It is very interesting to me what makes (or doesn’t make) people squeamish. For lack of anything better on television this evening I found myself watching “Machines of Malice- Going Medieval” on the Discovery Channel. I don’t think it takes a great leap to figure out that the program dealt with the subject of torture devices. They were dealing with the common and mediapathic ones such as finger and skull crushers, the rack, and the pear of anguish. For each device an engineer tested a reproduction to demonstrate its effectiveness (or lack thereof), often with a neurobiologist to explain what physiologically results it would have (frankly I found her redundant in the case of the skull crusher).
Interestingly, the pear of anguish is featured in almost every History/Discovery Channel documentary on torture devices even though there is skepticism as to whether it had every actually been used (this particular show concluded that it probably couldn’t have been). Despite this, it is the pear of anguish and the Discovery Channel’s handling of its segment that sparked this post.
The pear of anguish, aside from having a nifty name, is a torture device that you may have seen under a more mundane nomenclature. In many ways it is remarkable similar to a modern speculum, although in some ways it is more like an anal rather than vaginal one. The device consists of several arms that fit together to form a narrow elongated form. When a screw at the back is turned the arms spread apart to form a conical shape. Depending on the victim’s supposed crime the device could be placed in a variety of orifices.
Having already demonstrated how the finger crusher would work on an uncooked chicken bone (“you can seen how the blood and marrow are forced out as the bone breaks, if this was a finger it would be rendered completely useless”) this point is where the Discovery Channel shows its frankly bizarre squeamish point.
They first explain that the pear of anguish would be used on blasphemers by inserting it into the mouth and expanding it until the jaw dislocated or broke. They have a CGI animated graphic to explain this for people who truly lack any imagination at all. As with the other devices both before and after on the show the narrator is a bit more enthusiastic than is strictly necessary.
Then homosexuality, which one of the people on the show (perhaps an anthropologist, I don’t remember) awkwardly explains “was looked on really badly back then.” You probably don’t need me to tell you that there is no CGI animation for how the pear was used on suspected queers. Here though is the phrase that inspired this whole post: they go on to explain that “for the crime of homosexuality, the pear of anguish was inserted into the relevant orifice and then expanded.” That’s it, homosexuality portion over.
Lastly we have adulterers who they explain in almost too graphic detail (still no CGI) would have the pear inserted vaginally (and yes they use the word “vagina”) and expanded “until the delicate mucosa tissue passes its breaking point and tears apart.”
This is the part that is really bizarre to me. The Discovery Channel feels comfortable saying “vagina” on this program and describing in somewhat horrific detail how the pear of anguish would destroy one, but can’t use the term “anus” or “rectum?”
This could be a regulator issue. Perhaps “anus” and “rectum” score higher on the questionable content scale that determines a show’s rating than “vagina” does. I can’t see why this would be, but I don’t find it all that implausible.
That said, I found the phrase “the relevant orifice” to be very dismissive. As in fact was the entire mention of torturing gays for being gay. This may not be reflective of a bias against gays. In fact if I had to guess I’d imagine that there is more than one person on the production crew whose “relevant orifice” would have been endangered back when the pear of anguish was supposedly used.
Perhaps what is more interesting than the use of the term “relevant orifice” is that there was little attempt to dismiss the use of the pear on adulterers or blasphemers. It’s as if by being dismissive the producers of the show are trying to reassure us that they don’t endorse the historic view of homosexuality as a crime. Blasphemy and adultery however, are still fair game.