This week I am writing from Belgium, Bruges to be precise. As readers of the blog know, I have been lucky enough to be accepted to speak at an international conference at Ghent University for the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals, entitled “Life and Death in the c19th Press.” To make the most of the trip I headed to Bruges with my girlfriend for a few nights before the event. So, as I’m in Belgium I thought i’d try to do a Belgian blog – when in Rome and all. Initially I was stuck for a topic, unless I could find some form of state sponsored death by chocolate/moule or frite I thought I would struggle. So imagine my amazement when I popped out of a chocolate shop and saw this across the road.
Nestled amongst rows and rows of chocolate emporiums, of varying quality, is this rather bizarre monument to the history of human torture. I couldn’t not go in. The museum is housed in the “Oude Steen” meaning old stone and it is “one of the oldest historical European prisons.”* My initial presumption was that it would be the classic, London Dungeon style, cobwebbed basement with some Baldrick lookalike hobbling in and out of the shadows ready to scare any unwitting tourists by leaping out at an inopportune moment. As it happened, it was actually a very measured and interesting history of the instruments of torture and their use in the justice system across Europe from the c12th-c18th.
One particularly interesting and rare feature of this museum is its attempt to make the viewer question what they see. It is not enough to passively view brutal instruments of torture and see them merely as awful anachronisms from a barbaric past. This questioning is perfectly elucidated in the following entry on the Museum’s website.
Yes the devices are cruel, diabolic sometimes. But what is the real instrument of torture, the device or the humans? The devices are designed to inflict intensive pain on individuals, but humans are the ones who built and operate the torture machines and instruments.
When confronted with horrific implements of torture, the work of Hieronymus Bosch often springs to mind. An artist who is often seen as having an astonishingly dark and twisted mind, but his graphic depictions of torture are often merely representations of everyday violence meted out by the authorities of the day or in ages past. The truly horrific thing is that he is merely shining a light on human violence.
In many ways, torture and the methods employed for punishment are the best window we have onto a society. How we treat our fellow man is indicative of who we are and what we are willing to accept as a nation. Are we not implicit then in the torture whether we perform it or not, surely in our accepting silence we condone it. Now this may seem a fairly moot point, surely none of these barbaric practices still happen today, until you stumble across the museums early example of waterboarding, a practice widely adopted by the US in the War on Terror and given the UK’s assistance through its secret involvement in the CIA’s rendition programme. The fact that we cannot see what goes on, unlike many of the old public punishments, does not in any way alleviate our culpability in the endeavour.
One thing that jumped out particularly in the exhibition was the frequently sexual nature of the punishments. It is both horrifying and astonishing how often the genitals were the focus of torture. Perhaps I am looking at it from too modern a lens, but i did find it striking especially given the devout nature of many of the societies detailed.
On a similar theme, one particular punishment resonated with a current news story. In the press and online there has been much discussion over pop star Rhianna’s new music video. The video in question depicts fairly graphic and sexualised violence towards a woman and it has, rightly i think, raised anger particularly in feminist circles (although it should be noted that some feminists have argued in support of it). One particular image has been shown quite frequently from the video and it crossed my mind when I saw the punishment of Strappado.
On the theme of sexual violence, it is worthy of note that three doors down from the Torture Museum there is a sex shop, whose window display carries many examples of products whose antecedents could be found in the museum. Perhaps the torture of the past is our titillation today.
Another thing that becomes apparent, looking at this historical span of punishments is that female punishments, as was common across Europe were as much about shaming as they were about inflicting physical pain. This is not to say that women were excluded from the more brutal forms of torture, more that their punishments more often involved some form of public disgrace – arguably more damaging. In one particularly elaborate example, two women appeared to be locked together in a board with their hands placed in a cupped position near their mouths to show that they were gossips. Similarly, for men many of the punishments involved explicitly visual reminders of the nature of the crime. In one case, a man convicted of gambling was chained with die. An awful antecedent of this could be found later in the museum, in a text describing an Ancient Egyptian punishment for the crime of murdering your own child. The guilty parent would be forced to tie the dead child around their neck and leave them there until their body decomposed.
I should say that my time at the museum was perhaps slightly uncharacteristic of a normal visit, as after asking the guide a question, he sent for the owner and we had a fascinating 30 minute chat on the whole notion of torture and its place in society. He has been kind enough to lend me a book and I have in turn hopefully informed him about some elements of English Capital Punishment that he was unaware of. After half an hour I realised I had perhaps made my girlfriend suffer for too long on what was supposed to be a two day pre conference holiday. Although, given the examples in the museum, her suffering was comparatively minor.
Right, it’s 1 am and I think that’s about my limit. I’ll leave you with some lovely photos of Belgium to compensate for the psychological scarring any of the earlier images may have done.
Distraction 1: Amber private view
I was lucky enough to go to the private viewing of Amber’s photographic archive that is now on display at the Laing Art Gallery. Readers of this blog will know I am a huge fan of Amber and their fantastic social documentary photography throughout the years and this exhibition is a rare chance to see a wide selection of their work (while they are undergoing a fantastic building renovation. Not to be missed. Below is a photo from Nick Hedges’ 1981 Fishing Industry series, one of my favourites – I have several of the prints around the house as they sold copies of the series for a bargain £3.
Distraction 2: Lemmy – BBC Four
A few weeks back I stumbled on a great, feature-length, documentary on Lemmy. I am not a particularly big Motorhead fan, I would say I’m largely agnostic although a few of their songs are fantastic, but this was a great watch. He’s a fascinating character in many respects, at once a legendary rock star and also a retiring and quite closeted man happiest when he’s sat on his own at a bar playing a one-armed bandit for hours. In many ways his look and outsider personality made me think that in another era Lemmy could well have been an executioner. I’ll leave you with his own words as proof.
Pushing up the ante, I know you wanna see me,
Read ’em and weep, the dead man’s hand again,
I see it in your eyes, take one look and die,
The only thing you see, you know it’s gonna be,
The Ace Of Spades