What lies beneath splendour

Found the following whilst reading an *old book on archaeology and art:

[…] Nürnberg being a “free city” was governed by its own appointed magistrates, having independent courts of law. The executive council of state consisted of eight members, chosen from the thirty patrician families who, by the privilege granted to them from the thirteenth century, ruled the city entirely. In process of time these privileges assumed the form of a civic tyranny, which was felt to be intolerable by the people, and occasionally opposed by them. The fierce religious wars of the sixteenth century assisted in destroying this monopoly of power still more; yet now that it is gone for ever, it has left fearful traces of its irresponsible strength. All who sigh for “the good old times,” should not moralise over the fallen greatness of the city, and its almost deserted but noble town-hall; but descend below the building into the dark vaults and corridors which form its basement; the terrible substructure upon which the glorious municipal palace of a free imperial self-ruled city was based in the Middle Ages, into whose secrets none dared pry, and where friends, hope, life itself, were lost to those who dared revolt against the rulers.

There is no romance-writer who has imagined more horrors than we have evidences were perpetrated under the name of justice in these frightful vaults, unknown to the busy citizens around them, within a few feet of the streets down which a gay wedding procession might pass, while a true patriot was torn in every limb, and racked to death by the refined cruelty of his fellow-men. The heart sickens in these vaults, and an instinctive desire to quit them takes possession of the mind, while remaining merely as a curious spectator within them. The narrow steps leading to them are reached through a decorated doorway, and the passage below receives light through a series of gratings. You shortly reach the labyrinthine ways, totally excluded from external light and air, and enter one after another confined dungeons, little more than six feet square, cased with oak to deaden sounds, and to increase the difficulty of attempted escape.

To make these narrow places even more horrible, strong wooden stocks are in some, and day and night prisoners were secured in total darkness, in an atmosphere which even now seems too oppressive to bear. In close proximity to these dungeons is a strong stone room, about twelve feet wide each way, into which you descend by three steps. It is the torture-chamber. The massive bars before you are all that remain of the perpendicular rack, upon which unfortunates were hung with weights attached to their ankles. Two such of stone, weighing each fifty pounds, were kept here some years back, as well as many other implements of torture since removed or sold for old iron. The raised stone bench around the room was for the use of the executioner and attendants. The vaulted roof condensed the voice of the tortured man, and an aperture on one side gave it freedom to ascend into the room above, where the judicial listeners waited for the faltering words which succeeded the agonising screams of their victim.

So much we know and still see, but worse horrors were dreamily spoken of by the old Nürnbergers; there was a tradition of a certain something that not only destroyed life, but annihilated the body of the person sacrificed. The tradition took a more definite form in the seventeenth century, and the “kiss of the Virgin” expressed this punishment, and was believed to consist in a figure of the Virgin, which clasped its victim in arms furnished with poignards, and then opening them, dropped the body down a trap on a sort of cradle of swords, arranged so as to cut it to pieces, a running stream below clearing all traces of it away. […]

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*RAMBLES OF AN ARCHÆOLOGIST

AMONG OLD BOOKS AND IN OLD PLACES:

Being Papers on Art, in relation to

Archæology, Painting, Art-Decoration, and Art-Manufacture.

By FREDERICK WILLIAM FAIRHOLT, London, 1871