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All Things Gruesome: Torture

Updated on April 6, 2011

Torture Most Cruel

This is part of a series of articles I published for the newsletter of my medieval re-enactment group. As the title implies, the content is gruesome to modern readers, so be forewarned.

Torture in the middle ages had three purposes:

1) To extract a confession of guilt, or names of co-conspirators;

2) To punish the guilty;

3) To deter the general public from committing crimes.

Torture by Imprisonment

To soften a prisoner up for the real torture, the Tower of London kept a small cell (dubbed “Little Ease”) which was so small a man could not stand up in it, nor could he lie down. Prisoners crouched or were forced to sit huddled up for hours, days or even a week before being taken out for interrogations (interrogations being painful unless you spilled the beans immediately). The cell was almost certainly kept in total darkness as well, with no human contact except for the moment when a guard passed down bread and water (if that was given). There were probably other “Little Eases” all over Europe; most jails of any size would have had one. They were a great way to take the excess energy out of an unruly prisoner so that he could be handled (taken to court or to another form of punishment) without problems.

Not counting the torture of prison cells, there were two types of torture: to extract a confession or to give punishment. The former was almost always done privately, while the latter was almost always done publicly. The reasoning behind this is that torture used to extract a confession could go on for days—not very conducive to a public display. And if someone named names while under confessional torture, you didn’t want that information made public until you could apprehend the possible co-conspirators and see what they had to say for themselves. Torture as punishment, on the other hand, was done relatively quickly, so it was something that made a good display, and, more importantly, it was hoped that public displays of punishment would deter others from committing crimes.

Public Torture


A mild form of public torture was the stocks. While many people think of them as farcical, with children throwing rotten vegetables at prisoners, they were more than mere humiliation tools; stocks which did not allow the prisoner to sit up or lay down could cause severe (although usually not lasting) back pain and stiffness. If used in winter, prisoners could suffer from hypothermia or frostbite. And depending on the length of the sentence, and whether or not the prisoner's hands were also bound, prisoners might not be capable of feeding themselves, having to either fast or rely on some compassionate person to hand-feed them. Stocks did not often result in death, and if they did, it would have been an accidental consequence; stocks were meant to reform, not be a death penalty.

Public Torture


One torture that was a death penalty was the wheel—also referred to as “being broken on the wheel.” This is how the popular medieval saint, St. Catherine, was executed (thus why her symbol was a wheel—the “Catherine’s wheel”). The prisoner would be tied to stakes in the ground or to rings on a specially-built execution platform, spread-eagle. Wooden beams would be placed under all the major joints to act as a fulcrum point. The executioner would then take a large wheel with an iron rim and smash it against each of the limbs several times, breaking all of the bones and joints. The prisoner was transformed, according to the observations of a seventeenth-century German chronicler, “into a sort of huge screaming puppet writhing in rivulets of blood, a puppet with four tentacles, like a sea monster, of raw, slimy and shapeless flesh mixed up with splinters of smashed bones.”

The executioner would then place the limp prisoner onto the wheel, weaving his or her shattered limbs through the spokes. The wheel would then be hoisted up for all to see, like a form of crucifix. But because of the way the body was supported by all of its limbs, death probably did not come as fast on the wheel as it would on a cross (which could take a day or more). Shock might take some, but dehydration probably took most after a few days. Aggressive crows and ravens would torment the prisoner and cause further pain and suffering until the end came.

Treason demanded the very worst in public torture and execution. William Wallace’s execution was actually worse than what is depicted in the movie Braveheart, but was typical for anyone convicted of treason against the Crown.

Wallace was tried in Westminster Hall (which today is part of the Palace of Westminster at the House of Commons entrance and close to the eastern end of the Abbey).

His sentence was read out immediately following the verdict, and included the full details of the punishment usually known as "hanging, drawing and quartering" that Edward Longshanks had introduced as the appropriate penalty for treason. He was then stripped naked, bound and drawn face down by two horses for four miles through the filthy streets for the public to mock and stone (this being Edward's subtle idea of combining education with entertainment).

He was drawn first to the Tower, about two and a half miles, and then on to Smithfield via Aldgate, another mile. He was hanged, but cut down while still alive. He was not racked as shown in the film, nor was he allowed a chance to submit to Edward's peace and thereby cut short his suffering (a procedure the screenwriter may have borrowed from the Inquisition).

While held upright by the hangman's rope, he had his privy parts cut away (all of them, and hence emasculation, not castration) and burned in the brazier in front of him. Then, still upright, his stomach was slit open so that he could be ritually disembowelled. His entrails were burnt on the brazier.

The hangman then cut open his chest to pull out his heart. It was considered a manifestation of the hangman's skill that this should still be beating while held in the hangman's hands, but whether he was successful on this occasion is not recorded. It was supposed to be traditional that the hangman should at this point call attention to his achievement by announcing "Behold the heart of a traitor" (in case any in the audience had missed the object of the exercise), but I have never found this stated explicitly in any court record.

The final act was decapitation and quartering. You will note that in effect there are three symbolic deaths here: hanging, evisceration, decapitation. Edward is said to have decreed that treason was a triple crime: against God, against man, and against the King. Hence the triple death sentence[i].

William’s head was placed on a stake on London Bridge, as it was the most commonly trafficked part of the city, while his limbs were cut from his body (the quartering part) and sent to various parts of Scotland to be displayed as a warning. Typically, when the remains of any criminal had been reduced to clean bone, they were gathered up and disposed of in a common, unconsecrated burial pit. Between separating the body parts and putting them in unholy ground, it was thought that the soul would be damned and that the body would not rise on Judgment Day—thus destroying the person in the hereafter as well as the present.

Public Torture

Politically Motivated

The following two accounts of torture are commonly repeatedly throughout the middle ages, in one form or another. The first account is given by a Christian writer who knew someone who knew someone who had learned that Jews sacrificed a Christian child. Of course this has every hallmark of an urban legend. In fact, this legend (known as "blood libel") predates the middle ages: pagan Romans accused early Christians of sacrificing children to their god and cannibalism[ii]. And the legend didn't end with the middle ages either; in the witch-hunts of the 17th century, witches were also accused of sacrificing Christian children to the devil[iii].

This tale is worth noting, however, not because of the accusations leveled against Jews, but of the description of torture; while Jews never applied these tortures to Christian children, it is likely that these tortures were inflicted on criminals, traitors, etc. during the middle ages. In short, the torture in this story is probably true, just the situation has been made up.

The Tale of the Martyrdom of St. William of Norwich[iv]

On the day which in that year was the Passover for them, after the singing of the hymns appointed for the day in the synagogue, the chiefs of the Jews... suddenly seized hold of the boy William as he was having his dinner and in no fear of any treachery, and ill-treated him in various horrible ways. For while some of them held him behind, others opened his mouth and introduced an instrument of torture which is called a teazle [a wooden gag] and, fixing it by straps through both jaws to the back of his neck, they fastened it with a knot as tightly as it could be drawn.

After that, taking a short piece of rope of about the thickness of one's little finger and tying three knots in it at certain distances marked out, they bound round that innocent head with it from the forehead to the back, forcing the middle knot into his forehead and the two others into his temples, the two ends of the rope being most tightly stretched at the back of his head and fastened in a very tight knot. The ends of the rope were then passed round his neck and carried round his throat under his chin, and there they finished off this dreadful engine of torture in a fifth knot.

But not even yet could the cruelty of the torturers be satisfied without adding even more severe pains. Having shaved his head, they stabbed it with countless thorn-points, and made the blood come horribly from the wounds they made.

They next laid their blood-stained hands upon the innocent victim, and having lifted him from the ground and fastened him upon the cross, they vied with one another in their efforts to make an end of him. And as we afterwards discovered, from the marks of the wounds and of the bands, the right hand and foot had been tightly bound and fastened with cords, but the left hand and foot were pierced with two nails. Now the deed was done in this way, lest it should be discovered, from the presence of nail-marks in both hands and both feet, that the murderers were Jews and not Christians, if eventually the body were found.

But while in doing these things they were adding pang to pang and wound to wound, and yet were not able to satisfy their heartless cruelty and their inborn hatred of the Christian name, lo! after all these many and great tortures, they inflicted a frightful wound in his left side, reaching even to his inmost heart, and, as though to make an end of all, they extinguished his mortal life so far as it was in their power. And since many streams of blood were running down from all parts of his body, then, to stop the blood and to wash and close the wounds, they poured boiling water over him[v].

Unfortunately, these false tales (and others, including tales that Jews poisoned wells and caused plagues) resulted in very real persecution; the following eyewitness account is not a legend, and almost certainly did take place, in Strasbourg, as described. The false tales about the Jews were just a pretext for persecution, and the medieval author very astutely notes the real reason why the Jews were put to death.

On Saturday--that was St. Valentine's Day--they burnt the Jews on a wooden platform in their cemetery. There were about two thousand people of them. Those who wanted to baptize themselves were spared. [Some say that about a thousand accepted baptism.] Many small children were taken out of the fire and baptized against the will of their fathers and mothers. And everything that was owed to the Jews was canceled, and the Jews had to surrender all pledges and notes that they had taken for debts. The council, however, took the cash that the Jews possessed and divided it among the working-men proportionately. The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt. After this wealth was divided among the artisans, some gave their share to the Cathedral or to the Church on the advice of their confessors[iv].

Confessional (Private) Torture

Torture inflicted in a private setting was typically even worse, because death was not the objective, and no one was in a hurry; it could be as slow and drawn-out as necessary. Two very common tortures were the strappado and aselli. The strappado worked the same as a rack, but didn't require the complicated equipment (portable, for your convenience!). The prisoner would have his or her hands bound behind the back. A rope would be thrown over a beam (a pulley would be used in permanent torture rooms) and one end tied to the bound hands. The prisoner would then be hoisted up.

Strappado short would have the prisoner with his or her toes just barely touching the ground, giving only a hint of relief from the painful position. With strappado tall, the prisoner would be hoisted fully from the ground and left to hang for some time. Hanging in this position can cause temporary or permanent damage to the shoulder joints, including nerve damage, ligament, tendon, rotator cuff damage, dislocation, and partial to complete paralysis in one or both arms. Strappado grande involved hoisting a person to some height, then dropping them. They were stopped before reaching the floor, so that all the force of the action was transmitted to their arms. This definitely lead to dislocation and almost always one or more of the above-mentioned damages. Strappado venti involved attaching weights to the legs so that they too could be damaged (the extra weight also messed up the arms more quickly and permanently).

Strappado had variations, including having the hands/arms above the head (they would be tied up in front of the body, not behind it). Putting the arms behind the body causes compression of the chest cavity and can cause death by suffocation (the same as crucifixion). Hanging people with their arms above their heads put much less pressure on the chest, so they could be hung up for much longer periods of time[vii].

Aselli was known as the water torment. People would be bound to a table, with their feet elevated above their head. A linen cloth would be stuffed into the mouth-sometimes people were made to swallow part of it-and then water would be poured over the face to simulate drowning. Where people had partially swallowed the linen band, it would be slowly removed to induce gagging. And then the entire procedure would be repeated again.

Both strappado and aselli were favored by the Spanish Inquisition, although they were commonly practiced throughout Europe for a long time. In fact, both are still in practice in modern times; John McCain was subjected to strappado while a prisoner of war in Vietnam, while aselli is modernly known as "water boarding."

The following account from the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches' Hammer-printed around 1486) details exactly how torture was used in order to extract a confession. While this account is in regards to a religious crime, the same guidelines were generally followed for extracting a confession to a secular crime as well.

The method of beginning an examination by torture is as follows: First, the jailers prepare the implements of torture, then they strip the prisoner (if it be a woman, she has already been stripped by other women, upright and of good report). This stripping is lest some means of witchcraft may have been sewed into the clothing--such as often, taught by the Devil, they prepare from the bodies of unbaptized infants, [murdered] that they may forfeit salvation. And when the implements of torture have been prepared, the judge, both in person and through other good men zealous in the faith, tries to persuade the prisoner to confess the truth freely; but, if he will not confess, he bids attendants make the prisoner fast to the strappado or some other implement of torture. The attendants obey forthwith, yet with feigned agitation. Then, at the prayer [request] of some of those present, the prisoner is loosed again and is taken aside and once more persuaded to confess, being led to believe that he will in that case not be put to death.

Here it may be asked whether the judge, in the case of a prisoner much defamed, convicted both by witnesses and by proofs, nothing being lacking but his own confession, can properly lead him to hope that his life will be spared when, even if he confess his crime, he will be punished with death.

It must be answered that opinions vary. Some hold that even a witch of ill repute, against whom the evidence justifies violent suspicion, and who, as a ringleader of the witches, is accounted very dangerous, may be assured her life, and condemned instead to perpetual imprisonment on bread and water, in case she will give sure and convincing testimony against other witches; yet this penalty of perpetual imprisonment must not be announced to her, but only that her life will be spared, and that she will be punished in some other fashion, perhaps by exile. And doubtless such notorious witches, especially those who prepare witch-potions or who by magical methods cure those bewitched, would be peculiarly suited to be thus preserved, in order to aid the bewitched or to accuse other witches, were it not that their accusations cannot be trusted, since the Devil is a liar, unless confirmed by proofs and witnesses.

Others hold, as to this point, that for a time the promise made to the witch sentenced to imprisonment is to be kept, but that after a time she should be burned.

A third view is, that the judge may safely promise witches to spare their lives, if only he will later excuse himself from pronouncing the sentence and will let another do this in his place....

But if, neither by threats nor by promises such as these, the witch can be induced to speak the truth, then the jailers must carry out the sentence, and torture the prisoner according to the accepted methods, with more or less of severity as the delinquent's crime may demand. And, while he is being tortured, he must be questioned on the articles of accusation, and this frequently and persistently, beginning with the lighter charges--for he will more readily confess the lighter than the heavier. And, while this is being done, the notary must write down everything in his record of the trial--how the prisoner is tortured, on what points he is questioned and how he answers.

And note that, if he confesses under the torture, he must afterward be conducted to another place, that he may confirm it and certify that it was not due alone to the force of the torture.

But, if the prisoner will not confess the truth satisfactorily, other sorts of tortures must be placed before him, with the statement that unless he will confess the truth, he must endure these also. But, if not even thus he can be brought into terror and to the truth, then the next day is to be set for a continuation of the tortures - not a repetition, for it must not be repeated unless new evidence is produced.

The judge must then address to the prisoners the following sentence: We, the judge, etc., do assign to you, such and such a day for the continuation of the tortures, that from your own mouth the truth may be heard, and that the whole may be recorded by the notary.

And during the interval, before the day assigned, the judge, in person or through approved men, must in the manner above described try to persuade the prisoner to confess, promising her (if there is aught to be gained by this promise) that her life shall be spared.

The judge shall see to it, moreover, that throughout this interval guards are constantly with the prisoner, so that she may not be alone; because she will be visited by the Devil and tempted into suicide.

If you noticed at the beginning of the passage, torture might be applied after witnesses and evidence were brought forth-in short, after a guilty sentence. And yet this is not torture for punishment. Why would anyone bother torturing someone into a confession when they have already judged the person guilty? In one way, it allows the judges peace of mind that yes, they have indeed convicted a truly guilty person. Secondly, and more importantly, people were supposed to confess who they were in league with (because witches never operated alone, of course), thus allowing the judges to find more witches (this principal is what drove Salem, Massachusetts to have about half the town imprisoned for witchcraft). Thirdly, it was hoped that by making a confession the witch could be turned from evil and save his or her soul. Mind you, the witch would still probably be executed, but at least he or she would have been shriven, and thus could at least, eventually, get into heaven.

Confessional Torture


A real-life case of one Domenico Scandela (called "Menocchio") follows the general rule set out by the Malleus Maleficarum[viii]. In Menocchio's case, he is accused and found guilty of heresy-multiple times (he was let go a few times, but he wouldn't keep his heretical ideas to himself, so they finally shut him up permanently). He was found guilty at his trial and sentenced to death, but he was tortured after the trial to see if he would revel any fellow heretics (his judges never believed that a simple miller like Menocchio could read books and form opinions on religion for himself).

Menocchio was asked to revel the names of any involved with him, and he denied that any others were involved. He was undressed and examined for fitness (in the case of one man, torture was not performed because he had a hernia[ix]). He was asked again who had shared in his heresy and he again said he acted alone. He was tied up and was asked a third time; again he denied any others' involvement. He was subjected to strappado and asked again. He said he would think about it if they let him down, so he did. He played for time before saying that no one else was involved. They raised him again and asked again, and he said he'd give them a name. When let down, he named one lord to whom he had spoken (and the next day said that the same had "reproached him for his lunacies."). This was apparently all they ever got out of him, and he was lead back to his cell. "The notary recorded that the torture had been applied 'with moderation.' It had lasted half an hour."

But it wasn't only the prisoners who were tortured. One Alberto Bolognetti had this complaint about attending a confessional torturing: "[It is a] nuisance, for anyone who isn't a model of patience, of having to listen to the inanities uttered by so many, especially during torture, that have to be written down word for word."[x] Poor Alberto; a bureaucrat's work is never done.


[i] I do not have a link to the original website this quote was taken from, but a short version confirms the details here:

[ii] Information on “blood libel” can be found at: It includes a number of other similar stories of ritual murder of Christians by Jews throughout the middle ages.

[iii] Unfortunately, the blood libel myth against Jews is still preached by some anti-Semitic hate groups and Muslim fundamentalists today. It’s a laughable accusation—in a very sad way—given that Jews are the only group of people for whom it is religiously forbidden to consume any manner of blood.

[iv] The modern Catholic Church no longer recognizes St. William of Norwich as a saint, nor any others who were supposedly martyred by Jews, as there is absolutely no proof that any Christian was ritually murdered by Jews at any time in history.

[v] Account by Thomas of Monmouth.

[vi] Account by Jacob von Konigshofen.

[vii] From:

[viii] Account of Mennochio from The Cheese and the Worms, page 111.

[ix] ibid, page 121.

[x] ibid, page 111.

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