The Break Knee, Iron Maiden and the Catalan Garotte: is this gruesome collection of pain-inducing paraphernalia educational, entertaining or just a tourist rip-off?
Tucked away in the shopping arcade next to Charles Bridge, The Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments tries to lure in passing tourists by offering the chance to peer at its collection of – yep, you guessed it – instruments of medieval torture.
If you’re curious about the gruesome and bizarre ways that those in power once extracted information from alleged wrongdoers, this is the right place to come. The museum’s three floors are packed with all kinds of macabre paraphernalia. Just in case the exact workings of any object wasn’t obvious enough merely from staring at it, detailed explanations accompany each exhibit; all the info is available in eight languages so no-one misses out on the fun.
There’s the Virgin of Nuremberg – better known as the Iron Maiden – a sort of sarcophagus lined with strategically placed spikes that would pierce the poor person locked inside while avoiding their vital organs. The result? A long, excruciatingly painful death.
That infamous aid to prising out declarations of guilt – the Rack – is also on display. In case you weren’t paying attention in history class, the Rack is a large table on which the supposed malefactor was made to lie until they were stretched apart. Some ended up ten inches taller. If that wasn’t enough to make you spill your guts (no pun intended), the torturer applied a red hot poker to force you to cooperate.
Some objects need little explanation. The Break Knee breaks knees. The Interrogation Seat is a chair covered in spikes in which the victim was forced to sit in naked until they fessed up or expired. No need to read the blurb to figure out how that could inflict agonizing pain. The same goes for the Staircase of Stretching, the Rack’s equally deadly cousin.
Other practices have innocent names which belie their grisly purpose. The Spanish Tickle Torture sounds like it might be rather fun – until you realize that it actually involves having your flesh reduced to tatters by a giant fork. Another disturbing form of dispatching lawbreakers, the Catalan Garrotte, is also a brainchild of the Spaniards. The lucky individual sits in a specially designed chair with their hands behind their back while the executioner screws an iron wedge into their skull. Nice.
Not all forms of torture were designed to exsanguinate. Anyone’s who ever craved a bit of peace and quiet will sympathize with the inventor of the Noisemaker’s Fife. A metal collar with a special vice attached into which the fingers of the accused were locked, this device was used to punish ‘bad’ musicians whose poor quality piping had offended the ears of a noble. Other exhibits designed to subject the victim to public scorn rather than physical pain. The striking iron masks in the shapes of monsters or pigs were worn by women accused of slander or witchcraft: the Germanic equivalent of the Scold’s Bridle used in medieval England to curb the tongues of garrulous shrews.
While none of these practices seem particularly appealing, the worst form of death wasn’t being barbecued on the Gridirion or even impalement on a giant pole, but being turned upside down and then sawn in half. According to the explanatory material, this was the nastiest way to meet your end. I guess we’ll just have to take their word for it.
After I’ve spent an hour taking in all the bloodcurdling goriness, I’m left feeling positively queasy. I suppose that’s proof the exhibits worked their macabre magic on me. Is my upset tummy a thumbs up for the Museum of Medieval Torture then? That depends on whether you believe you should leave educated or merely entertained.
Don’t get me wrong – as attractions targeting tourists go, this one is hardly the trashiest. However, don’t come here expecting to see anything which challenges the popular stereotype of the Middle Ages as barbaric and backward. Of course, I’m glad that my chances of being broken into bits on a giant wheel are far slimmer these days. However, before we all get too smug about how far modern man has progressed, let’s not forget that we still practice forms of torture pioneered by medievals – water boarding anyone?
Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments
Křižovnické náměstí 194/1, Prague 1
Open daily 10:00 – 20:00