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Historicizing Extramural Convict Labour: Trajectories and Transitions in Early Modern Europe

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 July 2020

Johan Heinsen
Department of Politics and Society Faculty of Social Sciences, Aalborg University Fibigerstræde 1, 9220 Aalborg Ø, Denmark E-mail:
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New global histories of punishment are steadily decentring the history of punishment and convict labour, challenging traditional conceptions of a linear path towards a single penal modernity and the penitentiary as the telos of its history. Through an exploration of three strands of extramural convict labour emerging in Copenhagen (1558), Ulm (1561), and Almadén (1566), this interpretative essay argues that this challenge can be furthered by taking a view of Europe's own penal history from which the focus is less on origins and more on how the landscape of punishment evolved through a continuous and largely contingent process of assemblage. In this process, a few key elements – labour, displacement, pain, and confinement – were combined and mixed to different effects in specific contexts. Along with that approach comes the need to historicize the process by relating it to other practices of labour coercion, both within the penal field and outside it.

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I should like to thank Emilie Luther Søby, Christian De Vito, and Fabrizio Filioli Uranio for reading drafts of this article and commenting on them.


1. Testimonies before the Voldborg District Court, 23 July 1687, Rigsarkivet, Holmens chef (Søetaten), Domme over fangerne på Bremerholm 1687–1689, Documents concerning Hans Rasmussen Væver.

2. Sentence passed on Hans Rasmussen Væver, 3 September 1687, Rigsarkivet, Holmens chef (Søetaten), Domme over fangerne på Bremerholm 1687–1689.

3. Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London, 1977)Google Scholar; Ignatieff, Michael, A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution 1750–1850 (New York, 1978)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Finzsch, Norbert and Jütte, Robert (eds), Institutions of Confinement: Hospitals, Asylums, and Prisons in Western Europe and North America, 1500–1950 (Cambridge, 1996)Google Scholar.

4. In Foucault's study, the prison was born, while in Ignatieff's prison, reformer John Howard was the father of the prison.

5. Spierenburg, Pieter, The Prison Experience: Disciplinary Institutions and their Inmates in Early Modern Europe (Amsterdam, 1991), p. 143Google Scholar. See also idem, From Amsterdam to Auburn: An Explanation for the Rise of the Prison in Seventeenth-Century Holland and Nineteenth-Century America”, Journal of Social History, 20:3 (1987), pp. 439461CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Krause, Thomas, Geschichte des Strafvollzugs. Von den Kerkern des Altertums bis zur Gegenwart (Darmstadt, 1999)Google Scholar; Ammerer, Gerhard, Bretschneider, Falk, and Weiß, Alfred Stefan (eds), Gefängnis und Gesellschaft. Zur (Vor-)Geschichte der strafenden Einsperrung (Leipzig, 2003)Google Scholar; Ammerer, Gerhard, “Zucht- und Arbeitshäuser, Freiheitsstrafen und Gefängnisdiskurs in Österreich 1750–1850”, in Ammerer, Gerhard and Weiß, Alfred Stefan (eds), Strafe, Disziplin und Besserung. Österreichische Zucht- und Arbeitshäuser von 1750 bis 1850 (Frankfurt am Main, 2006), pp. 762Google Scholar; Scicluna, Sandra, “The Mad, the Bad and the Pauper: Help and Control in Early Modern Carceral Institutions”, in Knepper, Paul and Johansen, Anja (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the History of Crime and Criminal Justice (Oxford, 2017), pp. 655671Google Scholar.

6. Furthering this push backwards, Guy Geltner has traced the origins of incarceration to medieval Italy in a study that is both convincing and fascinating, but does little to undo teleology. See Geltner, Guy, The Medieval Prison: A Social History (Princeton, NJ, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7. Entry points to this historiography are provided by Dikötter, Frank and Brown, Ian (eds), Cultures of Confinement: A History of the Prison in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (New York, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gibson, Mary, “Global Perspectives on the Birth of the Prison”, American Historical Review, 116:4 (2011), pp. 10401063CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8. For example, Blue, Ethan, Doing Time in the Depression: Everyday Life in Texas and California Prisons (New York, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9. De Vito, Christian G., “Punishment and Labour Relations: Cuba between Abolition and Empire (1835–1886)”, Crime, Histoire & Sociétés, 22:1 (2018), pp. 5379CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Sherman, Taylor C., “Tensions of Colonial Punishment: Perspectives of Recent Developments in the Study of Coercive Networks in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean”, The History Compass, 7:3 (2009), pp. 659677CrossRefGoogle Scholar; De Vito, Christian G. and Lichtenstein, Alex, “Writing a Global History of Convict Labour”, International Review of Social History, 58:2 (2013), pp. 285325CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10. Key works include Anderson, Clare, Convicts in the Indian Ocean (Basingstoke, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Coates, Timothy J., Convicts and Orphans: Forced and State-Sponsored Colonizers in the Portuguese Empire, 1550–1755 (Stanford, CA, 2002)Google Scholar; Ward, Kerry, Networks of Empire: Forced Migration in the Dutch East India Company (Cambridge, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Anderson, Clare, Subaltern Lives: Biographies of Colonialism in the Indian Ocean World, 1790–1920 (Cambridge, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Coates, Timothy J., Convict Labor in the Portuguese Empire, 1740–1932: Redefining the Empire with Forced Labor and New Imperialism (Leiden, 2013)Google Scholar; Anderson, Clare (ed.), A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies (London, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also the contributions to De Vito, Christian G., Anderson, Clare, and Bosma, Ulbe (eds), “Transportation, Deportation and Exile: Perspectives from the Colonies in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries”, International Review of Social History, 63: Special Issue 26 (2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11. De Vito, Christian G., Anderson, Clare, and Bosma, Ulbe, “Transportation, Deportation and Exile: Perspectives from the Colonies in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” International Review of Social History, 63:SI26 (2018), pp. 124, 6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12. Mary Gibson and Ilaria Poerio, “Modern Europe, 1750–1950”, in Anderson, A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies, pp. 337–370, 364.

13. Sellin, J. Thorsten, Slavery and the Penal System (New York, 1976)Google Scholar.

14. This period is similarly important in the study of intramural convict labour due to the creation of the English bridewells – workhouses that, it has been argued, foreshadowed the prison workhouses. Spierenburg, Prison Experience, pp. 23–24. Their role as labour institutions for punishment is discussed in Beattie, J.M., Crime and the Courts in England 1660–1800 (Oxford, 1986), pp. 492500Google Scholar.

15. On medieval thraldom, see Skuym-Nielsen, Niels, Kvinde og slave (Copenhagen, 1971)Google Scholar.

16. Stuckenberg, Fr., Fængselsvæsenet i Danmark 1550–1741 (Copenhagen, 1893)Google Scholar; Jørgensen, Poul Johannes, Dansk Rets Historie (Copenhagen, 1974), p. 206Google Scholar. As argued by Alice Rio, medieval forms of enslavement in Europe cannot be reduced to Roman influences and there are no clear ties from this phenomenon to Roman sanctions such as opus publicum. Rio, Alice, “Penal Enslavement in the Early Middle Ages”, in De Vito, Christian G. and Lichtenstein, Alex (eds), Global Convict Labour (Leiden, 2015), pp. 79107Google Scholar.

17. Krogh, Tyge, Staten og de besiddelsesløse på landet 1500–1800 (Odense, 1987), pp. 8284Google Scholar.

18. Bricka, C.F. et al. (eds), Kancelliets brevbøger, multiple vols (Copenhagen, 1885–), 1556–1560, p. 204Google Scholar.

19. Ibid., 1566–1570, p. 90.


20. Ibid., 1596–1602, pp. 238–239, and 1603–1608, pp. 387, 390, and 645.


21. Regnskaber 1599–1603, Rigsarkivet, Lensregnskaber 1559–1662, København A.

22. See lists of prisoners from the early 1620s in Bricka, C.F. and Fridericia, J.A. (eds), Kong Christian den Fjerdes Egenhændige Breve, 6 vols (Copenhagen, 1887–1889), I, pp. 249263Google Scholar.

23. David Høyer, “Udenværkernes forandring 1818–1821. En fortælling om Kronborg, stormflod, fæstningskrig, ingeniører, kronarbejdere”, Årbog (Helsingør Kommunes Museer) (2005), pp. 5–47; Grinder-Hansen, Poul, Kronborg: Fortællingen om et slot (Copenhagen, 2018), pp. 219, and 354–359Google Scholar.

24. Heinsen, Johan, Det første fængsel (Aarhus, 2018), p. 21Google Scholar.

25. Spierenburg, Prison Experience, p. 143.

26. Gibson, “Global Perspectives”.

27. Fumasoli, Georg, Ursprünge und Anfänge der Schellenwerke. Ein Beitrag zur Frühgeschichte des Zuchthauswesens (Zurich, 1981), pp. 3034Google Scholar.

28. Krause, Geschichte des Strafvollzugs, pp. 22–24; Fumasoli, Ursprünge und Anfänge der Schellenwerke.

29. Mühlheim, Mirjam Schwendimann, “Gefangen im Schallenhaus. Strafvollzug in der Stadt Bern 1775–1817”, Berner Zeitschrift für Geschichte, 77:1 (2015), pp. 335Google Scholar.

30. Helfried Valentinitsch, “Galeerenstrafe und Zwangsarbeit an der Militärgrenze in der Frühen Neuzeit. Zur Geschichte des Strafvollzugs in den innerösterreichischen Ländern”, in idem and Steppan, Markus (eds), Festschrift für Gernot Kocher zum 60. Geburtstag (Graz, 2002), pp. 331366Google Scholar; von Maasburg, M. Friedrich, Die Galeerenstrafe in den deutschen und böhmischen Erbländern Oesterreichs (Vienna, 1885)Google Scholar; Schuck, Gerhard, “Arbeit als Policeystrafe: Policey und Strafjustiz”, in Härter, Karl (ed.), Policey und frühneuzeitliche Gesellschaft (Frankfurt am Main, 2000), pp. 611626Google Scholar.

31. Fumasoli, Ursprünge und Anfänge der Schellenwerke, pp. 31–34.

32. Stella, Alessandro, Histoires d'esclaves dans la Péninsule Ibérique (Paris, 2000), p. 93Google Scholar.

33. Pike, Ruth, Penal Servitude in Early Modern Spain (Madison, WI, 1983), pp. 2739Google Scholar. For a larger discussion of the mines, see Rafael Gil Bautista, “Almadén y sus Reales Minas de Azogue en el siglo XVIII” (Ph.D., Universidad de Alicante, 2012). For a discussion of the use of convicts in the context of enslavement in Iberia, see Phillips, William D. Jr, “Iberia's Old World Slaving Zones in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Periods”, in Fynn-Paul, Jeff and Pargas, Damian Alain (eds), Slaving Zones: Cultural Identities, Ideologies, and Institutions in the Evolution of Global Slavery (Leiden, 2018), pp. 94117Google Scholar.

34. Other powers, too, including Denmark-Norway, experimented with convict labour in mining in the same period. We know next to nothing about the practice of sending Norwegian convicts to iron and silver mines, except that it ended in 1734 when it was abolished by the Danish king on the grounds that it had become unprofitable and that the convicts could “easily escape from there”. Nothing suggests that it was influenced by Almadén. Schou, Jacob Henric, Chronologisk Register over de Kongelige Forordninger og Aabne Breve (Copenhagen, 1795), 19 February 1734Google Scholar.

35. The galleys have their own deep and evolving historiography. A few key works are: Bamford, Paul, Fighting Ships and Prisons: The Mediterranean Galleys of France in the Age of Louis XIV (Minneapolis, MN, 1973)Google Scholar; Zysberg, André, Les Galériens. Vies et Destins de 60 000 Forçats sur les Galères de France 1680–1748 (Paris, 1987)Google Scholar; Basso, Luca Lo, Uomini da remo. Galee e galeotti del Mediterraneo in età moderna (Milan, 2004)Google Scholar; Martínez, Manuel, Los Forzados de Marina en la España del Siglo XVIII (1700–1775) (Almería, 2011)Google Scholar. On galleys in colonial contexts, see Christian G. De Vito, “The Spanish Empire, 1500–1898”, in Anderson, A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies, pp. 65–96. A synthesis of the relationship between maritime warfare and recruitment systems across Europe is provided by Glete, Jan, Warfare at Sea, 1500–1650: Maritime Conflicts and the Transformation of Europe (London, 1999), pp. 5464Google Scholar.

36. Imber, Colin, “The Navy of Süleyman the Magnificent”, Archivum Ottomanicum, VI (1980), pp. 211282Google Scholar. In the Muslim world, various uses of convict labour are known to date back to the early Islamic period. For more on the Ottoman use of convict labour, see Zarinebaf, Fariba, Crime and Punishment in Istanbul: 1700–1800 (Berkeley, CA, 2010), ch. 9Google Scholar; Anthony Gorman, “Regulation, Reform and Resistance in the Middle Eastern Prison”, in Dikötter and Brown, Cultures of Confinement, pp. 95–146.

37. Pike, Penal Servitude in Early Modern Spain, pp. 25–26.

38. De Vito and Lichtenstein, “Writing a Global History of Convict Labour”, p. 295. A similar conclusion on Ottoman practices is drawn in Imber, Colin, The Ottoman Empire, 1300–1650: The Structure of Power (Basingstoke, 2002), pp. 307308Google Scholar.

39. Miriam J. Groen-Vallinga and Laurens E. Tacoma, “Contextualising Condemnation to Hard Labour in the Roman Empire”, in De Vito and Lichtenstein, Global Convict Labour, pp. 49–78, 49.

40. Bautista, “Almadén”, p. 339.

41. Anette Larner, “The Good Household Gone Bad: Tracing the Good Household in Early Modern Denmark through Crime and Incarceration” (Ph.D. Aarhus University, 2018).

42. Heinsen, Det første fængsel. When Danish jurists describing convict labour made Roman parallels, they instead pointed to concepts such as the ergastulum (the prison for slaves on the plantations) or pistrinum (bakeries and mills used as punishments for slaves). See, for instance, the dictionary of late seventeenth-century supreme court judge Mathias Moth, available at (last accessed 3 January 2020).

43. For instance, the entry books were called slaveruller. See Slaverulle 1741–1770, Rigsarkivet, Københavns Stokhus.

44. Heinsen, Johan, Mutiny in the Danish Atlantic World: Convicts, Sailors, and a Dissonant Empire (London, 2017)Google Scholar; Gad, Finn, Grønlands Historie II. 1700–1782 (Copenhagen, 1969), p. 158Google Scholar.

45. Snare, Annika, Work, War, Prison, and Welfare: Control of the Laboring Poor in Sweden (Copenhagen, 1977), pp. 3769Google Scholar.

46. Johan Heinsen, “The Scandinavian Empires in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries”, in Anderson, A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies, pp. 97–122; Carlsson, Sten, “The New Sweden Colonists, 1628–1656: Their Geographical and Social Background”, in Hoffecker, Carol E. et al. (eds), New Sweden in America (Newark, NJ, 1995), pp. 171187Google Scholar.

47. Wieselgren, Sigfred, Sveriges fängelser og fångvård från äldre tider till våra dagar (Stockholm, 1895)Google Scholar; Snare, Work, War, Prison, and Welfare, pp. 50–51.

48. Krause, Geschichte des Strafvollzugs, p. 22; see also Spierenburg, Prison Experience, pp. 263–264. Following Krause, Karl Härter sketches a similar trajectory in Policey und Strafjustiz in Kurmainz. Gesetzgebung, Normdurchsetzung und Sozialkontrolle im frühneuzeitlichen Territorialstaat, 2 vols (Frankfurt am Main, 2005), II, p. 659Google Scholar.

49. These institutions have largely been studied in local perspectives and case studies. See Forrer, Georg, Die Freiheitsstrafe im friderizianischen Preussen (Zürich, 1975)Google Scholar; Kröner, Wolfgang, Freiheitsstrafe und Strafvollzug in den Herzogtümen Schleswig, Holstein und Lauenburg von 1700 bis 1864 (Frankfurt am Main, 1988)Google Scholar; Krause, Thomas, Die Strafrechtspflege im Kurfürstentum und Königreich Hannover (Aalen, 1991)Google Scholar; Härter, Policey und Strafjustiz, pp. 661–680; Bretschneider, Falk, Gefangene Gesellschaft. Eine Geschichte der Einsperrung in Sachsen im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert (Konstanz, 2008), pp. 211217Google Scholar. A discussion of extramural labour in German historical understandings of incarceration may be found in Thomas Krause, “Opera Publica”, in Ammerer et al., Gefängnis und Gesellschaft, pp. 117–130.

50. Krause, Geschichte des Strafvollzugs, p. 54.

51. Stephan Steiner, “‘An Austrian Cayenne’: Convict Labour and Deportation in the Habsburg Empire of the Early Modern Period”, in De Vito and Lichtenstein, Global Convict Labour, pp. 126–143. See also Steiner, Stephan, Rückkehr Unerwünscht. Deportationen in der Habsburgermonarchie der Frühen Neuzeit und ihr europäischer Kontext (Vienna, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52. Valentinitsch, “Galeerenstrafe und Zwangsarbeit”, pp. 331–366.

53. Habsburg rulers, too, intermittently used convicts in mines during the eighteenth century. See Steiner, Rückkehr Unerwünscht, pp. 41–42. So did their Ottoman rivals. Hayri Gökşin Özkoray, “Living Conditions and Workforce at the Copper Mines of Küre in Ottoman Kastamonu (16th–18th c.)”, paper presented at the European Labour History Conference, Amsterdam, 2019.

54. De Vito, “The Spanish Empire”, pp. 65–96; Mawson, Stephanie, “Rebellion and Munity in the Mariana Islands, 1680–1690”, The Journal of Pacific History, 50:2 (2015), pp. 128148CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Pedro Alejo Llorente de Pedro has shown that even within the North African presidios life diverged, as larger places offered more diverse opportunities for work and recreation which small secluded fortresses did not. de Pedro, Pedro Alejo Llorente, “La pena de presidio en las plazas menores africanas hasta la Constitución Española de 1812”, Anuario de derecho penal y ciencias penales, 61 (2008), pp. 265330, 268Google Scholar.

55. Pike, Penal Servitude in Early Modern Spain, pp. 41–42.

56. Gentes, Andrew A., Exile to Siberia, 1590–1822: Corporeal Commodification and Administrative Systematization in Russia (New York, 2008), pp. 9094CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kollmann, Nancy, Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Russia (Cambridge, 2012), pp. 241257CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Boeck, Brian J., “When Peter I Was Forced to Settle for Less: Coerced Labor and Resistance in a Failed Russian Colony (1695–1711)”, The Journal of Modern History, 80:3 (2008), pp. 485514CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

57. Howard, John, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales with Preliminary Observations and an Account of some Foreign Prisons (London, 1792), pp. 9092Google Scholar.

58. The same can be said of the English experiment with hard labour on the banks of the Thames and incarceration in prison hulks that followed the stoppage of colonial transportation in 1775. For more, see Hitchcock, Tim and Shoemaker, Robert, London Lives: Poverty, Crime, and the Making of a Modern City, 1690–1800 (Cambridge, 2015), pp. 334335CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

59. Pieter Spierenburg, “Prison and Convict Labour in Early Modern Europe”, in De Vito and Lichtenstein, Global Convict Labour, pp. 108–125, 113.

60. A similar interpretation can be found in Sellin, Slavery and the Penal System, p. 60. On opus publicum, see Millar, Fergus, Rome, the Greek World, and the East: Volume 2 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2004), pp. 120150Google Scholar.

61. Rusche, Georg and Kirchheimer, Otto, Punishment and Social Structure (New York, 1967), pp. 37Google Scholar.

62. For a critique of this analytical division in the case of contemporary prisons, see Geltner, Guy, Flogging Others: Corporal Punishment and Cultural Identity from Antiquity to the Present (Amsterdam, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

63. Heinsen, Det første fængsel, pp. 43–48; Pike, Penal Servitude in Early Modern Spain.

64. The concept of indexing has been explored in Geltner, Flogging Others, pp. 25–26.

65. De Vito et al., “Transportation, Deportation and Exile”, p. 19.

66. From 1690, the make-up of the convict population in Copenhagen can be studied from the entry books of the prison. These are located in Rigsarkivet, Copenhagen as part of the archives of the Admiralty and later the army.

67. Steiner, “‘An Austrian Cayenne’”, pp. 126–143.

68. See, for example, van de Pol, Lotte, The Burgher and the Whore: Prostitution in Early Modern Amsterdam (Oxford, 2011), pp. 97102CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

69. One could argue that these elements are related as well to the most important constituents of confinement today. Open prisons, for instance, rely not on the physical inability of escape but rather on a host of different elements that create the effect of confinement.

70. The field of global labour history might offer tools for careful historicization in this endeavour. See van der Linden, Marcel, “Dissecting Coerced Labor”, in idem and García, Magaly Rodríguez (eds), On Coerced Labor: Work and Compulsion after Chattel Slavery (Leiden, 2016), pp. 291322CrossRefGoogle Scholar. From that point of view, confinement could be studied as a form of precariousness, as laid out in Christian G. De Vito, Juliane Schiel, and Matthias van Rossum, “From Bondage to Precariousness? New Perspectives on Labor and Social History”, Journal of Social History, forthcoming 2020.

71. Even the galleys were marred by security breaches. For a spectacular case, see Panjek, Aleksander, Krvavi Poljub Svobode. Upor na galeji Loredani v Kopru in beg galjotov na Kras leta 1605 (Koper, 2016)Google Scholar.

72. Schuck, “Arbeit als Policeystrafe”, p. 618.

73. Heinsen, Mutiny in the Danish Atlantic World, ch. 6.

74. Bøger over Bremerholms fanger 1684–1721, Rigsarkivet, Holmens chef (Søetaten).

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