Monday, May 18, 2009
Take me to the river, dip me in the water
This bridge over the Ill river links Strasbourg’s Grand Ile to the riverbank, connecting at the foot of Old Fishmarket Street, roughly 200 meters from my old apartment. It looks picturesque enough here; as the summer progresses it is afflicted with botanical riots spilling out of flowerboxes mounted on the handrails, while barge-like tour boats push through the silvery water below.
Known today as Pont Corbeau – Raven’s Bridge – five hundred years ago the passage was known as the Supplicants’ Bridge. If a Medieval Strasbourgeois killed someone, and been in possession of such poor judgment as to allow themselves to be caught, they would be brought to this bridge. They would then be induced to take a place inside a small iron cage.
Cage and convict would be suspended by a rope from the bridge, and submerged repeatedly in the filthy, sewage-poisoned river. This would continue until such point that it ceased being entertaining for the crowd that had gathered to mock the killer’s pleas for mercy.
In later years, before the practice was replaced with more “humane” forms of state-sanctioned murder, the practice was largely reserved for adulteresses and prostitutes.
P.S. The cage itself was a later innovation. Whoever first conceived of this form of torture would tie the victim to a board, before dipping them in the water. It’s comforting to know we’ve progressed so far beyond such barbarity today.