The Middle Ages is the period most famous for terror today, primarily the Western European Middle Ages. The "dark Middle Ages" image prevails among a large part of the population, where the walls have ears, and nothing can be said against the government. The opposite was often followed by a severe form of torture and death.
But was it really so? Let us dig into the most famous medieval torture devices.
The Most Famous Medieval Torture Devices
The Middle Ages were a fruitful period in human history regarding the frequency of use of torture devices and the imagination with which they were made.
But while most people first think of diabolical devices like the Iron Maiden, whose historical authenticity is still debated, the reality is different. For the most part, the methods and medieval torture devices used were essentially simple and economical. Why invest big money in making a complex device like an iron maiden that requires a skilled engineer and a lot of expensive iron, when a more uncomplicated and more affordable device made of wood, or using a single knife could have an equally good, if not better, effect.
But this does not mean that the medieval torture devices used were utterly devoid of a kind of extravagance, and some of these methods were used not only to torture prisoners but also to organize a public spectacle to thwart possible criminals and to show power and domination.
Medieval torture devices were numerous and varied throughout the Middle Ages and early modern times, but we focus on the nine most famous devices and how they were used.
1. The Rack
The rack was one of the most commonly used medieval torture devices and a frequent guest of most medieval dungeons. The rack was composed mainly of wood for the economy and less often of iron and had to have one roller at its end or two rollers at both ends. The victim would be attached to the rack and using a pulley, the roller would rotate, and the victim's limbs would be stretched, causing pain and damage to the victim's limbs.
The rack allowed many variations on the theme, and often there was psychological torture of prisoners that would force them to watch the rack in action, which often led to confessions without the rack being used on its own. Once attached to this medieval torture device, prisoners could be tortured by burning their skin with a hot iron or torch or pulling their nails out.
Often, after being on the rack, the prisoner would have been distorted to non-recognition, as there was excessive stretching of the muscles. This led to their atrophy, or sprained joints and ruptured ligaments, which meant a painful scene for those forced to watch.
Strappado is a form of medieval torture device where the victim's hands are tied behind their back, and then the victim would be hung from a raised wooden beam with a rope tied around their wrist, which almost always resulted in dislocated shoulders. Victims were rarely allowed to hang for over an hour without rest as the stress to which the body was subjected when the entire weight rested on the wrists resulted in death.
If the victim was smaller, weights were hung on their legs to increase the pain and the effect of the strappado. There were even forms of strappado where the victim would be pushed to fall from a height, thus tightening the rope and dislocating or broking the victim's shoulder.
The Pillar of Shame was a form of punishment that was seemingly easier for the body than other forms of medieval torture devices. Still, its primary purpose was not to inflict injury and pain but to subject it to public ridicule and disgrace, as its name suggests.
It did not necessarily have to be a pillar. In many cities, there were wooden frames where defendants would drag their heads and hands, then the frame would be locked, and the victim would be left standing in an awkward position for a certain amount of time. Torture would often not last more than a few hours, and apart from the back pain that the defendant would feel after a certain amount of time spent in a bent position, the bulk of the punishment would come from passersby.
These medieval torture devices were placed in public places, often raised so that people could see the offender better. Passers often threw ugly words, rotten food, and stones in the prisoners' direction, which sometimes led to the prisoner's death.
The pillory had also been used in combination with other means of torture and medieval torture devices such as whipping, cutting off ears in more serious offenses, or shaving the head to intensify embarrassment.
Daniel Defoe, the Robinson Crusoe writer, was subjected to a pillar of shame. Still, he was showered with flowers by passersby because he was accused of defamation against the Court, a crime that met with much sympathy from passersby.
The thumbscrew is one of the simplest medieval torture devices, and like the pillory, it is intended at the beginning of the torture process. Prisoners would be subjected to more severe forms of torture, such as the rack if they did not give in to the pain of the thumbscrew.
This medieval torture device is, in fact, a simple squeak or clamp, identical in its work to clamps that many people own, with the difference that its purpose is not to fasten wood or tools for further processing but to inflict pain and injury to the defendant's fingers.
The thumbscrew was highly portable, smaller variants could fit in a pocket, and it worked by placing the fingers, or in larger variants the whole hand or foot, between two metal plates which were then tightened using two screws on opposite sides of the plates. This posed immense pain, or with stronger squeezing led to breaking of the fingers.
5. Water Torture
Immersion has experienced tremendous popularity as a method of identifying witches. The people in that time believed that if a woman sinks, she is innocent, and if she floats is a witch (since her rejection of the holy water by which she was baptized, she is now rejected from all waters).
In establishing innocence, the victim could be left in the water for too long, which led to drowning. Water torture was used to catch witches and as a punishment for quarrelsome people, most often women, dishonest merchants, or innkeepers who sold rotten beer.
As for the torture itself, it mostly came from the public ridicule, less from the immersion itself, although when immersing in colder climates, it used to lead to hypothermia. Apart from that, the process was primarily painless for the victim.
There were several ways of water torture. The most common and simplest medieval torture device was a chair to which the defendant would be tied with a rope and then one or more times lowered into a river or lake.
One of the more popular methods of torture that did not require a developed infrastructure was the mutilation of prisoners. The methods of mutilation were varied and often did not require special devices other than a blade and chains or a pair of strong hands to keep the prisoner calm while the torturer was doing his job. Mutilations ranged from cutting off parts of the tongue for crimes involving speech against a king or ruler to, particularly painful nail tears.
One of the most famous medieval torture devices used for mutilation was the Spanish spider. This is an exotic name given to ordinary pliers used to pluck and inflict pain and injury on victims. Pliers ranged from regular forging pliers to specially designed pliers with teeth or sharp edges specifically designed to pluck human flesh.
7. Iron Chair
The iron chair was one of the medieval torture devices of a more expensive but simple concept. As its name suggests, it was a chair made of iron with a multitude of spikes that varied in size and sharpness from chair to chair. The victim would be strapped to a chair with a leather strap, and as the torture or extortion of information progressed, the straps would tighten more and more, driving the needles deeper and deeper into the victim's flesh.
As the victim was often confined to this medieval torture device for hours, infections could occur, fatal even after the victim was released. At the same time, blood loss became a problem only after discharge from the chair as the spikes did not allow large amounts of blood to flow and were too short to pierce organs.
In combination with the chair, a fire was often ignited under the chair, and the temperature would gradually rise, eventually burning the victim while they were still alive.
8. Rats Torture
Medieval dungeons were not the epitome of comfort, often small and cramped without windows. Rats were a standard part of every medieval cell, in addition to other animals that like to live in dark and humid conditions. In addition, when housed in basements, the lack of light combined with moisture meant fertile ground for fungi, various insects, and rats.
Rats are much more combative than mice, the largest can grow up to half a meter, and when hungry or panicked, they can be dangerous to humans, especially in larger numbers. So many Catholic prisoners mention the so-called "rat room" in the Tower of London, which was set below the water level for the highest tides, which meant that during low tide, many rats would enter the dungeon where, in addition to causing psychological terror over the prisoners, attacked prisoners for leftover meals, and even gnawed and bit off pieces of their bodies while prisoners slept.
Add to this the fear of rats the plague pandemic that has ravaged Europe – and you get an effective and easily available means of torture. But if the rats 'attacks alone were not enough, the rats could have been used even more effectively in a particular medieval torture device.
Rats were placed in a jug and put on the naked belly of the prisoner. If the feeling and occasional bites of a multitude of rats were not enough, torturers would put hot coals on top of the jug, causing the rats to gnaw and scratch the prisoner's skin with their claws in an attempt to dig their way to freedom until they reached victims' intestines when the prisoner was already dead.
9. The Scold's Bridle
This last medieval torture device on this list was not often used outside of England and Scotland but deserved its place here because of the specific crime for which it was used. Namely, while fights between men were illegal and defendants were arrested for disturbing public order, quarrelsome women would be explicitly detained for the crime of arguing too loudly in a public place.
Although this medieval torture device was used for lesser crimes, the punishment provided for it was definitely not easy to bear, and that punishment foresaw the reins of the quarrelsome. The device consisted of metal reins or a helmet that closed around the head with a metal plate that entered the quarrel's mouth and pressed her tongue. Thus preventing her from speaking except mumbling and kept her mouth constantly open, which often caused salivation, pain, and tightness in the muscles.
Of course, the primary purpose was public ridicule which is why quarrels were often led through the streets to be subjected to laughter from the locals. Some variations had bells or shapes of animal heads to contribute to the slander, and as the convict could not speak, the victims of her quarrels could insult her without fear of retaliation.
Although this treatment was primarily for women, occasionally, men were found in the harness. For the perpetrators of this crime, a variant with sharp spikes on the lip plate would pierce the tongue or lips with each attempt to move the tongue, further injuring and causing pain to the defendants. Indeed, one of the more special medieval torture devices, although inhumane, is not as severe as the above methods.