Word of the Week: Oubliette

I thought it would be fun to start defining words by looking at their denotative elements and usage, and what that means in practical implementation. It’s always good to learn a new word, or at least refamiliarize yourself with an old one, right?

With that being said, the word oubliette came to mind immediately for this exercise because I just reviewed Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, and an oubliette appeared in that series (and then again when I watched the Sean Connery film First Knight [1995]) it is such a strange word for such a dastardly place of hell.


As Merriam-Webster defines an oubliette: “a dungeon with an opening only at the top.”

Now, that’s a little misleading because it doesn’t necessarily define its purpose, and that’s truly where the dastardly details come into play. An oubliette was a device used by a castle owner, typically somebody in high society, who had an unquenchable thirst for punishing those who have wronged them. The oubliette was thusly put into practice. The word literally comes from the French word oublier, which means “to forget, show negligence” (Etymonline).

To visualize it a little better, imagine the darkest, blackest hole you can imagine that stretches down to an unfathomable depth into the darkness. The opening is then covered with a grate or it is covered up entirely. Somewhere on the bottom, meanwhile, cowering in the dark is a prisoner…and there they would stay until they expired.

“Often this horrible prison was built as 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” (Sparrow).

Somebody, possibly a guard or jailer, lowered the soon-to-be-forgotten person into the pit and then abandoned them, as researcher Edd Morris writes, “… the rope would have been taken up and the trap-door above them would have been closed.”

“Food and water might have been thrown down to them if they were lucky (or if their survival was seen to be important), but it was, all in all, a truly horrible punishment” (Morris).

Other sources have stated that after oubliettes had been discovered in ancient castles through careful study, so too were the bones that littered the floors of the their dungeons’ pits.

Works cited

“Oubliette.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper. Web: https://www.etymonline.com/word/oubliette

“Oubliette” Merriam-Webster. Web: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/oubliette

Morris, Edd. “The Castle Dungeon and the Oubliette: The Truth About These Medieval Prisons.” Exploring Castles. Web: https://www.exploring-castles.com/castle_designs/castle_dungeon/#oubliette

Sparrow, Katharine. “The Oubliette: A Torture of Unspeakable Horror.” Owlcation. The Arena Group. Dec. 20, 2021. Web: https://owlcation.com/humanities/Oubliette-French-Torture-Halloween