From classical antiquity to much of the early modern period — when there were no hard-written criminal laws — brutal tortures were a common method to serve punishments.
During the middle ages, committing a crime wouldn’t have landed you in a confinement cell, which we now call a prison, but may have your limbs dislocated on the breaking wheel, or forced to wear a slowly tightening steel boot.
Furthermore, culprits were punished by various unusual and wicked punishments. Suffocating in water and poisonous gases, boiling them in oil and chopping off their fingers were some of the common punishments at that time. Below, we have listed a dozen of brutal punishment techniques that were used in the middle ages.
Before you proceed, be warned that you may find some of the graphics below disturbing.
12. The Pear of Anguish
The pear of anguish in Lubuska Land Museum, Poland | Image Courtesy: Jan Mehlich/CC ShareAlike 2.5
The pear of anguish, also known as choke pear, is an ancient instrument used to torture criminals accused of blasphemy. The instrument featured about four (sometimes three) metal leaves with a screw mechanism on top. It was forced into one of the many entry points (mouth, vagina, etc,) in victims.
When inside, the torturers then slowly turn the screw to open up the metal leaves, inflicting pain and injuries. The pear of anguish was most likely used as a secondary torture mechanism.
11. Iron Chair
Iron chair at Torture museum in Amsterdam | Image Courtesy: Sandeep Singh Thukral
The iron chair was a fairly popular torture device in medieval Europe. The features of the iron chair varied from time to time. In many cases, culprits were seated onto the chair, with brass plates, placed directly above a blazing fire, slowly grilling them alive.
In another instance, the iron chair featured hundreds of tiny spikes on its seat, armrest and leg rest. Although these spikes were not able to penetrate internal human organs, death was usually caused by infection and excessive blood loss.
The iron chair, even though painful, had a more psychological effect than physical. Torturers often forced other culprits to witness victims getting tormented to obtain their confessions.
The blinding of Samson (1636) by Rembrandt van Rijn
Blinding or eye-gouging is known since the Antiquity as a form of punishment or torture. It can be executed by forcefully pressing the eyes using fingers or any pointy instrument. Abacination was another way to blind a victim by placing a hot metal plate on top of their eyes.
In 2009, Iran carried out the first-ever retribution judgment (in the modern era) where an acid attack convict’s eye was medically removed.
Interesting Fact: Eye-gouging, among other gruesome acts, was part of the sporting tradition in the rural Southern United States during the 18th and 19th century.
Crux simplex by Justus Lipsius.
Crucifixion has long been used as a method of torture in which victims were nailed to a large wooden block and left hanging until they finally succumb to death. In most cases, crucifixion served as an ultimatum to any future perpetrators.
The wooden block, known as the gibbet, on which the execution is carried out can be of different shapes. During one point of time, it was made of just a simple wooden stake (crux simplex). Also, there are few known instances where victims were impaled or crucified inverted position (head down).
The earliest known archaeological evidence of crucifixion was found in 1968 at a small Israeli settlement in Jerusalem.
8. Hand Sawing
A Spanish Inquisition era torture saw | Image Courtesy: Jerónimo Roure Pérez
Death by sawing was a fairly common sight in Europe and many Asian countries during the middle ages. In this form of execution, victims were sawed in half (either vertically or horizontally). These executions were often witnessed by the public either by their own accord or forcefully.
Multiple instances of execution-by-saw have been recorded in the Americas in the mid-1700s.
7. The Rack
The legal method of torture Constitutio Criminalis Theresiana (1768)
The rack was a torture/interrogation device used during the middle ages throughout Europe and parts of Asia. The purpose of this device was simple; slowly stretching every joint in the victim’s body to induce almost unbearable pain.
Suspects or convicts were chained by their wrists and ankles to rollers located on both ends of the wooden frame. The chains were then slowly retracted using a ratchet mechanism (attached to the rollers) causing the joints to stretch and even fracture.
The last known use of such a torture mechanism was done in 18th century in Russia.
6. Breaking wheel
The breaking wheel
The breaking wheel, or the execution wheel, was much like a large wagon wheel with radial bars although small modifications were often added.
Convicts were first tied to the wheel and then beaten by an iron club until every limb in their body is broken. Much to the horror, several accounts exist of victims being conscious for four days before finally succumbing to death.
It is most likely to have originated from France and was widely used during public executions in medieval Europe.
5. The Vice
The 17th-century thumbscrew at Berlin museum
The “Vice” incorporates various tools and instruments designed specifically to conduct violent tortures or interrogations.
One of these tools was the infamous knee splitter — featuring two wooden blocks, each with several protruding spikes. When clamped together, the spikes on wooden blocks would seriously damage knee ligaments. Though it was not fatal.
Another horrific vice tool was skull-crusher. As the name suggests, it was used to crush a human skull, placed between two metal bars, using a screw mechanism. Similar setup existed for fingers or toes.
4. Iron Maiden
Often described as one of the most excruciating torture device made in the middle ages, the iron maiden sure lived up to its reputation. A typical iron maiden design is similar to that of a sarcophagus. Earlier models were created with holes instead of protruding spikes, although long spears were manually pushed inside.
Not only did the victims suffer from grievous puncture wounds but also claustrophobia. Torturers were often careful not to impale vital organs which would end the victim’s life instantly.
Perhaps the most famous iron maiden ever built was that of Nuremberg, also called the Nuremberg virgin. It was first publicly displayed in 1802.
3. Rat Torture
Rat torture is as cruel as it sounds. While many variations of rat torture (that include a rat) exist, the most common way include forcing a rat (sometimes more than one) through the gut area of the victim.
The prisoner would be stripped naked with both legs and hands tied on a flat surface. Rats were then placed on his stomach inside a bottomless cage, which is slowly heated. To escape the heat, the rats would start aggressively biting and digging holes inside the body.
In modern times, reports of tortures involving rats have surfaced from South American countries like Chile (1973–1990) and Argentina (1976–1983).
The Judgement of Cambyses by Gerard David in 1498
Flaying is a torture method in which the skin is removed from the subject’s body. Flaying of humans was well-known before the common or Christian era. The earliest known practice of flaying is dated back to the Neo-Assyrian empire (883-859 BC). In medieval Europe, renegades were often flayed, or skinned alive in public.
Remnants of human skin (possibly from torture) have been discovered, attached to a door of the 12th-century church in Essex, England. Flaying can induce shock, hypothermia, and loss of bodily fluids ultimately leads to death.
1. The Cradle of Judah
The Cradle of Judah, also known as the judas chair, is a pyramid-shaped wooden structure or “chair” which was forced into the perineum region (anus or vagina) of the one accused.
With the help of ropes, the convicts would be lowered on top of the wooden structure. Tortures then let gravity to slowly stretch one of the most sensitive parts of the human body. Few additional weights were often added to speed things up for the worse.
Another torture device called the Spanish Horse was based around the same concept.