We have probably seen enough films, read enough books and watched enough TV dramas to know that the medieval world loved a bit of torture. Despite all that exposure, it’s fair to say that the way those torture techniques are shown in media is probably toned down from the real thing! As part of our February Half Term Crime and Punishment event, here are the top seven most gruesome medieval torture techniques and devices…

Dishonourable Mention: The Iron Maiden

Not Bruce and the gang! Probably the most famous torture device of the Middle Ages, the Iron Maiden was an iron coffin, featuring a maudlin face, into which the poor victim was thrown. Seems bad enough already but throw in a series of spikes pointing inwards at the victim which get closer and stabbier as the coffin is shut and you can imagine why it was so horrid!

The reason that this most famous of devices receives a dishonourable mention is that it didn’t exist in the medieval period! The Iron Maiden was a 19th century hoax created to present the past as being more violent than the modern era to demonstrate the march of progress.

7: The Rack

The rack is the classic torture tool of the Spanish Inquisition. Compared to other medieval devices, this one is simple: the victim is tied to a wooden structure featuring a system of cranks. As the cranks are turned, the ropes restraining the victim tighten and the victim’s limbs are stretched. This has the immediate effect of causing great pain!

6: The Thumb Screw

Maybe not as lethal as other methods of torture, but this is certainly one to make you wince! The thumb screw is less a screw a more of a vice. Two metal plates with a vice mechanism into which the victim’s thumb is placed. The vice is then tightened. No further detail necessary…

5: Dunking

The method most often depicted as used to torture suspected witches, dunking is exactly what you would expect: the victim is submerged in water and then removed before drowning. This might not seem so bad but remember, you have no control over when you’re taken out of the water! You could be close to running out of breath or even on the verge of drowning before the torturer lets you back out!

4: The Boot
Sometimes known as the Spanish Boot or the scarpines, the boot was something like a rack for your legs. The lower legs would be placed into a set of tightly fitted wooden or iron boots. Problems really begin when wooden wedges are inserted between the boot and the victim’s skin. Mallets are then used to drive the wedges in causing abrasions, lesions and, ultimately, the breaking of bones.

Some versions would also feature inward pointing spikes, nails or blades to worsen the effect. Not exactly the kind of boots you want to pick up in the January sales!

3: The Breaking Wheel

You may wonder how anything can get worse than this one. The breaking wheel is a wagon wheel with teeth or cogs, onto which the victim is tied so that their limbs rest between the cogs. The torturer then takes a hammer and proceeds to smash different parts of limbs over the wheel. Once the victim was dead, the wheel would be raised up on a shaft for all to see.

Or, the victim could be tied to the outside of the wheel with their feet tied to the ground. The wheel would then be turned until the victim’s body broke, effectively like a more severe version of the rack!

2: Flaying
Flaying has been a method of torture for millennia: the ancient Assyrians and is also depicted as the method of execution of Saint Bartholomew. Basically, the technique involves skinning the victim alive. I don’t think we need to add any more detail.

1: Rat Torture
Rat torture is so awful that it’s difficult to comprehend how someone could have thought it up in the first place. First, the victim is bound to a table or rack. Next, a rat is placed onto their chest. Over the rat is placed a bucket which is then secured so that rat cannot escape. Finally, a fire is placed on top of the bucket. The rat begins to panic and tries to escape. It can’t burrow through the steel bucket so…

Our Half Term Crime and Punishment event is much gentler, with no rats in sight or boots for you to try on. We may have a thumb screw but we won’t force you to try it out for yourself..!!