February 3, 2023

What Can We Learn From Medieval Torture Instruments?

In a work by Venetian artist Sebastiano Del Piombo titled The Martyrdom of St Agatha (1519), the talented painter captures excruciating pain in the face of St Agatha of Sicily. In the painting, St Agatha is being tortured by Breast-Rippers – gruesome metal devices used commonly in Germany and France during medieval times to rip off women’s breasts. In the painting, Del Piombo’s contrast of sensuous flesh and the metal device is unsettling. And so too was viewing 50 instruments of Medieval Torture, including Breast-Rippers, currently on display at the Collection Museum in Lincoln.

Seeing these replica instruments of torture – gathered from European collectors and historians – in the environment of an art galley, seemed to strip them from the anguish they had caused. This allowed viewers to, in an unsettling way, recognise the instrument’s artistry. For example, the great care administered in carving ornate detail into the Iron Maiden – a large wooden contraction with a smiling face in which victims were shut inside and pierced with sharp instruments.

Such workmanship on such horrific instruments made me think of Hannah Ardent’s Banality of Evil; that the makers of these gruesome devises must have ‘accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal.’ This assumption was the only way I could justify such talented craftsmen creating things such as an iron shoes designed to crush foot bones as used in 17th Century Austria, and Spanish Tickle Torture, which stripped flesh from bones on the face, back and abdomen.

The type of ‘crimes’ that justified the use of these instruments was also interesting. 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 recognizing that it is part of our history. Unfortunately, I was left thinking that such cruelty was 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.

Medieval Torture Instruments will be shown at The Collection Museum until the 2nd of September. This is the first time it has been shown in Britain.

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