While there’s nothing awesome about torture, the creativity and ingenuity that people have managed to use when it comes to hurting each other — particularly back in the bad old days when you couldn’t just go out and get some jumper cables and a car battery to strap to someone’s nipples – is pretty incredible.
Not only could they cause pain, but they often played on psychological fears, showing that even in the dark ages, the study of the mind was alive and well. It was merely being horribly misused to manipulate accused witches and dissenters against the church into confessing to crimes against God they didn’t commit.
For those of the macabre mindset, here are 26 fascinating medieval torture machines.
Not to be confused with the French Tickler that we’ve all got tucked into the bottom of our sock drawer for anniversaries, this is a set of claws meant to dig into the skin and penetrate down to the bone. It is then yanked away, pulling flesh and muscle with it in great chunks.
Simple, but effective, the iron chair pierced a person’s body at every point of contact, going deep enough to break the skin, but not far enough to damage any vital organs or major arteries. The person wouldn’t even bleed very much, since the chair would hold their blood in place until they were removed.
Meant to hold the neck in a single position, it was tightened just enough to be uncomfortable. The real torture came after days without being able to lay down, rest your head, eat, or swallow.
Pear of Anguish
Particularly hideous, the simple pear would be placed inside the orifice of a person and then gradually expanded. The kindest use was in a person’s mouth where it would ultimately shatter the skull, causing death. More gruesome is when it was used on parts in the lower half of the body which were rarely fatal, but excruciating.
Simple biology was used to make The Tub. A person was bound hand and foot so they could not escape, then their face was smeared with honey. Flies and other biting insects would be drawn to the person where they would eat the honey and crawl into the openings in the face. Prisoners tortured in this way were given food and water to keep them alive. As time went on, the person would be left in their own bodily wastes, where maggots would be laid that would eat the person’s body as they decayed, still alive.
Not the traditional coffin where a body is buried, but a simple metal frame that holds someone aloft, the coffin let birds peck away at the victim, as passersby could beat them or throw things as they saw fit, when there wasn’t anything worth watching on TV.
There’s several variations on the Pillory, of which the stocks is one. A person is put into a wooden frame that binds their head and hands. They’re then left to the mercy of anyone who deigns to abuse them, which often included everyone in town who wasn’t working.
A brutal method of slow-cooking, a hollow metal bull would be cast with a special gate on the side. Victims were placed inside, while a fire was lit beneath the belly. A vent at the nose allowed the person to breathe, but also amplified their screams to sound like a bull’s bellows.
A simple cord, the strappado would be tied around the victims wrists behind their back. They would then be dropped, yanking severely on the sockets of the shoulders. The forward leaning of the body and dislocated shoulders restrict breathing, for added discomfort.
A simple set of pincers, the shears would be heated up to red hot, then used to pull a person apart piecemeal, relying as much on the torturer’s savagery as the device itself.
A small ball on a handle, the sprinkler would be filled with molten lead or boiling oil and then used to dribble the searing liquid onto a person’s body. Usually this torture ended whenever the torturer felt like pouring molten silver into the victim’s eyes, killing them.
Though the favored way to die for martyrs, the Crucifix isn’t always a means of execution. Individuals can be nailed to it or bound by their hands and feet, then left to be pecked at by birds, abused by locals, and suffer the ravages of exposure for days without perishing.
Smashing and mashing seemed to be in vogue during medieval times, and the brodequin is evidence of that. A set of boards would be fitted around a person’s legs, and then wedges would be hammered into the gaps, often causing bones to literally burst through sheer pressure.
An example of a pillory-type device, this was mostly used for women who tended to nag. Since men weren’t bright enough to argue back, they would then stick the lady in this hideous contraption which didn’t allow her to feed herself and left her open to whatever cruelty the average person felt like dishing out.
Aptly named, this would be stuffed into the mouth, tightened down until it was holding the tongue, and then pulled gradually away, yanking along the tongue and any clinging meat that decided to go along for the ride out of the person’s head.
Another device geared right at women, The Spider would be heated up and shoved into the breast tissue, then pulled away, taking along much of the mammaries with it.
There’s a lot of variations on The Boot, with all of them intended to cause severe trauma to the lower extremities. Most often, the boot would be a pressure device made of wood or metal which could be tightened to mash the meat of the leg to pulp, lined with spikes for extra fun, or capable of breaking bones like a slower Brodequin.
Another fixture that shows the fascination of ancient torturers with people’s bathing suit area, the Judas Cradle is a massive pyramid that would be inserted into the anus or vagina of the victim, who would then be lowered onto it, stretching them out grotesquely.
Thumbscrew is the common name for Pilliwinks, which have a deceptively cute title. These took several forms, including the “head crusher” which was likely named by a 4-year-old, and the “knee-crusher” which he also labeled. They all do the same thing: Twist the plates like a vice, and they crush the thing between them.
Since the church was largely responsible for causing medieval torture, it’s no surprise to find that yet another one is aimed largely at women, who seem to be reviled by men of god for no rational reason. Here, people were suspended on a swinging arm out over a river and then dunked repeatedly in the water. Sometimes they would be bound in a bag, which would add disorientation to the waterboarding type exercise.
The wheel didn’t actually play much of a role in the torture, as it was merely the thing people were strapped to. Here they would be tied in awkward poses, then have their limbs smashed with iron cudgels.
Probably the 2nd best known torture method, and also a band that can still rock a stadium, the Iron Maiden was an enclosed structure lined with spikes that would entirely surround a person. They would be left inside for interminable amounts of time, unable to do anything but stand, lest they be pierced by the metal protrusions.
Another piece of neckware that tended to be fancied by the church, these would be placed between the lower jaw and the throat. Lower your head and it will kill you…if you’re lucky.
The Scavenger’s Daughter
The name is a bit of a mystery, though the inventor was named Skevington, which might have something to do with it. Used to wrap a person into a crouch and then crush them into a tiny ball, the glory days of this were during the reign of another misogynist, Henry VIII.
Easily the most famous old-school torture device, the rack was used to stretch heretics by pulling on their ankles and wrists, in theory until they rent in half while torturers made a wish. Usually it just pulled limbs out of sockets.
Similar to the Judas Cradle, the Spanish Donkey is a triangular board that a person is forced to straddle, putting their full weight right on the crotch. Weights are then added to their feet until it splits them up the middle. Also likely helpful in wish making during long nights in the dungeon.