Jun 28, 2009
By David Morton
The Middle Ages were not a nice period to live in by our cushy modern standards. Most people were poor, they suffered from disease, and their freedom was owned by wealthy landowners. And if you committed a crime and could not afford to pay a fine, your hand might have been chopped off or your tongue and lips cut out.
Torture was not as common as many people think, but God forbid if the authorities wanted you to confess something! The Middle Ages were the golden age of torture techniques and devices that inflicted horrible pain. Today’s “sanctioned” torture techniques are designed to cause psychological or emotional distress, with some limited physical hardship. But the devices used in the Middle Ages were truly frightening to behold, and there were more than a few people in those days who enjoyed conjuring the most gruesome devices.
Warning: these descriptions are not for the faint of heart!
Impalement: A sharp pole is pushed, bottom upwards, through the victim’s body
If you were Vlad the Impaler (more commonly known as Dracula) of 15th century Romania, you simply impaled your victims by forcing them to sit on a sharp and thick pole. The pole was then raised upright and the victim was left to slide further down the pole by his or her own weight.
Often, the pole would emerge through the sternum so that its tip could be placed under the chin to prevent further sliding. It could take the victim three days to die. Vlad did this to between 20,000 and 300,000. It is said he enjoyed having a meal while watching impalements.
(Photo by Trevor Matich)
Judas Cradle: The victim’s orifice is painfully stretched, flesh ripped
The Judas Cradle was perhaps a little less sadistic than impalement but still gruesome. The victim’s anus or vagina would be placed over the point of the pyramid-shaped cradle, then lowered on it by ropes. The intended effect was to stretch the orifice over a long period of time, or to slowly impale.
The victim was usually naked, adding to the overall humiliation of the torture and sometimes weights were added to the legs to increase the pain and hasten death. This torture could last anywhere from a few hours to complete days. The device was rarely washed, so the victim could also be plagued with a painful infection.
Coffin Torture: Torture in a metal cage, pecked at by preying birds
The Coffin Torture was feared in the Middle Ages, and is often seen in films depicting the time (see Monty Python’s Holy Grail). The victim was placed inside a metal cage roughly made in the shape of the human body. Torturers could force overweight victims into a smaller device, or even make the “coffin” slightly larger than a victim’s body to make him more uncomfortable. The cage was frequently hung from a tree or a gallows.
Serious crimes, such as heresy or blasphemy, were punished by death inside the coffin where the victim was placed under the sun allowing birds or animals to eat his or her flesh. Sometimes onlookers would throw rocks and other objects to further increase the pain.
(Photo by Charles Bray)
The Rack: designed to dislocate every joint in its victim’s body
Who could forget the dreaded rack, commonly believed to be the most painful form of medieval torture? It consisted of a wooden frame usually with two ropes fixed to the bottom and another two tied to a handle in the top. As the torturer turned the handle, the ropes would pull the victim’s arms, eventually dislocating bones with a loud crack. If the torturer kept turning the handles (they often went too far) some of the limbs were torn right off the body.
In the later Middle Ages, a new variant of rack appeared. Spikes were added that penetrated the victim’s back when he or she were forced to lie on table. As the limbs were pulled apart, so was the spinal cord, increasing not only the physical pain, but the psychological pain of knowing that, even if he or she were to survive, mobility of any kind would be lost forever.
The Breast Ripper: Painfully tears and mutilates a woman’s breast
Used as a horrible punishment for women, the breast ripper was used to inflict pain, blood loss and the mutilation of their breasts. It was usually used for women accused of conducting abortions or of adultery.
The claws were often placed, red hot, on the victim’s exposed breasts, the spikes penetrating to achieve a powerful grasp. They were then pulled to rip off or shred the breasts. If the victim wasn’t killed she would be scarred for life as her breasts were literally torn apart.
A common variant was known as “The Spider,” which is a similar instrument attached to a wall. The victim’s breasts were fixed to the claws and the woman was pulled by the torturer away from the wall, removing or mutilating them. This was a brutal punishment that often resulted in the victim’s death.
The Pear of Anguish: Rips orifices, dislocates jaw bones
This brutal instrument was used to torture women who performed abortions, liars, blasphemers and homosexuals. The pear-shaped instrument was inserted into one of the victim’s orifices: the vagina for women, the anus for homosexuals and the mouth for liars and blasphemers.
The instrument consisted of four leaves that slowly separated from each other as the torturer turned the screw at the top. The device would tear the skin at the very least or expand to mutilate the victim’s orifice. It could dislocated or break the jawbones
Pears of Anguish still in existence are lavishly engraved or adorned to differentiate between the anal, vaginal and oral pears. This torture rarely brought death, but was often followed by other torture methods.
The Breaking Wheel: Designed to render vicitim’s limbs useless
Also called The Catherine Wheel, this device always killed its victim, but did so very slowly. The victim’s limbs were tied to the spokes of a large wooden wheel. The wheel was then slowly revolved while the torturer smashed the victims’ limbs with an iron hammer, breaking them in many places.
Once his bones were broken, he was left on the wheel to die. Sometimes the wheel was placed on a tall pole so birds could pick and eat the flesh of the still-living human. It could take up to two or three days for him to die of dehydration.
Sometimes it was ‘mercifully’ ordered that the executioner strike the criminal on the chest and stomach, blows known as the coups de grâce (French: “blow of mercy”), which caused lethal injuries, leading to the end of the death by torture.
Saw Torture: Common saw cuts victim in half
Saws were was common torture devices because they were readily found in most houses and no complex devices were required. It was a cheap way to torture and kill a victim accused of witchery, adultery, murder, blasphemy or even theft.
The victim was tied upside down, allowing blood to be diverted to the brain. This ensured that the victim maintained consciousness for as long as possible, it slowed the loss of blood and caused maximum humiliation. The torture could last several hours.
While some victims were cut completely in half as a symbolic gesture, most were only cut up to their abdomen to prolong the time it took to die.
The Head Crusher: Compresses the skull, shatters teeth, squeezes out the eyes
The head crusher was a popular torture method used by the Spanish Inquisition, among other users. The chin was placed over a bottom bar and the head under an upper cap. The torturer slowly turned the screw, pressing the bar against the cap. The head was then slowly compressed, first shattering the teeth into the jaw, then a slow death with agonizing pain. Some variants of this device included small containers that received the eyeballs as they were squeezed out of the victims’ eye sockets.
This instrument was an effective way to extract confessions, as the period of pain could be prolonged for many hours if the torturer chose to. If the torture was stopped midway, the victim often had irreparable damage done to the brain, jaw or eyes.
The Knee Splitter: Severs the knees and other limbs
Another tool favoured by the Spanish Inquisition because of its versatility, was the knee splitter. It was a vice-like instrument with sharp spikes outfitted on both sides of the grip. As the torturer turned the handle, the claws slowly squeezed against each other mutilating and penetrating the skin and bones of the knee. Although its use rarely resulted in death, the effect was to render the knees completely useless. It was also used on other body parts including elbows, arms and even the lower legs.
The number of spikes the knee splitter contained varied from three to more than twenty. Some claws were heated beforehand to maximize pain – others had dozens of small claws that penetrated the flesh slowly and painfully.
David Morton is a Vancouver-based blogger and writer, who is working on a novel about monasteries in the Middle Ages. He is also a teacher of English as a second language. You can read his blog at http://blog.dmorton.ca