Looking at the picturesque fairy-tale town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, you’d never guess that one of its main attractions was a museum about torture. And while most people have heard of medieval sanctions like being pilloried or hung, drawn, and quartered, some of the instruments of punishment featured in the Medieval Crime and Justice Museum are so bizarre, they’re almost funny.
The village of Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Back in the day, courts didn’t just penalize crimes like theft or murder. Even minor transgressions like bickering or playing music badly were punishable by law. People who committed these offenses were sentenced to public humiliation—much like Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones. For example, if you were caught cheating, you had to wear a heavy necklace of wooden blocks painted to look like dice.
The entrance to the Medieval Crime and Justice Museum
If you think making it as a musician is tough these days, at least you don’t get punished for playing out of tune. Back in the day, offending minstrels were made to stand in public while wearing an iron flute around their necks, with their fingers positioned as if they were playing.
A flute of shame
If you were a baker who lied about the weight of your bread, you could be subjected to a “baker’s baptism,” in which you were put in a cage and repeatedly dunked into a river.
Depiction of a "baker's baptism"
Gossiping was heavily frowned upon as well—those caught in the act had to wear masks of shame, while the townspeople jeered and threw rotten fruit at them. The masks were usually symbolic of the wearer’s crime. For example, busybodies’ masks had glasses and a long tongue to show that the bearer saw everything and talked about everything.
Women wearing shame masks
This being the dark ages, some of the punishments were deeply sexist. For example, women who frequently scolded or nagged their peers had to wear a neck violin or “shrew’s fiddle.” Those who constantly fought with each other were forced to stay together in a double neck violin until they got along.
A neck violin
A double neck violin
Premarital sex was a serious crime as well. A woman whose virginity was no longer intact had to be rolled in a barrel by the man she’d done the deed with. The offending couple was barred from being married in a church. Instead of a veil, the bride had to wear a headpiece woven from straw.
While historians today generally don’t believe that chastity belts were really used during the medieval ages, there are a few on display at the Medieval Crime and Justice Museum.
A chastity belt
But men weren’t completely off the hook either. Lechers were made to put on masks with a pig snout in place of a mouth, or were pilloried in a special neck violin with a phallic symbol on it. Some shame masks had horns, chicken feathers, and mustaches twisted up at the ends to signify the man’s lack of sexual restraint. Bells attached to the mask rang whenever the wearer moved. Frankly, some of these masks could come in handy for today’s catcallers and sex offenders.
A neck violin for "immoral people"
In any case, one thing’s for sure: we’re glad we weren’t born during the Middle Ages. Then again, if you take trial by social media into account, today’s society might not be as different as we think.
If you're planning a trip to Germany and find yourself interested in visiting the Medieval Crime and Justice Museum, don't miss their special exhibition called "With the Sword or Strong Faith—Luther and the Witches," which runs until the end of 2018. It traces the history of people's belief in witches from its beginnings to the end of the major witch hunts in the 17th century, and delves into Martin Luther's attitude towards this phenomenon.