Castles had always acted as prisons for noble captives. These were
not prisons in the modern sense. Rather the prisoner was held under
house arrest in a castle apartment. As Castles fell out of use after
the medieval period some, like Lincoln Castle were put to use as
real prisons for common criminals.
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 and to Church torture chambers favoured by the
An oubliette is a form of dungeon which was accessible only from
a hatch in a high ceiling. The image of dark, damp dungeons as the
scene of lengthy incarceration and unspeakable cruelty is a powerful
one in popular culture.
The word dungeon comes from Old French donjon (also spelt dongon),
which in its earliest usage, meant "a keep, the main tower
of a castle which formed the final defensive position to which the
garrison could retreat when outer fortifications were overcome".
The first recorded instance of the word in English near the beginning
of the 14th century also meant "an underground prison cell
beneath the castle keep".
In English, the word dungeon now usually only signifies the sense
of underground prison or oubliette, typically in a basement of a
castle, while the alternate spelling donjon is generally reserved
for the original meaning. In French the term donjon still refers
to a "keep", and the term oubliette is a more appropriate
translation of English "dungeon".
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.
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.
Purpose-built prison chambers in castles became more common after
the twelfth 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. Alnwick Castle and Cockermouth
Castle, both in Northumberland, had prisons in the gatehouse with
oubliettes beneath them.
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.