Far over the misty mountains cold
The word "dungeon" comes from Old French donjon (also spelled 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.
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 a 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 atCaernarvon 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.
Diagram of alleged oubliette in the Paris prison of La Bastille fromDictionary of French Architecture from 11th to 16th Century (1854–1868), byEugène Viollet-le-Duc; the commentary speculates that this may in fact have been built for storage of ice.
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.
What Was the Purpose Of the Castle Dungeon?
Most castles built during the early Medieval period didn't truly have dungeons. Why not? Well, in Medieval times, it wasn't a particularly common punishment to keep someone imprisoned in a confined space.
Often, one baron would kidnap the children of another baron, and hold the poor kids hostage at his home or his castle. However, the unfortunate children would be free to roam the castle - but wouldn't be able to leave it.
Medieval castles did have an area called the don-jon - a term which comes from French. But back in Medieval times, the don-jon was the name for the Great Keep, or the main tower of the castle.
A wooden skull, placed to spook tourists in Prague Castle. Credit: Adam Jones CC-BY-SA-2.0
Originally, the Great Keep was the most secure part of the castle - and, in Early Medieval times, nobles tended to live in the Keep, as it reflected their importance.
However, as time progressed, the nobles began to live in more comfortable and luxurious areas of the castle - in bedrooms designed for warmth and luxury.
However, the Great Keep remained as the most secure place at the heart of the castle. Valuable items - such as jewels, money and also important prisoners - began to be stored in this secured tower.
"Edward I's new castles had prisons, to keep the rebellious Welsh at bay"
In later Medieval times, the concept of taking political prisoners became much more common. When Edward I was trying to subdue the frequent rebellions in North Wales, he saw the value of capturing and imprisoning the biggest trouble-makers.
Therefore, his new castles of the late 1200s - including Caernarfon, for example - contained new prisons to keep the rebellious Welsh at bay.
Initially, these prisons were in towers - these were considered to be the strongest parts of the castle, and the areas which could be best-defended if a prisoner wanted to escape. Eventually, these new prisons began to be called 'castle dungeons', which was an English adaptation of the old French words of 'don-jon'.
Remember that 'don-jon', in Medieval times, just meant a secured tower, or Great Leep.
The dungeons of Dunajec Castle, in Poland. Credit: DaLee CC-BY-2.0
During the later Medieval period, castles became grander and more ornate - designed more for entertaining, and as luxurious residences of nobles.
As castles changed, these 'don-jons' - prisons - began to be located in the least desirable (but still secure!) areas of the castle, where people certainly didn't want their bedrooms or apartments. This meant the cold, wet and dark storerooms or castle basements became these new castle dungeons.
It's strange, isn't it, that dungeons moved from within the highest castle towers, down into the lowest castle cellars.
In a number of crypts, catacombs, chapels, and memorials around the world, human skeletons are arranged for public view. Some of these compositions are designed for remembrance of loss and atrocities past; others are composed artistically to inspire worshipers and bring to mind thoughts of an afterlife and the temporary nature of this life. Gathered here are a few images of these ossuaries, from Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Skulls and bones in an ossuary with the remains of more than 50,000 people on October 19, 2012 under the Church of St. James in Brno, Czech Republic. Lost for some 200 years, the ossuary was discovered in 2001 during construction work under the Church of St James.(Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)
Visitors enter the Sedlec Ossuary, a small Chapel beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutna Hora, Czech Republic, about 75 km east of Prague, on January 14, 2007. Although the ossuary dates back to the 14th century, its current decoration is made of some 40,000 human remains from the 18th century. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images) #
Closer view of the bone-candelabra in the Sedlec Ossuary, in Sedlec. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images) #
Skulls are positioned at a village cemetery in Kuban near Trunyan, Bali, Indonesia, on March 21, 2007. Unlike the Balinese people, the people of Trunyan do not cremate or bury their dead but lay them out in bamboo cages to decompose. (Dimas Ardian/Getty Images) #
Skulls are positioned at a village cemetery in Kuban near Trunyan, Bali, Indonesia, on March 21, 2007. Trunyan ancient village is inhabited by people who call themselves "Bali Aga" or original Balinese who have maintained many of the old Balinese customs.(Dimas Ardian/Getty Images) #
Skulls and bones inside a shrine of the Santa Maria's church at the small village of Wamba, near Valladolid, Spain, on April 5, 2009. According to investigators, somewhere between the 15th and 17th centuries, the need for room in the surrounding cemetery prompted the opening of the oldest tombs and placing the bones in the ossuary. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza) #
Skulls and bones, stacked in the Catacombs beneath Paris, France, on October 14, 2014. The Paris Catacombs recently opened to night-time tours, in addition to existing daytime trips. The subterranean tunnels, stretching 2 kilometers (1.2 miles), cradle the bones of some 6 million Parisians from centuries past and once gave refuge to smugglers. (AP Photo/Francois Mori) #
A pilgrim takes a snapshot of skulls and bones displayed inside the Santa Maria's church at the small village of Wamba, Spain, on April 5, 2009. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza) #
Human skulls preserved are exhibited at the Genocide memorial in Nyamata, inside Catholic church where thousands were slaughtered during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. (Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images) #
Victims' skulls are displayed on glass shelves inside one of the crypts at the Nyamata Catholic Church genocide memorial ahead of the 20th anniversary of the country's genocide April 4, 2014 in Nyamata, Rwanda. The memorial crypt contains the remains of over 45,000 genocide victims, the majority of them Tutsi, including those who were massacred inside the church itself.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) #
Mike Nkuzumuwami stands by the rows of human skulls and bones that form a memorial to those who died in the redbrick church that was the scene of a massacre during the 1994 genocide, in the village of Nyarubuye, eastern Rwanda, on March 27, 2014.(AP Photo/Ben Curtis) #
The skulls and bones of some of those who were killed as they sought refuge inside the church, are laid out on shelves in an underground vault as a memorial inside the Catholic in Nyamata, Rwanda, photographed on April 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis) #
Skulls and bones are stacked inside the Catacombs below Paris, France, on October 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Francois Mori) #
A Romanian Orthodox priest holds religious services for the dead as nuns hold candles inside to the ossuary of Pasarea monastery during Easter celebration in Pasarea village, Bucharest, on May 4, 2013. (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images) #
Bones and skulls inside an ossuary with the remains of more than 50,000 people on October 19, 2012 under the Church of St. James in Brno, Czech Republic. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images) #
Skulls sit in an ossuary under the Church of St. James in Brno on October 19, 2012. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images) #
Interior of St. Bartholomew's Church, or the Skull Chapel, in Czermna, Poland. Skulls and bones of several thousand people who were interred at the church were arranged in this manner over an 18 year period by local priest Waclaw Tomaszek, completed in 1794.(CC-BY 3.0/Wikipedia contributor Merlin) #
Interior of St. Bartholomew's Church, or the Skull Chapel, in Czermna, Poland. The bones came largely from thousands who died from wars and epidemics in the 17th and 18th centuries. (CC-BY 3.0/Wikipedia contributor Merlin)