Wearing an iron shoe designed to crush foot bones was one method of punishing criminals in 17th-century Austria. In Spain they liked to use Spanish tickle torture, which sounds quite fun up until the point they strip flesh from bones on the face, back and abdomen. Not wanting to be left out of the competition to find the meanest torture device, France and Germany often used the Breast-Ripper – hot or cold claws used to tear a woman’s breast off.
What struck me while viewing the 50 replicas of medieval torture instruments contained in this collection was not simply their utter cruelty, but also the type of ‘crimes’ that justified their use. For example, the appalling Breast-Ripper was seen as justified punishment for women ‘accused’ of conducting a miscarriage. And the horrific Handsaw – a giant saw used to cut an upside-down victim in half from the groin – was punishment for homosexual men. To think that such brutal cruelty was used to punish such natural acts was overwhelmingly sad.
Exhibition organizer Zbigniew Perzyna asks visitors to leave the collection “more aware of the existence and application of all kinds of coercion in society” and justifies exposing visitors to such gruesome cruelty by recognising that it is part of our history.
Unfortunately, I was left thinking that such cruelty is still a large part of our society today and that before we go and congratulate ourselves for getting rid of The Rack, Breast-Ripper and Iron Shoe we should consider that 400 years on, homosexuality is still illegal in 37 African countries, abortion is illegal in 97 countries and female genital mutilation still takes place in 28 African countries.
We may not be living in medieval times, but we still have a long way to go to rid cruelty and injustice from our society.
Medieval Torture Instruments will be shown at The Collection until 2nd September 2012. This is the first time it has been shown in Britain. For more information please go to: