What Is an Oubliette?
Oubliette (pronounced "oo-blee-ett") is a French term from the verb "oublier" (which means "to forget"). It was so named because a prisoner was thrown down into one and then forgotten. An oubliette was a specialized type of dungeon, with the only entrance a trap door at the top, agonizingly out of reach of the prisoner.
Often this horrible prison was shaped like a very narrow passage, not wide enough for the prisoner to sit down or even get down on his knees. He was forced to stand or lie prone as he starved to death. He could tilt his head back to see the grate, far above his head and out of reach, but that was all.
Oubliettes were sometimes built within the walls of the upper floors of a castle rather than in the dungeon so that victims could hear and smell the life of the castle as they slowly died of deprivation in unspeakable conditions. Corpses were left to be consumed by vermin, and many oubliettes were discovered centuries later to be strewn with human bones.
Who Was Thrown Into an Oubliette?
While it is not known who, exactly, met their fate in an oubliette, there are a number of them in English and Irish castles. It is possible to imagine who the prisoners may have been based on the histories of these castles.
Leap Castle's Oubliette
Leap (pronounced "Lep") Castle in Ireland has a bloody history and is said to be one of the most haunted places in Ireland. It also has an oubliette. Built around 1250, the castle was the scene of attacks, sieges, massacres, and battles between feuding clans—the O'Bannons and the O'Carrolls—who alternately occupied the castle. Perhaps captured members of the rival clan were thrown into the oubliette in those earliest years of the castle's history.
If so, they came to a truly terrible end. At the bottom of Leap Castle's oubliette were several sharpened wooden spikes pointing menacingly up from the floor, eight feet below the trap door. A prisoner thrown into this oubliette would likely be badly injured and quite possibly impaled on one or more spikes, only to suffer horribly as his life slowly ebbed.
So many skeletons were discovered in the oubliette in the 1920s that it took three cartloads to transport them from the premises.
A Slow, Agonizing Death at Warwick Castle
Warwick Castle in England has a history going back to the Conquest of 1066, as William the Conqueror had the castle constructed just two years after assuming the English throne. Prisoners during the castle's earliest years were often French soldiers captured in battle.
The castle's oubliette is horizontal, long, narrow, and paved with jagged stones that jut up from the floor. In this case, the prisoner lies prone on the stones, the ceiling of his tiny prison inches above him so that he cannot move away from his agony. In addition to the inescapable physical pain, the prisoner might easily lose his sanity in the clammy, claustrophobic conditions.
Oubliette Discovered in Nottinghamshire, England
Although the oubliette is thought to have originated in French castles, other European countries soon made use of the ghoulish idea, though they apparently did not use the word "oubliette" to describe them until the 1800s.
In 2009, one was discovered in a castle in Nottinghamshire, England. At first, experts were not sure what this unusual structure was. Archaeologists examined the pit and proclaimed it an ancient oubliette.
As you can see in the video below, there is some speculation that Robin Hood, who was, of course, a citizen of Nottingham, may have been held here at some point.
Oubliette in Nottinghamshire
A Poem of Despair
by Katharine L. Sparrow
Imagine if you will...
alone, in near total darkness-
the only shred of light filters feebly
from the grate far above my head.
It's been five days now.
I mark them by the music...
dance music, played every evening
after the dining,
when the agonizing smells
of roasted venison and steamed pudding
rise to my hellish chamber.
my fate - to be forgotten...
in this dank, cold, empty cell.
Shoved past the grate in the floor, I fell,
bones crunching on the stone surface.
The lower left femur protruding through the skin-
I smell the stench of my sinew
beginning to rot.
but not yet to that merciful state,
I drag my broken body across the slick stone
to the very corner,
where the bricks don't quite meet.
Below me, far below, I see...
strutting gentlemen and elegant ladies,
full of the evening's repast,
warm and smiling...
dancing to the music
that serenades the last of my breath,
escaping now in huffing gasps.
For a rat has found the festering flesh of my leg
to feast upon,
as the music plays,
the dance goes on,
and I try to remember what brought me
to this doom-
gnawed to death
in this fiendish hole,
this pitiless tomb...
© 2011 Katharine L Sparrow
Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on September 24, 2011:
Oh wow... What a powerful poem on a little known horror that's unfortunately probably still used in some part of the world even today.