Last month I picked up this flier at an airport hotel in Amsterdam. As I was leaving early the next morning, I didn’t have the chance to check out the city’s Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments in person, but looking at its web pages and a few other materials online, I wonder what’s going on there. The Museum claims (from the flier):
In the Middle Ages, Torture was a widely known punishment for almost all crimes committed, ranging from rape to murder, and above all for heresy. (…) Museum of Medieval Torture instruments displays over 100 devices used to torture people during medieval times. This unique collection, recreated by pictures and drawings, serves as a grim reminder of how poorly humans can treat one another. As you look at the devices and read about how they were used, you’ll cringe… You’ll leave thankful our society has pasted [sic] the dark ages behind.
And cringe I did. My students know my response to this sort of nonsense: no, torture was not used as a form of punishment “for almost all forms of crime” in the Middle Ages, and definitely not for heresy. Medieval executions could certainly be grim, but torture, if applied, served to extract confessions, not to punish. It was a means of interrogation, to gather proof. And most importantly: there’s nothing particularly medieval about torture. Quite the opposite is true. As is well known, the Roman judicial system laid the basis of modern practice by allowing torture in the questioning of slaves, extending its application by the late Empire to lower-class citizens suspected of certain crimes against the state. Medieval authorities used it sparingly until the revival of Roman law around 1200-1250. Its widespread application is a typical feature of the Early Modern state in the 16th and 17th centuries, not the Middle Ages. And of course its heyday came in the 20th century (though the 21st century is off to a promising start in this respect, too). As my colleague and one-time co-author, Edward Peters, wrote so eloquently in his authoritative Torture (2nd edition, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996):
Paradoxically, in an age of vast state strength, ability to mobilize resources, and in possession of virtually infinite means of coercion, much of state policy has been based upon the concept of extreme state vulnerability to enemies, external or internal. This unsettling combination of vast power and infinite vulnerability has made many twentieth-century states, if not neurotic, then at least extremely ambiguous in their approach to such things as human rights and their own willingness (the states would call it ‘necessity’) to employ procedures that they would otherwise ostensibly never dream of.
He added, pointedly:
The best recent evidence indicates that torture is [now] used, formally or informally, in one country out of every three.
Little did he know, back in 1996, that his own country, the USA, would be among the happy 33% that practice torture today.
How fortunate indeed that we have “pasted” all of that behind! And then there is this: a little googling reveals that the Amsterdam Museum of Medieval Torture is only one local outfit of what looks like a commercial enterprise spanning the European continent with “torture museum franchises” in various cities: there is the Prague Museum of Torture, a Museum of Torture in Krakow, Poland, in Rüdesheim am Rhein, Germany, and a Museo della Tortura e di Criminologia Medievale in San Gimignano, Italy (attention folks: “The Museum of Medieval Torture is located right in the heart of the historical center of San Gimignano, near our welcoming and charming Hotel L’ Antico Pozzo, the perfect accommodation for your stay in Tuscany”; oh dear Santa Fina, tell me it’s not true). The San Gimignano museum states that it has “sponsored exhibitions of some of its more interesting pieces across the globe, from Argentina to Tokyo.” I am sure people in Argentina were bemused to learn from Italians that torture existed in … the Middle Ages. There are also signs of a local unit in Tallinn, Estonia, though that may have been a temporary exhibit. I suspect that much of the stuff in these places indeed consists of plates and “replicas” that can be easily packed up and moved elsewhere as soon as the local desire for torture titillation has dried up. They all have similar websites promising the same “medieval” horrors offered up with the same pious platitudes about human rights abuses in a distant past. The Amsterdam museum even promises “educational tours” but that webpage is still under construction. As far as I can tell, not a single object in these museums actually dates from the Middle Ages; and there is not a word of instruction on the real practice of torture, past or present, the mechanisms of power it serves, or the arguments invoked to legitimize it.
Oh yes: the Amsterdam Museum offers a children’s discount; bring your little ones, who can enjoy this for only 4 Euros!