Medieval Torture: A Look into the Gruesome Past

Medieval Torture: The Dark Side of Justice

Torture has been used throughout history as a means of extracting information, punishing crimes, and enforcing obedience. During the medieval period, it was used extensively as a tool of the state and the Church to maintain control over the population and to extract confessions and information.

There were few forms of entertainment available to the general public, and many people lived in poverty and had limited access to leisure activities. Public executions and tortures provided a form of entertainment that was both free and accessible to all members of society, regardless of their social status. People would gather to watch the spectacle of criminals being tortured, sometimes for hours at a time, and it was not uncommon for the crowds to cheer and jeer as the punishment was inflicted.

The Church also played a significant role in these public spectacles. They would use this as an opportunity to showcase their own power and to demonstrate the punishment that awaited those who strayed from the teachings of the Church. Executions of heretics, witches and other enemies of the Church were often carried out in a public manner so that it would serve as a warning and a reminder to the population.

 

Torture Rack at the Tower of London
Torture Rack at the Tower of London

Medieval Torture Instruments

The Rack

The rack, also known as the stretching rack, was a tool of torture that involved a bed-like open frame suspended above the ground. The victim’s wrists and ankles were tied with ropes that were pulled by poles inserted into sockets located near the head and foot of the rack. As the poles were turned, the victim’s joints were stretched and dislocated, causing severe pain.

It was first introduced to the Tower of London in 1420 by the Duke of Exeter and was commonly known as “The Duke of Exeter’s Daughter.” This device was often used by the yeoman warders to extract confessions and incriminating information from suspected traitors, heretics, and conspirators. Similar forms of the rack were also used in Ireland in the 17th century and later on in Portugal.

The Torture rack is not a unique invention of the medieval era, but was also used in ancient times. For example, during the time of Emperor Nero, it was employed to extract information from conspirators who had planned to assassinate him in 65 AD.

As described by Tacitus, a freedwoman was subjected to torture on the rack but authorities were unable to extract any information from her. She eventually took her own life by strangling herself using a cord attached to the chair that was used to transport her, as her bones were fractured and she couldn’t walk.

The Torture rack also appears in historical records from the early medieval period. But its usage became more prevalent during the Middle Ages and the High Middle Ages when the Inquisition was in full force and actively employed this method of torture.

The typical torture rack consisted of a rectangular frame raised slightly off the ground. The frame was often made of wood, but other materials could also be used. At one or both ends of the frame, there was a roller, which had a handle attached to it’s top. This roller was operated by pulleys and levers.

Another version of the rack, which had a shape of a horse, made of wood, was equipped with a beam on top, and pulleys below for binding the victim’s hands. Even though there were variations in design, most torture racks were quite similar in their structure.

The Thumbscrew

Thumb screw 17, Century; Märkisches Museum, Berlin

Thumb screw 17, Century; Märkisches Museum, Berlin

The thumbscrew is a torture instrument that was first used in early modern Europe. It is a simple vice that often had protruding studs on the inside surfaces. The crushing bars were sometimes lined with sharp metal points to puncture the nails and inflict pain on the flesh of the nail beds.

The most common design was used to crush a single thumb or big toe, but there were variations that could accommodate multiple digits such as both big toes, all five fingers of one hand, or all ten toes.

The origins of thumbscrew is debated, with some sources stating that it was introduced to the British Isles by the Spanish Armada in the 16th century, while others argue it was introduced later in the 17th century.

The instrument was used on prisoners, slaves and on Artemisia Gentileschi, an italian painter, during a trial to establish whether or not her virginity was taken by force by Agostino Tassi.

Ex-slave Olaudah Equiano documented the use of thumbscrews as a form of torture against slaves in his autobiography, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”. He wrote about how thumbscrews were used on slave ships to extract information and confessions from slaves, and also as a means of punishment and discipline.

In the book, he described the pain and suffering caused by the thumbscrews, and the fear that they instilled in the enslaved population.

Equiano’s autobiography was one of the first narratives to be published by a former slave and it helped to bring attention to the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. His account of the thumbscrews helped to shed light on the inhumane treatment of enslaved people, which further fueled the movement to abolish the slave trade and slavery.

The abolitionist Thomas Clarkson also carried thumbscrews with him to further his cause of the abolition of the slave trade and later the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire. They were commonly used on slave ships as well as in land-based slave trade.

 

The Iron Maiden

The Iron Maiden was a medieval torture instrument that was said to have been used in the Middle Ages, although there is no actual evidence that it was ever used.

It was said to be a large cabinet, usually made of wood, with a hinged front door that was lined with spikes on the inside. The victim would be placed inside the cabinet, and the door would be closed, impaling the person on the spikes. The spikes were often said to be arranged in such a way that they would miss vital organs, keeping the victim alive for a longer period of time before death.

The first known reference to an “Iron Maiden” is a 1793 book “The Chronicles of the Middle Ages” by Johann Philipp Siebenkees, which depicted a medieval torture chamber, but with no evidence that any such device had been used.

This was later popularized in the 19th century by German illustrated catalogues of torture devices, which used the name “Eiserne Jungfrau” (Iron Maiden). But this was all fictional, not real historical device.

Despite its reputation as a medieval torture device, there is little historical evidence of the Iron Maiden before the 18th century.

Some historical records such as the accounts by the Spartan tyrant Nabis, in 200 B.C. and by the Abbasid Vizier Ibn al-Zayyat who used a wooden chest with iron spikes, but it’s not clear if those stories are true or not. Wolfgang Schilds, a professor of criminal law, suggests that the iron maidens in museums around the world were actually pieced together from different artifacts found in museums, and were created for commercial exhibition.

This can be observed by 19th-century iron maidens on display in various museums, including the San Diego Museum of Man, the Meiji University Museum, and in torture museums in Europe.

 

The Medieval Crime Museum in Rothenburg
The Medieval Crime Museum in Rothenburg

Recommended Books

Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature: Negotiations of National Identity
Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literatureby Larissa Tracy
The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England
The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England
Medieval Punishments: An Illustrated History of Torture 1st Edition, Kindle Edition
Medieval Punishments: An Illustrated History of Torture 1st Edition, Kindle Edition
The Big Book of Pain Paperback by Donnelly
The Big Book of Pain Paperback by Donnelly

Featured Image

Constitutio Criminalis Theresiana (1768) – the approved methods of torture which could be used by the legal authorities to arrive at the truth.

A painting titled “The Torture of Cuauhtémoc” created in 1892 by Leandro Izaguirre, depicts the last Aztec ruler, Cuauhtémoc, being tortured by the Spanish conquistadors in order to reveal the location of remaining gold in the city of Tenochtitlan. The painting is currently in the National Museum of Art in Mexico City.

Leandro Izaguirre was a Mexican painter, illustrator, and teacher born on February 13, 1867 in Mexico City, and died on February 26, 1941 in Mexico City. He studied at the Academia de San Carlos in Mexico City starting in 1884. He is well-known for his painting “Torture of Cuauhtémoc” (1892) which he later presented in Philadelphia in 1893 and won an award for.

The painting is a realist portrayal of the last Aztec emperor Cuauhtémoc, and is considered as one of his famous work. In addition to his artistic career, Izaguirre also taught at the Academia, and had several works commissioned in Europe between 1904-1906. He also worked as an illustrator for the magazine “Mundo ilustrado”.

 

Sources

  • rack | torture instrument | Britannica. (2023). In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/technology/rack-torture-instrument

  • Online Library of Liberty. (2023). Libertyfund.org. https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/tacitus-the-works-of-tacitus-vol-1-gordons-discourses-annals-books-1-3

  • Torture Rack | Medieval Chronicles. (2015, April 11). Medieval Chronicles. https://www.medievalchronicles.com/medieval-torture-devices/torture-rack/‌‌‌

  • American International. (2013). Medieval Torture. Medievalwarfare.info. https://www.medievalwarfare.info/torture.htm#rats‌

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