Joiakîn made prisoner by Nabuchodonosor, Alençon.png

Joiakîn made prisoner by Nabuchodonosor, Alençon - BM - ms. 0128, 2nd half of the 14th century © Institut de recherche et d'histoire des textes - CNRS

ii manilhes pour prisoniers

Up to 1500 or so, it is rare to find structures specifically built and designed to be prisons. Depending on the importance of the town or village and the nature of the jurisdictions in which they were embedded, prisons were typically jury-rigged spaces carved out of existing rooms and spaces located within the walls of other buildings, such as city walls and doors, palaces, castles, and especially towers. In his study of fifty jails in the Kingdom of France, the historian Romain Telliez indicates that more than half of them were located in a tower. In small seigneurial jurisdictions, prisoners would often be incarcerated directly inside a room of the castle. The nature of medieval prisons is currently a subject of active research, as noted by the editors of a recent bibliography on the subject. Since evidence for prisons and imprisonment is scarce, it is essential to assemble clues from as many different sources as possible. Inventories of medieval castles and fortresses have much to offer research on the emerging history of prisons, since they can help bridge the gap between the fantasies about these prisons long maintained in popular culture - notably, the image of oubliettes or medieval dungeons - and the reality of the phenomenon.

A single line in the inventory of the castle of Solliès offers a small but noteworthy contribution to the history of medieval prisons. The inventory was created when ownership of the castle changed hands in 1394. Alongside the sorts of things that typically appear in inventories, including barrels of wine, articles of furniture, bedding, linen, and containers for flour and other foodstuffs, we find a pair of handcuffs for prisoners, ii manilhes pour prisoniers. Just before them, the compiler of the inventory listed three chains (iii fers). All these objects were found in a room of the tower (a dedans la tour).


A.D. Bouches-du-Rhône, B 593: iii fers ii manilhes pour prisoniers

In general, prisoners had their wrists shackled with handcuffs and their ankles fettered with chains (fers in French). The word used here, manilhes, derives from the Latin manicula, which means little hand. The Occitan word manelha, in contrast, seems to have been used to describe a handle, although the Occitan word manicla can also mean "handcuff." Here, the intended function of the objects was clear to the notary making the inventory: they were "handles" for prisoners (pour prisoniers), that is to say "handcuffs."

By a curious coincidence, these handcuffs appear in an inventory compiled in same year as another inventory that also includes a reference to handcuffs or manacles. The latter is found in the inventory of the fortress of Allauch, near Marseille, whose contents were featured in another DALME essay. Along with four sets of manacles, the inventory of the fortress of Allauch also listed pillories or stocks. These two references attest to the nature of seigneurial power and manner in which it was exercised in late medieval Provence. In a seigneurial jurisdictions, the power to arrest and incarcerate individuals lay in the hands of the lord. For this reason, it makes sense that we should find such instruments inside castles, the seat of seigneurial power. Handcuffs and chains were especially useful whenever prisoners were being moved, as was the case when transfers between prisons occurred or when a prisoner was led somewhere outside the prison for one reason or another. In a fifteenth-century Provençal trial edited by Françoise Gasparri, a prisoner was led to the place where the man he had helped kill was buried, to retrieve the bones of the victim. Because he was in chains and had difficulty walking, however, he had to be carried.

After arrest, prisoners would be incarcerated in the prison of the castle, awaiting their trial, which would generally take place in a room of the castle. The final judgment, however, would often be announced publicly outside of the castle, and would be advertised in advance so that many people could come to hear it.