One thing that can be said of prison across the ages is that a spell of incarceration gives a prisoner plenty of time to think. Though the body may be physically confined to a certain area, in all but the most heinous prisons the mind is left unchecked: ‘stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage’, says Richard Lovelace in the oft-quoted To Althea, From Prison (1642). With many prisoners taking the time to pick up a pen and to write about their experiences and feelings, a fantastic and varied array of literature has been produced.
Where some prisoners meditate revenge or the unjustness of their imprisonment, others have remorse for their wrongdoing, or try to understand how they came to offend. Some even use enforced isolation to write in support of the actions leading to their incarceration. Altogether, prison literature is a fascinating literary subgenre, collectively offering a perspective on how different people react to their confinement. Adopting a loose definition of ‘Prison Literature’ as all written material produced in incarceration allows us to examine a broad selection of prisoners’ written output, from ancient to modern times: read on for a representative selection.
Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, to give him his full name, was a Roman consul, magister officiorum (senior government official), and senator who lived between c.477 and 524AD. He was imprisoned and condemned to death for treason in 523, during which time he dedicated himself entirely to philosophy, and produced what is considered to be the last great work of the Late Antique Period: De consolatione philosophiae (‘The Consolation of Philosophy’). Written at Boethius’s darkest hour as he awaited execution in Pavia, the work became the most influential philosophical work through the Middle Ages to the early Renaissance.
Boethius was a member of an aristocratic family that had risen to power after converting to Christianity in the 4th century, producing 2 emperors and a pope by his lifetime. As a young man Boethius was a prodigy, an acknowledged master in the liberal arts (rhetoric, logic, literature, and astronomy, amongst other subjects). At some stage his talents attracted the attention of the Ostrogothic King Theodric (454-526), the ruler of Italy, who gave Boethius a variety of tasks at his court before making him consul without companion at the age of just 30, then magister officium shortly thereafter.
Whilst serving as head of the entire civil service, Boethius found the time to pursue his interest in philosophy, and produced a number of treatises and translations. It was entirely due to Boethius’s translations that knowledge of Aristotle survived in the West. Boethius’s orthodox theological tractates, however, led to his downfall. Theodoric belonged to the heretical sect known as the Arians, and the sect’s condemnation at Constantinople undermined his legitimacy to rule. Boethius’s theological writings and links to the East thus aroused Theodoric’s suspicions. Inevitably, political enemies seized upon this, and convinced Theodoric that Boethius was a traitor.
Imprisoned at Pavia and awaiting execution, Boethius got to work on his magnum opus. The Consolation of Philosophy opens with a weeping Boethius lamenting his unjust fall from grace; ‘first fickle Fortune gave me wealth short-lived/ then in a moment all but ruined me’ (I.i). Suddenly a mysterious female figure appears to him: Lady Philosophy, ‘my nurse, in whose house I had been cared for since my youth’ (I.ii). Lady Philosophy then consoles Boethius by demonstrating the futility of caring about worldly misfortunes by situating them in the context of eternity in which God is omnipotent and all is good.
Lady Philosophy tackles the eternal problems of the nature of fate and predestination vs. free will and self-determination, and why evil prospers and good fails in God’s perfect, foreordained world. She logically argues that whilst the mortal world is mutable and temporary, God alone is still and eternal, and if we fix our minds on Him we will think nothing of worldly (mis)fortune. Boethius’s greatest influence came not only from synthesising his knowledge of Greek and Roman philosophy but introducing the concept of the Wheel of Fortune that characterised medieval thought long after he was bludgeoned to death in 524.