The judicial administration of France had its origin in the Feudal System. The great nobles ruled their estates side by side with, and not under, the King. With him the great barons exercised “high” justice, extending to life and limb. The seigneurs and great clerics dispensed “middle” justice and imposed certain corporal penalties, while the power of “low” justice, extending only to the amende and imprisonment, was wielded by smaller jurisdictions.
The whole history of France is summed up in the persistent effort of the King to establish an absolute monarchy, and three centuries were passed in a struggle between nobles, parliaments and the eventually supreme ruler. Each jurisdiction was supported by various methods of enforcing its authority: All, however, had their prisons, which served many purposes. The prison was first of all a place of detention and durance where people deemed dangerous might be kept out of the way of doing harm and law-breakers could be called to account for their misdeeds. Accused persons were in it held safely until they could be arraigned before the tribunals, and after conviction by legal process were sentenced to the various penalties in force.
The prison was de facto the high road to the scaffold on which the condemned suffered the extreme penalty by one or another of the forms of capital punishment, and death was dealt out indifferently by decapitation, the noose, the stake or the wheel. Too often where proof was weak or wanting, torture was called in to assist in extorting confession of guilt, and again, the same hideous practice was applied to the convicted, either to aggravate their pains or to compel the betrayal of suspected confederates and accomplices. The prison reflected every phase of passing criminality and was the constant home of wrong-doers of all categories, heinous and venial. Offenders against the common law met their just retribution. Many thousands were committed for sins political and non-criminal, the victims of an arbitrary monarch and his high-handed, irresponsible ministers.
The prison was the King’s castle, his stronghold for the coercion and safe-keeping of all who conspired against his person or threatened his peace. It was a social reformatory in which he disciplined the dissolute and the wastrel, the loose-livers of both sexes, who were thus obliged to run straight and kept out of mischief by the stringent curtailment of their liberty. The prison, last of all, played into the hands of the rich against the poor, active champion of the commercial code, taking the side of creditors by holding all debtors fast until they could satisfy the legal, and at times illegal demands made upon them.