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Torture Museums in Europe

By Rick Steves Modified: July 23, 2013 at 12:20 pm •  Published: July 23, 2013

You may think that the endless security lines at the airport are torturous--but they are child’s play compared with what heretics and criminals faced in the Middle Ages. Medieval torture was used both to extract confessions and to punish the convicted prior to execution. Torturers (who were often clergy) had a huge toolkit with which to practice their bleak black art.

      Nowadays, ridiculous torture exhibits are cleverly marketed all over Europe. They’re equipped with scary and gory gear--but most of it isn’t genuine. The purveyors make lots of money by appealing to the lowest desires of dumbed-down travelers willing to pay $15 to ponder the creative ways in which people have maimed and mutilated others through the ages.

      But in a handful of places, more thoughtful displays can be an insightful (if creepy) window into medieval criminal justice. At the Tower of London, for example, instructive exhibits recreate the Tower’s bloody history of torture and execution. Standing high above the rest of old London, the Tower was a gleaming reminder of the monarch’s absolute power over his subjects. If you made the wrong move here, you could be feasting on roast boar in the Banqueting Hall one night and chained to the walls of the prison the next.

      The limb-stretching rack was a favored device in the Tower. Like many instruments of torture, the threat of the device could be almost as effective as actually using it. Just the sight of the rack intimidated many a prisoner (guilty or not) into making a full confession. If you visit the Tower of London, be sure to take one of the included tours, led by a Beefeater guide who tells the Tower’s history with macabre enthusiasm.

      The Medieval Crime Museum in Rothenburg, Germany, specializes in everything connected to medieval criminal justice: the police, criminal law, and instruments of punishment and execution. In the Middle Ages, European courts considered torture to be a legitimate way of extracting confessions, names of accomplices, or the details of a plot--typically relating to the crime of treason against a king or nobleman. When it came to the Inquisition, the Church saw deviations from its doctrines as a treason against God--the King of Kings--and in that way justified its own use of torture.

      In southwest France, the fortress called Maison Forte de Reignac is scenically tucked into a rock face high above the Vézère River. Seen from the outside, you wouldn’t suspect that its rooms catalogue more than 60 instruments of torture. On view is an “iron maiden,” a coffin-shaped box lined with iron spikes. A variant was the torture chair, covered in spikes.

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