditions (odours, noise, filth) were often less than perfect (see also Dunbabin 2002, 121), heating was not always sufficient (see also Dunbabin 2002, 122), and daily life was characterised by boredom. Prisoners did not work and had no daily time schedule. Gambling was their most favourite pastime and violence often occurred.

Whether the late medieval prison at Malines fits into this general picture is hard to tell, since the internal organisation of the site during late medieval times is not documented by the written sources. The town archives (Stadsarchief Mechelen, nr. C-S-V-1, Stedelijke Ordonnanties, 1523-1558) do, however, document the situation in the town prison of the 16th century (situated at another location but bearing the same name: Het Steen). Many aspects of the 16th-century prison management are comparable to those described for late medieval Italy (Geltner 2008a), medieval England (Puch 1970) and high medieval Europe in general (Dunbabin 2002) suggesting that this information is also relevant for the older prison at Malines.

From the 16th-century sources (see also Maes 1947), it is clear that the prison at Malines was run as a commercial enterprise by someone who paid the town a rent and had to deposit a guarantee as an insurance against bad management. Together, this implied a high financial input that could only be realised by the wealthier citizens: the guarantee was a sum of 600 gulden, which in 1526 was the equivalent of 10 years wages of an assistant bricklayer (as calculated from accounts in the town archives: Scholliers 1965). In compensation, profit was made by asking the prisoners a considerable entrance fee (16 stuivers, in 1526 the wage for 7 days of work by an assistant bricklayer). There were further costs, depending upon the status of the prisoner. The 16th-century prison, characterised by social differentiation, consisted of a room for richer people (the poorterskamer) and one for the less fortunate. Prisoners paid rent but the residents of the poorterskamer paid much more (one stuiver per day) than those in the ‘common room’ (one stuiver per week).

Moreover, people staying in the better room had to deposit bail (against escape), which was also the case for prisoners from outside of town. On top of this, one had to pay for food (4 stuivers per day) and for the use of a bed (2 stuivers per day), services that could only be afforded by the wealthier prisoners in the better room (or their families). A stay there would have cost 7 stuivers per day (for basic services), a sum that in 1526 equalled three days wages for an assistant bricklayer. To survive prison, poor people thus completely depended on support from their family, on alms, or on organised charity. The city council paid the prison ‘manager’ one stuiver per day for the basic needs of the poor prisoners, but this was not even enough to meet the daily costs for food. Occasionally, poor inmates received the leftovers from the meals in the poorterskamer but this was not a structural solution to their needs.

In general, the regime of confinement was rather loose at Malines’ 16th-century prison. Inmates often received visitors; married men could even spend time with their wives. Books and medicine could be brought in. In the 16th-century rules for the town prison, there is even tolerance of gambling. This was allowed when no cheating occurred and when only wine was offered as stake (Beterams 1956, xlii-xliii). Control by the prison manager was often weak, necessitating the appointment of two supervisors by the town council, who had to inspect the prison at least twice a month.

As has been mentioned before, archaeology cannot yet add much to this picture. Although (parts of) buildings that have served as prisons have certainly been excavated at other locations (e.g. at castle sites), aspects of daily life within those structures have never been studied, as far as the authors are aware. The challenge is now to see whether the material from Malines is a welcome exception to that rule.

First of all, it must thus be evaluated whether the small finds from the cesspits corroborate or contradict the identification of the building as a prison. In the case of a positive answer, it can be questioned whether the fact that the excavations revealed two cesspits instead of one suggests a subdivision within the building (two levels, each with their own latrine?), possibly reflecting a social separation within the population of prisoners (rich versus poor, citizens versus non-citizens, or men versus women?), or even a separation between guards and prisoners. Regardless of the outcome of this evaluation, the finds can be used in a reconstruction of the consumption patterns and material culture of the prison’s inhabitants. Living conditions within the building will possibly also be illustrated. The finds at any rate reflect aspects of urban life within an early 14th-century building. In what follows, the possible interpretation of the site as a prison will, unavoidably, always be present in the background; still, it will be attempted to evaluate the data as neutrally as possible.