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Rachel Weil wonders how the history of imprisonment affects contemporary ideas about rights, liberty, and the role of detention in modern society.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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During the summer of 2016, Weil’s National Endowment for the Humanities summer stipend allowed her to rummage through prison communiqué to study of how prisons evolved in early modern England.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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A leave to take spa waters, complaints of overpriced beer sold in the prisons, and access to markets are just a few intriguing inmate requests and communication to the authorities, revealing much about entitlements.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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Weil explains how living conditions and privileges varied widely in England’s seventeenth- and eighteenth-century jails. “It might not surprise you that money played a big role,” she says.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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“I’m a historian who’s interested in politics, in a broad sense—how people organize, justify, or challenge power—but I like to come at that question in unconventional ways,” Weil says.
Beatrice Jin; Jesse Winter
Beatrice Jin; Jesse Winter

Merely Detained or Punished?

by Caitlin Hayes

Prisoners of seventeenth and eighteenth century England made some surprising requests. One high-level political detainee in the Tower of London asked for a leave to take the spa waters at Bath. A Lancashire inmate complained that the beer sold in the prison was overpriced and brewed with brine. Prisoners wrote to magistrates about their lack of access to markets, the difficulties their wives and friends had in visiting them, and being cheated out of the money and beef donated for their benefit.

“How prisoners complain and what they complain about tell us a lot about their living conditions, their sense of what they were entitled to, and the complex power relationships between prisoner, jailers, and the authorities," says Rachel Weil, History.

With the aid of a National Endowment for the Humanities summer stipend, Weil spent the summer of 2016 rummaging through petitions and letters that prisoners sent to local magistrates, parliament, and sometimes the king. She is using this material in an ambitious study of how prisons evolved in early modern England from places of mere detention to the places of punishment they became (or were meant to be) in the later eighteenth century.  

“I’m especially interested in getting below the surface of this idea of mere detention,” says Weil. “What does it mean to be merely detained?” Furthermore, Weil asks how does the history of imprisonment affect contemporary notions of rights and liberty and the role detention plays in modern society?

Then and Now: How Gaols Have Changed

England’s jails in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries differed from modern jails in key ways. Persons convicted of crimes would have been punished corporeally—with branding, beating, execution, or transportation. Most inmates were therefore not convicts but debtors, people awaiting trial or exile, political prisoners, even prisoners of war. In addition, keepers of prisons were not paid a salary. They expected to make a profit from fees charged to prisoners—as a result, prisons were essentially a private enterprise only loosely supervised by the government.

For inmates, conditions varied widely. “It might not surprise you that money played a big role,” says Weil. Sometimes prisoners paid their room and board with an allowance from the county, but more often they relied on their own resources. At some prisons, wealthy prisoners could negotiate for nicer living quarters and amenities.

Mobility, the very thing we think prisons are meant to restrict, Weil says, could also be negotiated. Some inmates were allowed to leave during the days to work, so they could pay the jailer or their creditors. Others bought the privilege of leaving for a day, or even a summer.

“So the line between freedom and confinement might have been hazier all around.…In the early modern period, freedom was never absolute and not assumed to be an absolute right."

How early modern people conceived of the relationship between freedom and non-freedom especially fascinates Weil. “Prisons were more permeable, but movement in the outside world for many non-prisoners was also more constrained,” Weil says.

Poor people who received aid from their parish, for instance, were not allowed to leave that parish. People were quarantined in their houses during epidemics, or, as impressed sailors, confined to ships. “So the line between freedom and confinement might have been hazier all around,” says Weil. “In the early modern period, freedom was never absolute and not assumed to be an absolute right."

Prisons Become Political

Weil is particularly interested in moments where the prison became a site for a wider discussion of rights and authority. In the 1640s and 1650s, debtors petitioned parliament, not only asking for nicer conditions but also delivering a scathing condemnation of debt imprisonment as an infringement on the liberties of freeborn Englishmen.

In another example, the embattled keeper of the Fleet prison in the 1620s treated a minor riot by prisoners as a threat to authority in the state. Some members of parliament, on the other hand, took up the prisoners’ cause as a way of enhancing parliament's prestige. The rich and intriguing history of prisons, Weil says, is an important but neglected aspect of political history.

Political History, Broadened

Expanding the boundaries of what counts as political history is a trend in Weil's career. Her article “Sometimes a Sceptre is just a Sceptre” in The Invention of Pornography, 1500–1800 (MIT Press, 1993) analyzed obscene poetry circulating about and around the court of Charles II, unpacking the texts’ political significance. Her first book, Political Passions: Gender, the Family and Political Argument in England 1680-1714 (Manchester University Press, 1999) brought together feminist history and political history by examining how ideas about women, gender, and the family intersected in debates about political authority around the period of the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Her second book, A Plague of Informers: Conspiracy and Political Trust in William III's England (Yale University Press, 2014) is full of cloak and dagger stories, Weil says, about people who discovered or claimed to discover plots against the king and government. It takes another set of problems not normally written about in the context of political history—what or whom can one trust—and explores how people grappled with that question in the turbulent years after the Glorious Revolution. The new regime had to figure out whom to trust and at the same time win the trust of its subjects, Weil explains.

“I’m a historian who’s interested in politics, in a broad sense—how people organize, justify, or challenge power—but I like to come at that question in unconventional ways,” she adds.

The Classroom and Beyond

Weil has taught one seminar, The Birth of the Prison, which is directly related to her current studies. But even when she doesn't teach from her own work, she passes on a research ethic to students. “I try to bring them that experience of taking responsibility for your own intellectual development,” she says. “I love being in a community of intellectual seekers. We’re all trying to figure something out—all different things—and we’re each giving it all we’ve got.”

Weil is now finding ways to share her love of research and history with the public. During the summer of 2016, she “stuck a big toe into icy waters,” she says, by entering the blogosphere with a personal account of her experience of Britain's European Union referendum. She has also, with help from collaborators, started a blog (earlymodernprisons.org) dedicated to the history of early modern prisons, which she hopes will be read by the public as well as historians.

Imprisonment, and especially imprisonment understood as mere detention, is very much on the public mind, she adds. “People have been jailed for being unable to pay traffic fines. The accused can spend months or years on Rikers Island just waiting for a trial. And of course we have not closed Guantanamo,” she says. “In some ways, we are using jails now in the way they were used in the early modern period.” She hopes that her work, uncovering the experience of detained people in the past, will deepen the conversation about current practices.