The Medieval Dungeon

On July 7, 1584, Franz Schmidt, the official executioner in Nürnberg, beheaded Annela Moser. The married woman had been known to have realtions with 21 different men. Schmidt, known  as "Meister Franz", wrote this and other executions in his journal.

A popular destination for a pleasant day trip is the medieval dungeon in Nürnberg. The cells, for housing those held during pre-trial custody, and the torture chamber stand practically unchanged over the years.

The conditions in the dungeon, called Das Lochgefängnis in German, were less than comfortable. The completely dark cells were two meters by two meters and the walls were covered in wooden planks. A wooden bed and a bench stood in the cell, along with a bucket, for necessary business, covered with a wooden board that doubled as a table. Those being held had to pay for their accommodations. The well-to-do could afford more than bread and water and the destitute were at the mercy of charity or the city itself.

The dungeon dates back to 1322 with a well-documented history. The crimes, those that warranted such interrogations, were recorded in the city’s archives and ranged from slander and fornication to theft and murder. Once in custody, the accused would be encouraged to speak. The executioner showed the accused the torture instruments and perhaps demonstrated them. If the accused still refused, he or she would be further coaxed to talk by the executioner, who used the instruments to inflict pain: thumb screws, reverse hanging, fire (burning candles held under the armpits), or a combination of the above. 

Once the accused confessed, many crimes carried a death sentence. Beheading was quick and dirty (if the executioner struck true between the cervical vertebrae—if not, well, it was messy and painful.) Other methods included the breaking wheel (the body being bound to a wagon wheel and then beaten), hanging, burning at the stake and drowning. Some were buried alive.

This leads me to conclude that, in our present-day western, civilized court systems, parallels to the European Medieval and Early Modern Periods do not exist--to a certain extent. I do realize that there are many countries in the world that still use similar atrocious tortures and executions. And yet, we do still see this in our society, don’t we? How many executions were held in Texas just this last year?

For more information, see Das Lochgefängnis—Tortur und Richtung in Alt-Nürnberg, a reprint of the original book by Hermann Knapp from 1907, kindly released from the Geschichte Für Alle e.V., the historical society in Nürnberg.

2 comments:

  1. It just makes me want to vomit!
    That being said....although I could never sit in on a capital punishment case, I could see why people still want it....According to Wiki....46 were put to death by Lethal Injection in Texas in 2010...I struggle with thoughts of the victims, some of these crimes are so horrible, why should we give them any sympathy?? Should we house them for years and years? ...and yet..even with the death penalty people commit these crimes...you have to wonder are the right in the mind?...do they think they wont get caught? Do they just not care?

    Did you ever read In Cold Blood? Did they deserve the death Penalty?

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  2. This post was my follow-up to the incest court case from December. In one medieval incest-rape case, the girl was executed because the judge believed she must have seduced her father. It was also believed, that if the woman concieved, she must have enjoyed it, because conception only happened when a woman had an orgasm. I want to deal with this whole subject alone, though. I'm reading Joel Harrington's 'The Unwanted Child' and I'd like to review his book for you guys. He researched here in Nürnberg and put together some fine bits of information.

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