The medieval era saw the invention of some of the most cruel and painful methods of torture in history. From the 12th to the 15th centuries, in particular, increasingly sadistic methods of torture arose, driven by a desire to either extract confessions from victims or to enforce punishment on them.
Some methods of torture popularly associated with the middle ages aren’t grounded in truth, however. The iron maiden, for example, a cage lined with deadly iron spikes, appears in countless films and literature, as well as entertainment dungeons across the globe. But it was actually a Victorian fabrication to suggest the middle ages were more brutal than Victorian times. Nonetheless, equally brutal methods of torture were practiced in the medieval period.
From flaying a person’s skin to crushing their limbs in a vice, here are 8 of the most gruesome forms of medieval torture.
1. The rack
This mechanically simple torture device, first introduced in the Tower of London in 1420 by the Duke of Exeter, was popular due to its capability to inflict excruciating pain with the aim of extorting confessions – often false – from prisoners. The victim was tied to a wooden structure, either a wooden board or a ladder, as a system of cranks were turned, tightening the ropes that restrained the victim’s limbs, stretching them beyond endurance.
The torture would often leave victims unable to walk. In the case of religious reformer Anne Askew, who was condemned for heresy in 1546, her experience on the rack left her immobile and needing to be carried by a chair to the stake to be burned alive at Smithfield.
2. The breaking wheel
A torture device that appeared to be used more as a gruesome punishment with the aim to kill, rather than to extract confessions or information. The wheel was little more than the kind attached to wagons, only with teeth or cogs embedded on its surface to which the terrified victim was placed and tied with their limbs resting between the cogs.
Using a hammer, the torturer would smash the victim’s limbs over the wheel. The inevitable result after a prolonged period of agony for the victim was that once they were dead or barely alive, the wheel would be raised for spectators to see.
An alternative use of the device was tying the prisoner to the outside of the wheel with their feet tied to the ground. As the wheel was turned the victim’s restrained body would break, often resulting in instant death.
3. Rat torture
This sadistic form of torture is the kind that signifies the worst excesses of the human imagination and what it can be capable of in the name of punishment. The victim was bound to a table on their back as a rat was placed on the chest. A bucket or container made of metal or iron was placed over the rat, trapping it.
A fire was then started on top of the container, and the rat would panic from the heat and try to escape. As the creature couldn’t make its way out of the metal bucket, it would choose the softer option, frantically burrowing its way downwards into the victim’s chest.
4. The boot
The principle of crushing bones and limbs was a popular form of torture in medieval times, mainly because the devices used were simple to design and make. The boot, or ‘Spanish boot’ as it was sometimes called, was like a rack for the legs which would be placed in tightly fitted iron or wooden boots. Wooden wedges would then be inserted, and mallets or hammers would be used to drive the wedges in tighter, causing the breaking of bones in the victim’s feet.
A form of torture with religious connotations which goes back to Roman times, flaying was used for both punishment and a means to slowly and cruelly kill a victim. The Assyrians first used it around 883-859 BC where its vicious practice is depicted in ancient carvings showing a victim’s skin being stripped from the body using knives. It continued to be practiced in the middle ages.
Depending on how much skin was removed would result in the victim either surviving or dying, usually from shock or critical loss of blood.
Used in the late medieval period and early modern Europe, this simple device was considered one of the most effective torture tools. Mechanically more like a vice, its simple design consisted of two metal plates into which the victim’s thumb was placed and the vice tightened. Sometimes the device would have protruding studs on the interior making the crushing of bones all the more painful.
Metal points would puncture the nails and skin. Its advantage to the torturers was that the thumb screw’s use rarely brought about death or caused the victim to pass out, thus prolonging the barbaric activity for long periods.
Mainly associated with the torture of alleged ‘witches’, dunking was used more as a way of extracting a confession rather than killing. A victim was tied to a plank or bow and dunked headfirst into water, then pulled out on the point of drowning. ‘Cucking’ – dunking in public places – was also carried out as a form of humiliation.
A variety of versions were implemented, from the basic plank system to a chair that hung from a beam that was then lowered like a see-saw into the water. Famously used during the Salem Witch Trials in America, the cruel practice was at its height during the witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries in England. Replicas of ‘ducking-stools’ can still be seen in towns and villages across the country, such as Christchurch in Dorset.
8. Coffin torture
Not to be confused with being buried alive or walled up, this very public torture consisted of a person being confined to a very small metal or wooden cage which was then strung up to a hangman’s gibbet or tree. The bird-like cage was tight fitting and shaped around the body like a suit. The effect of the metal close against the skin was painful.
Coffin torture was used as a punishment for alleged misdemeanours such as blasphemy or insulting the monarch. It was made public, so angry mobs could vent their wrath by throwing missiles at the victim. This made the punishment both physically dangerous and emotionally traumatic. Death usually came about through exposure to bitter temperatures or through lack of water.