The medieval ‘Shame Flute’ was used to punish bad musicians in the Middle Ages

9 January 2020, 13:08

The Medieval 'Flute of Shame' was used to humiliate bad musicians
The Medieval 'Flute of Shame' was used to humiliate bad musicians. Picture: Joe Routon/Facebook

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Forget social media trolling: this is how bad musicians were punished in the Middle Ages.

This is a Flute of Shame:

Flute of Shame
Flute of Shame. Picture: Joe Routon/Facebook

It’s a medieval torture device that was used – once upon a more primitive time – for publicly shaming bad musicians and other disturbers of the peace.

The contraption, which is essentially a heavy iron flute – although you probably wouldn’t want play it – was shackled to the musician’s neck.

The musician’s fingers were then clamped to the keys, to give the impression they were playing the instrument.

Finally, just to further their humiliation, they were forced to wear the flute while being paraded around town, so the public could throw rotten food and vegetables at them.

At the time, it was considered a fitting punishment for crimes against music.

But the Shame Flute – which is probably, if we’re being picky, closer in appearance to today’s clarinet – wasn’t just used to punish devious musicians. It was used on pretty much any public performer whose work was considered objectionable.

Played your lute a bit out of tune? Shame Flute. Dropped a couple of juggling balls while jesting? Shame Flute.

For any entertainer in the Middle Ages, the flute of shame was the ultimate punishment for not spending enough time in the practice room.

Medieval Shame Flute - found in Rothenburg, Germany
Medieval Shame Flute - found in Rothenburg, Germany. Picture: Medieval Crime Museum

Today, you can find an original Shame Flute, or Schand Flöte, in the Medieval Crime Museum in Rothenburg, Germany. There’s also one in Amsterdam’s Torture Museum.

We’ll start taking suggestions now on which musicians should wear the Flute of Shame in 2020...