The research laboratory project

The research blog Ergastulum aims to bring together different areas and interests of a group of researchers with a focus on places of detention, the treatment of inmates and the different forms of imprisonment in the Early Modern and Modern Age.

Over the past two decades, renewed international attention to the historiography of imprisonment has brought about a paradigm shift in the methodology through which one may approach the places of detention and the manners of treatment that individuals and social groups experienced during the temporary or permanent privation of their liberty. While previous studies were conditioned by traditional paradigms to look at the origin of criminal imprisonment in the West starting from the reforms of the detention system in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a new phase has opened through contact with more recent trends in historical research. In particular, interest in the transnational circulation of ideas concerning the models and practices of incarceration has enlarged the theoretical framework within which research on these questions may be conducted. New issues have emerged, both with respect to traditional prison establishments and concerning lesser known experiments such as penal agricultural colonies or disciplinary units within the army, where libertines and individuals supposed to be dangerous or incorrigible were enrolled through administrative or legal procedures.

A new research focus has centred on prisoners’ labour and on the difficulties of discerning between the various forms that forced labour can take in various contexts. From the galleys to the ‘penal baths’ adjacent to the ports, from the French-Napoleonic maisons centrales de detention (central detention places) to penal colonies, and including the atelier di carità (charity workshops) and the pie case d’industria (a type of religious workhouses), the common thread of prisoners’ labour has determined the structures where they had to undergo punishment and redemption. Nevertheless, even in such places, the permeability of spaces surprisingly reveals a greater interaction between free society and the prisoners than one might expect from the seclusion of their confinement.

A second area of interest has focused on the interpretation of archival sources concerning the prisoners’ living conditions in the spaces reserved for their use. Relational dynamics between prison staff and inmates have emerged that demonstrate different forms of exchange and sociabilité within the space of confinement. Among these documents, petitions and supplications reveal a complex network of interactions and interdependence between inmates, prison administration and the outside world. Although these records follow an established rhetorical structure that was strictly employed by their authors, nevertheless they provide the historian with precious information about the social history of the penal institutions. These petitions contain important clues about the daily life of the prisoners that emerge neither from other normative documents nor from contemporary treatises about imprisonment.

A third aspect highlighted in recent studies has been the treatment of inmates within prisons and the role of religion in structuring forms of rehabilitation. This aspect has been the focus of the project directed by Chiara Lucrezio Monticelli at the Università di Roma Tor Vergata. The project has promoted various research initiatives on the theme of models and practices of detention in the modern and contemporary era, taking Rome as a case study and comparing it with the wider Catholic world. The International Congress Limits of Confinement. Rome and the Transnational Catholic Model of Prison Treatment in the Nineteenth Century, held in Rome, 25-27 September 2019, marked the high point of the project’s programme of events. Several of the participating scholars (Maria Romana Caforio, Alessio Collacchi, Francesca Di Pasquale, Chiara Lucrezio Monticelli, Francesco Saggiorato) have felt the need to promote a longer-term initiative to facilitate scholarly exchange around the results attained by this first phase of research, in the hope of enlarging the debate stemming from it.

The research laboratory Ergastulum was born out of this perceived need. Its aims are: in the first place, to guarantee the continuity of the research group in order to promote its output and disseminate its results; secondly, Ergastulum will enable further profitable exchanges with the international community of researchers creating a culture of exchange and plurality. It will sustain a dynamic scholarly network based on a comparative and transnational methodology that alone can lead to a better understanding of the global implementation of penal imprisonment in the modern world.

The name of the research laboratory, Ergastulum, derives from the Latin term for the spaces reserved for slaves on ancient Roman agricultural estates. That, in turn, derives from the Greek ergasterion, meaning more generically a workshop. The history of this significant term well highlights the longue durée type of analysis of this phenomenon. The word reflects different meanings through time down to the modern era, when it designated different spaces, from the places of forced labour, to prisons with a high level of isolation, until its eighteenth-century significance took shape as ‘life sentence’ to be carried out within the confined space of a prison cell. The continuous transformation of the penal institutes across time demonstrates the tension between continuities and differences, and the transition between age-old practices and the impact of new theoretical perspectives that cause a hybridity of models particularly during political shifts. The research laboratory Ergastulum departs from this historical perspective to retrace and research such changes in penal practices, spaces and institutions, which did not take place along a linear continuum. Its focus is on the Italian peninsula, which, as a case study, has shown particular potential for enhancing the complexity of the phenomenon because of the simultaneous impact of various influences at the regional level, combining Catholic social teaching with the legalistic enlightenment of Cesare Beccaria and the positivism of Cesare Lombroso. In this way, the Italian case study is able to throw significant light on the matrix determining future penal theory and practice beyond the better-known models coming from Britain and France.

Part of the objectives of the research laboratory Ergastulum is to constitute a platform that brings together all historians of prisons and penal practices as a place where to meet, discuss and share research results. Besides regular seminars, members of the Ergastulum team work at building a bibliographical database on the subject (“Bibliografia sulla storia delle istituzioni, degli spazi e delle pratiche carcerarie in Italia”) through which to coordinate and track relevant new contributions in real time, with the possibility of constant updating. The dissemination of scholarly knowledge will provide the community of historians with a reliable tool in two ways. On the one hand, the platform will guide researchers towards the most relevant areas of interest within the subject. On the other, Ergastulum will encourage further studies in the field across the Italian peninsula and beyond.

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