imagesThe hor­ror the human mind can invent for the pur­pose of inflict­ing suf­fer­ing on our fel­lows is on full dis­play at this macabre and dis­turb­ing museum in the Old City of Car­cas­sonne, France. The focus isn’t on the Span­ish Inqui­si­tion, which lasted longer and is more widely known, but an ear­lier one – the Medieval Inqui­si­tion that fol­lowed a cru­sade by the Catholic Church against the so-​called heretic Cathars. In the thir­teenth and four­teenth cen­turies, Car­cas­sonne and other medieval towns like Bezier and Albi were strong­holds of Cathar beliefs, and the Museum show­cases some of the nas­tier ways the Cathars were forced to con­fess to devil wor­ship before, more often than not, being burned at the stake.

Among the devices on dis­play are the iron maiden, the stretcher, the head crusher and the pul­ley device in which a vic­tim whose wrists were bound behind her was hoisted into the air and then dropped down, often with weights attached to max­i­mize the dam­age. To add to the grotes­querie, before being used, these instru­ments were often blessed with holy water.

Women accused of witch­craft seem to have made up a large num­ber of the vic­tims, but even an ‘overly talk­a­tive’ wife could be silenced behind an iron mask crafted with demon-​like ani­mal ears. One ghastly device was a sharp-​ponted cone the woman was forced to strad­dle while weights fas­tened to her arms inex­orably pulled her lower, for a slow, excru­ci­at­ing impalement.

Even musi­cians were at risk for tor­ture – one sinister-​looking device was, accord­ing to the descrip­tion, used to pun­ish “bad musicians”.

Would I rec­om­mend the Museum to any­one vis­it­ing the south of France? Well, on the one hand, to see these mon­strous but care­fully crafted instru­ments and real­ize they were actu­ally used for their vile pur­pose, is depress­ing in the extreme. The sense of relief, how­ever, upon walk­ing back into the cob­bled streets lined with bistros, bou­tiques, and stores sell­ing fake swords and dag­gers, feels infi­nitely sweet!

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