A dungeon is a room or cell in which prisoners are held, especially underground. Dungeons are generally associated with medieval castles, though their association with torture probably belongs more to the Renaissance period. An oubliette is a form of dungeon which is accessible only from a hatch in a high ceiling.
The word "dungeon" comes from Old French donjon (also spelt dongeon), which in its earliest usage meant a keep, the main tower of a castle. The first recorded instance of the word in English was near the beginning of the 14th century when it held the same meaning as donjon. Though it is uncertain, both dungeon and donjon are thought to derive from the Middle Latin word dominio, meaning "lord" or "master".
In French the term donjon still refers to a "keep", and the term oubliette is a more appropriate translation of English "dungeon". Donjon is therefore a false friend to "dungeon" (for instance, the game "Dungeons and Dragons" is titled "Donjons et Dragons" in its French editions).
An oubliette (from the French oubliette, literally "forgotten place") was a form of dungeon which was accessible only from a hatch in a high ceiling. The word comes from the same root as the French oublier, "to forget", as it was used for those prisoners the captors wished to forget.
The earliest use of oubliette in French dates back to 1374, but its earliest adoption in English is Walter Scott's Ivanhoe in 1819: 'The place was utterly dark—the oubliette, as I suppose, of their accursed convent.' There is no reason to suspect that this particular place of incarceration was more than a flight of romantic elaboration on existing unpleasant places of confinement described during the Gothic Revival period.
Few Norman keeps in English castles originally contained prisons, though they were more common in Scotland. Imprisonment was not a usual punishment in the Middle Ages, so most prisoners were kept pending trial or awaiting the penalty, or for political reasons. Noble prisoners would not generally be held in dungeons, but would live in some comfort in castle apartments. The Tower of London is famous as a prison for political detainees, and Pontefract Castle at various times held Thomas of Lancaster (1322), Richard II (1400), Earl Rivers (1483), Scrope, Archbishop of York (1405), James I of Scotland (1405–1424) and Charles, Duke of Orléans (1417–1430). Purpose-built prison chambers in castles became more common after the 12th century, when they were built into gatehouses or mural towers. Some castles had larger provision for prisoners, such as the prison tower at Caernarvon Castle.
The identification of dungeons and rooms used to hold prisoners is not always a straightforward task. Alnwick Castle and Cockermouth Castle, both near England's border with Scotland, had chambers in their gatehouses which have often been interpreted as oubliettes. However, this has been challenged. These underground rooms (accessed by a door in the ceiling) were built without latrines, and since the gatehouses at Alnwick and Cockermouth provided accommodation it is unlikely that the rooms would have been used to hold prisoners. An alternative explanation was proposed, suggesting that these were strong rooms where valuables were stored.
Although many real dungeons are simply a single plain room with a heavy door or with access only from a hatchway or trapdoor in the floor of the room above, the use of dungeons for torture, along with their association to common human fears of being trapped underground, have made dungeons a powerful metaphor in a variety of contexts. Dungeons, in the plural, have come to be associated with underground complexes of cells and torture chambers. As a result, the number of true dungeons in castles is often exaggerated to interest tourists. Many chambers described as dungeons or oubliettes were in fact storerooms, water-cisterns or even latrines.
An example of what might be popularly termed an "oubliette" is the particularly claustrophobic cell in the dungeon of Warwick Castle's Caesar's Tower, in central England. The access hatch consists of an iron grille. Even turning around (or moving at all) would be nearly impossible in this tiny chamber.
Oubliettes and dungeons were a favourite topic of nineteenth century gothic novels or historical novels, where they appeared as symbols of hidden cruelty and tyrannical power, the very antithesis of Enlightenment values such as justice and freedom. Usually found under medieval castles or abbeys, they were used by villainous characters, often Catholic monks and inquisitors, to persecute blameless characters. In Alexandre Dumas's La Reine Margot, Catherine de Medici is portrayed gloating over a victim in the oubliettes of the Louvre.
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- The Merriam-Webster new book of word histories. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster. 1991. p. 152. ISBN 9780877796039.
- Oxford English Dictionary
- Bottomley, Frank, The Castle Explorer's Guide, Kaye & Ward, London, 1979 ISBN 0-7182-1216-9 pp 143–145
- Brears, Peter (2011), "The Administrative Role of Gatehouses in Fourteenth-Century North-Country Castles", in Airs, M.; Barnwell, P. S., The Medieval Great House, Rewley House Studies in the Historic Environment, pp. 204–208
- Bottomley, Frank, The Castle Explorer's Guide, Kaye & Ward, London, 1979 ISBN 0-7182-1216-9 p 145
- Hull, Lise, The Great Castles of Britain & Ireland (UK: New Holland Publishers, 2005), p. 34
- Alexandre Dumas, La Reine Margot, XIII Oreste et Pylade