our own dark hearts: re-evaluating the medieval dungeon.

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Author: Chris Bishop
Date: Annual 2019
Publisher: Australian Early Medieval Association
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,777 words
Lexile Measure: 1510L

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Abstract

Of all the negative associations commonly made with medieval Europe, the subterranean world of the dungeon is one the darkest, and also one of the strongest. The dungeon serves as a physical locus for the metaphorical darkness of the (imagined) Middle Ages and yet, even though the dungeon should repulse us, we continue to be drawn towards it, both emotionally and physically. The dungeon inhabits our literature and our art as an established constant, an unambiguous resonance, but it also draws us in physically. We flock to see dimly lit chambers in castles and stately homes, or to pass through 'dark tourism' destinations like the London Dungeon. Every year millions of people voluntarily enter dungeons to be educated, shocked, appalled, and amused. This paper focuses on the phenomenon of the medieval dungeon as it exists in the popular imagination.

Keywords

Medievalism, reception studies, penology, prisons, dark tourism

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"For, what other dungeon is so dark as one's own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one's self!"

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables (1851)

Of all the negative associations commonly made with medieval Europe, the subterranean world of the dungeon is one the darkest, and also one of the strongest. The dungeon serves as a physical locus for the metaphorical darkness of the Middle Ages. Just as the castle has come to signify what is best and brightest in the imagined world of the medieval (knighthood, chivalry, honour), the dungeon underlying the castle has become the repository of all that is worst (injustice, cruelty, the inquisition). And yet, even though the dungeon should repulse us, we are still drawn towards it, both emotionally and physically.

The dungeon inhabits our literature and our art as an established constant, an unambiguous resonance, but it also draws us in physically. We flock to see dimly lit chambers in castles and stately homes, or to pass through 'dark tourism' destinations like the London Dungeon. Every year millions of people voluntarily enter dungeons to be educated, shocked, appalled, and amused.

This paper focuses on the phenomenon of the dungeon as it exists in the popular imagination, the idea that enables the allegory rather than the allegory itself. As such, our investigation of that term and all that it encapsulates must necessarily begin with definitions of terms like prison, dungeon, and oubliette.

Prisons, Dungeons, and the Oubliette

Understanding the inter-relationship of these three principal terms (prison, dungeon, oubliette) will be critical to the discussion at hand. This does not mean, however, that we are about to embark upon a history of European penology. We are not about to rediscover the birth of the prison or a new taxonomy of incarceration. It is essential that those discussions take place, but I shall leave such debates to the experts in those fields, while gratefully acknowledging their endeavours.

The birth of the prison is no casual reference, of course, and anyone venturing into this subject must begin by conceding to Michel Foucault his place in the radicalising of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A680117570