A touching tale of tonguescrews

The sentence was arresting, even against the backdrop of routine horror that comprises the Martyrs Mirror:

Seven were burned alive before Easter, their mouths having been screwed together with screws; and the last mentioned four, in like manner, on the 20th of May of said year.

What?

The Mirror has started to take a more horrifyingly detailed turn in its account of the 16th Century with vivid descriptions of Anabaptists being “ruptured” on the rack, hung by their arms with weights on their feet and urine being poured in their mouths. But that is all run-of-the-mill, standard issue medieval justice. This mouth-screwing business was new to me. Fifty pages later, it got a little clearer with the account of the deaths of Abraham Picolet, Hendrick van Etten and Maeyken van der Goes in Antwerp in 1569:

Thus the tyrants satisfied their desire on these three lambs for the slaughter, and had them burned alive the following day, after they had fastened their tongues out of their mouths with screwplates to prevent them from speaking.

Ah! It was a censorship thing. Can’t have these crazed radicals infecting the bloodthirsty mob with their non-violent, delayed dunking theology while our humble public servants are busily trying to barbecue them! It also appears to be big in Antwerp in the late 16th Century. The practice gets a new torturous wrinkle in the story of Jelis Claverss and Co. in Antwerp in 1571:

…These new Pharisees, the monks, on the other hand, caused screws to be put on the tongues of these pious and faithful witnesses of God, and the tip of the tongue touched with a red hot iron, that the swelling should prevent it from slipping out.

Ouch.

I looked up tonguescrews on Google, The Source of All Knowledge, and was dumbfounded that the first page was almost entirely Mennonite sources. At first, I thought Google had finally gone sentient and was trying to cater to my browsing habits, but I gradually came to understand that the tonguescrew is a powerful symbol of oppression and censorship in the modern Anabaptist community, inspiring both a one-act play and the title of a book of poems and essays on the Mirror.

A print from the Martyrs Mirror, depicting the son of Maeyken Wens shifting through her ashes to find the tonguescew used to silence her at the stake.

The favored story of the tonguescrew is the heartbreaking account of Maeyken Wens of Antwerp, who was burned to death with one in her mouth in 1573. According to the story, her 15-year-old son took his 3-year-old brother with him to watch his mother die. He fainted when she was tied to the stake, but came to consciousness after she died and sifted through her smoldering ashes to find the screw and keep it in her memory.

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5 Responses to “A touching tale of tonguescrews”

  1. It’s great that you found my forthcoming anthology in your exploration of the tongue screw. Apparently, you can purchase replica tongue screws for the edification/horrification of your Vacation Bible School class.

    I arranged Tongue Screws and Testimonies in sections by recurring images, like Fire and Book–and one of them is, simply, Tongue. Many poets and writers with Mennonite roots are drawn to the image of the tongue screw, a physical manifestation of silencing.

    I look forward to exploring this blog further–I’ll add it the the book site’s resource list.

  2. […] late September, I posted my examination of the tongue screw, a medieval torture device used to silence condemned Anabaptists, lest they […]

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