The Penal System

The penal system, as it was applied in the 18th century, was brutal in many features, applied inequally, and seemed to enlightenment philosophers and readers as thoroughly unjust and inhuman.
The genesis of this penal system is complex. Medieval popular law had few stipulations which actually involved corporal punishment; most stipulations regarded the guilt as evident and foresaw fees, which, if the guilty party paid them, deprived the offended party (family) of the right to start a feud. Originally, there were neither police nor prisons.
The Catholic church, in their struggle against heresy and against suspected witchcraft, intent to save the souls of the accused, inflicted torture, believing that physical pain and the fire at the stake would clean the victim's soul and thus enhance her chance to ultimately enter paradise. The Inquisition thus was funded on the concept of doing the souls of their victims a service; the Catholic church taught that life on earth was only a transitory stage and of no value at all.
With the erection of castles, facilities which could be used as prisons were there. The word Dungeon is associated with a prison basement in a castle; it derives from French Donjon, castle tower, which had been constructed for defensive purposes. As the Dungeon had not been built for lodging prisoners, imprisonment, for a long time, lacked legislation/regulation, and many castle musea feature a torture chamber.
The period of absolutism saw the attempt of the Kings to establish control over numerous sectors of society, notably over the army and navy. In order to enforce discipline, brutal punishments were enforced, such as Keelhauling at sea, Running the Gauntlet in the army.

Keeping men imprisoned was costly; especially in England an alternative was found by forcing convicts to settle in penal colonies, first in Ireland, since 1732 in Georgia (North America), since the American Revolution in Australia - technically prisons without walls.
In 18th century Europe, prisons, penal colonies were largely unregulated, unsupervised. The state was interested in keeping the costs at a minimum.

Some Enlightenment philosophers experienced imprisonment in the Bastille - Voltaire 1717-1718, again 1726, Diderot c. 1749. Cesare Beccaria, well-informed about conditions in prisons by his friend, Alessandro Vieri (who worked at a Milan prison, and for that very reason could not personally criticize the conditions there), published An Essay on Crimes and Punishment; the publication was an instant success among circles of enlightened philosophers and their public.
Our modern view of 18th century prisons may be influenced by novels like the Man with the Iron Mask, the Count of Monte Christo, the life's story of Giacomo Casanova. Late 18th century French pre-revolutionary propaganda was excessively critical of the prisons. While France celebrates the Storm of the Bastille (July 14 1789) as her national holiday, the fact is often overlooked that on that day, to the astonishment of the revolutionaries, there were only 7 prisoners to be liberated.

Article Keelhauling, from Wikipedia
Soldatenzucht, from Mit Stock, Rute und Peitsche, in German, on the history of military discipline and how it was enforced
History of the Bastille, by Brian Smith
Article Penal Colony, from Wikipedia
DOCUMENTS Articles of War, Nordhausen 1795, posted by Documents in German History Project

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on September 17th 2003, last revised on November 14th 2004

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