I touched upon dungeons in high fantasy in a previous post, but I’ve decided to delve deeper into the world of medieval imprisonment and torture. Dungeons are the primary location to keep prisoners locked away until their trial or execution. Firstly, let’s go over the structure and location of a common castle dungeon.
Dungeons were located far beneath the castle or far within the keep to prevent the screams of prisoners from reaching the ears of those within the castle halls. Thick, stone walls surrounded the dungeons and prisoners were left in complete darkness. Often they were forgotten about and usually died there. Early dungeons were built level with the ground with a hatch on the roof, too high for someone inside the dungeon to escape out of, and dungeons with a ledge along the wall with water too deep to stand in below.
Deep castle dungeons were built under ten feet each way and held roughly up to twenty prisoners. Huddled together in a cramped cell, most died from disease, starvation, or brutal assaults from other prisoners.
Two doors were sometimes present in dungeon cells: the heavy door leading in and a hatch above to drop prisoners or food inside. The hatch connected to the above room in the keep.
The torture area was in the dungeon though preformed in a room other than the prisoner’s cell. Types of torture included: stretching on a rack, branding, left in the stocks, water torture, and beating. Death was carried out by hanging, burning at the stake, beheading, and drawn and quartered behind horses.
Those associated with witchcraft and religion (heretics) were persecuted. Soldiers would torture information out of them and then they would be burned at the stake. Vagabonds and gypsies were often branded when caught; people would know who they were by the symbols branded onto their skin. Thieves would lose fingers or hands and even hanged if a noble pressed charges.
Obviously, the sanitation of dungeons was awful and the laws weren’t fair in medieval times. Things were brutal and often ended badly for those involved in criminal activity. Just remember: if you’re writing a realistic high fantasy, add in some details from real-world dungeons. Stock the dungeon full of prisoners (including the cell your character is trapped within), make it dark and dank down there, and sprinkle in a bit of cruelty.
(For information on the legal system of high fantasy, check out my other post by clicking on the link.)