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The Prison Experience: Disciplinary Institutions and Their Inmates in Early Modern Europe.

The Prison Experience: Disciplinary Institutions and Their Inmates in Early Modern Europe. By Pieter Spierenburg (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press 1991. x plus 339 pp. $45.00).

In recent years Pieter Spierenburg has made a major contribution to our understanding of punishment in early modern Europe. In his new book, The Prison Experience, he revises our traditional chronology for the rise of the prison. He documents in considerable detail that the institutions and practices that we thought arose in the early nineteenth century in fact appeared several centuries earlier. But his book does far more than propose this thesis; it presents us with a richly illustrated comparative history, one centering on the Netherlands and Germany, yet pointing out parallels with other countries as well. This story contributes to the growing volume of scholarship that has altered our appreciation of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century government and social policy.

In sharp contrast to the conventional history of the period, Spierenburg amply demonstrates that early modern Europe saw experimentation with a wide variety of penal forms. States tried galley service and transportation to colonies, as well as confinement or public works. Even within individual states there was considerable change over time. The English were early innovators in creating institutions to deal with vagrants and beggars. But by the eighteenth century they had come to rely on transportation to deal with many offenders. The Dutch were influenced by the English houses of correction, and Spierenburg has done a careful job of reconstructing the events that led Amsterdam, in the last decade of the sixteenth century, to create a house of discipline. The existence of this house did not prevent Amsterdam from experimenting with galley servitude in the next decade, but it was quickly abandoned. Instead the Dutch increasingly employed confinement and forced labor to punish marginals in their society.

These early houses of discipline did not yet count as prisons. This change occurred slowly. "The birth of the criminal prison," Spierenburg argues, "must be situated in Amsterdam and Hamburg in the second half of the seventeenth century" (143). In other words an institution that primarily confined vagrants, although it also contained criminals, became in time a prison for criminals, while it still held some vagrants. The Dutch were pioneers in developing the prison, while the Germans followed somewhat more slowly. Spierenburg justifies his argument about the origin of the prison on the basis of three claims. He says that by this date confinement in prison was associated with criminality, that the prison enforced a labor regime, and that the primary motive behind this regime was punishment. He acknowledges that there are arguments against such an early dating for the origin of the prison. The numbers confined remained small throughout most of the period. Many of those in prison were not guilty of criminal offenses. And even in the early eighteenth century most of those guilty of crimes were punished in some other way. Yet he warns us not to be unduly concerned with these facts. "What is more important," he says, "is the image of prisons in people's minds and their symbolic meaning in society, matters that are relatively independent of numbers" (p. 10). For Spierenburg the prison had already assumed its recognizable character before the eighteenth century.

Spierenburg offers a wealth of examples drawn from careful archival research to press his case. The book is worth reading for the detail alone. Many features of the life of the prison that we associate with later periods appeared during these years. For instance, he finds that the cooperation of prisoners was secured by the offer of a remittance of a portion of their sentence. Similarly, penal knowledge was shared among localities, and prisoners were sometimes transported from one facility to another. Daily life was organized around a labor routine, and he discovers evidence of the existence of a prison subculture.

Yet Spierenburg does not want to deny the special character of seventeenth-century confinement. On the contrary, he wants to insist upon it when he challenges those who argue that the rise of the prison was somehow connected with the development of the factory or its discipline. He goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the labor of prisoners was always less productive than that of free labor and that prisons never made a profit from the work of the prisoners. He counters that prisoners were set to work not in order to train them or make a profit for the state, but because labor was seen as punishment. Spierenburg continues his critique by demonstrating that the model for the prison was the household and not the factory. The goal of confinement, he persuasively argues, was to reinforce family discipline. This feature helps us to understand a peculiar aspect of the early modern prison. One of his most striking discoveries is the large role that private confinement played in the early years of the prison. Wealthy families confined unmanageable and embarrassing members, often male, to the prisons. Such private committals constituted a significant proportion of the prison's inhabitants into the eighteenth century.

While the strength of this volume lies in its detail, Spierenburg is less persuasive in his handling of general questions. His criticisms of other theories of the prison often intrude upon and disrupt his narrative. Frequently he is stronger on description and in his archival work than on theory. Often his evidence reveals a more complex story than the one he tells in his summary. Much about the character of seventeenth-century confinement suggests its peculiar nature. His statistics point time and again to decisive changes that occurred both at the beginning and the end of the eighteenth century. Yet he wants to insist that he has tracked a process whose shape was defined by its origins. Perhaps what he shows us instead is that the question of origins is less significant than we had imagined. Confinement emerged around a concern with marginals, and for much of the seventeenth century the prison served as a general-purpose facility. But during the eighteenth century it became associated with the judicial system. The problem of the poor came to be treated in other ways, and the prison became ever more deeply connected with crime. A steadily increasing number of people were subjected to confinement, while imprisonment superseded other forms of punishment. Spierenburg's valuable book dramatizes this change while leaving us to puzzle over why it occurred.

Randall McGowen University of Oregon
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:McGowen, Randall
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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