The horror in Prague!


Looking for hands-on ways to connect with daily life in pre-Hapsburg Europe? Thirty minutes in Prague’s Museum of Medieval Torture will scratch that itch. Its three-story Gothic tower shares a sixteenth-century foundation with the famous Charles Bridge over the Ultava River, and is well worth the two-dollar admission. The multi-language exhibit is not at all camp or tacky. It features tasteful velvet-roped displays of original wood and metal implements, some literally incomprehensible in their complexity; brass-and-glass cases with pages from illuminated manuscripts illuminating exactly how the devices were employed; poster-size broadsides and gazettes announcing public punishments; church decrees of excommunication; town hall records of court decisions; municipal wanted posters from all over Europe; and a thousand years’ worth of the mutilated skulls and bones of recalcitrant individuals who had been subjected to various methods of securing their prompt cooperation in matters spiritual, political, sexual, or economic. Here is everything from common- or garden variety thumbscrews and stocks, to the rack and the wheel, to gibbets and gallows, and how to build a better Iron Maiden (offset the nails to avoid vital organs). There are wooden rocking chairs as inviting as any you might find on a country store’s front porch with the exception of a thirty-inch iron spike set in the seat. The most graphically representative item—one that illustrates that pain really was the goal–prefigures the guillotine by several centuries: rather than make use of a heavy, angled steel blade to deliver a short, sharp shock, it consists of a dull wooden board secured in place perpendicularly to the prone victim’s neck while the executioner hammered away at it from above. It worked eventually. The second-most poignant souvenir of the bad old days was the collection of chastity belts. The museum offers textual evidence—first-person accounts in Latin—purportedly indicating that women themselves demanded them during times of war, despite pain and risk of fatal infection, in order to avoid the certainty of male attentions. Between decapitation and enforced celibacy, you may need only twenty minutes.

–Michael Gleason