We have a love hate relationship with the concept of what medieval torture was really like. On one hand, modern culture is predominantly against torture as a means to gain information or as punishment for crimes. Great pains are often taken to inflict punishment for even despicable and cruel crimes that does not impose undue suffering on the guilty.
On the other hand, we have a cultural fascination with medieval torture as is evidenced in the popularity of movies, television shows, books and art that address the subject. In the last few years, great debate about the use of torture in modern wars has taken place. But even the most extreme types of torture used today pale compared to some of the means of inflicting unspeakable cruelty and pain on evil doers during medieval times.
The dark ages were the medieval time frame when the very harsh torture was used most commonly to punish those who ran afoul of the law. Torture was a common sentence for traitors, spies and even common thieves. In case of violators of civil law, the torture would be carried out in the town square in order to communicate to the citizenry that violating the law was a serious matter. That custom is where we got the images of public stockades or whipping. We also saw the use of public punishments carried on past medieval times in the form of firing squads or public hangings.
Not all methods of public execution where torturous in nature. The very common use of the guillotine was a punishment that was swift and painless. The idea that the Catholic Church was enthusiastically in favor of the use of torture on criminals or heretics is also an over simplification of history. Many bishops and archbishops of the medieval church were against torture. But much of the torture of the time was sanctioned by the church. It is easy to document that then, as now, the use of torture was a controversial concept.
The use of hideous torture methods and devices holds a fascination and to this day, as we see in the popularity of exhibits of medieval torture devices. And the creativity that those who imposed torture during medieval times is truly amazing. From the Judas Cradle that impaled a seated victim over many days to the well known Rack to other morbidly creative means of torture such as The Breast Ripper, The Pear of Anguish and The Wheel, the many ways a person could endure a long and painful death at the hands of a torturer were diverse. The Wheel was such a well known torture device for inflicting excruciating pain that it was common for prisoners to find ways to commit suicide rather than endure it.
While the diversity and cruelty of torture in medieval times has been shown to be accurate, the frequency of torture was not as widespread as one might think. The famous inquisitions that have been celebrated for the use of torture as methods of conversion are a good example. In truth only 1-2% of those who were punished for heresy or for crimes in the inquisitions faced torture. The rest simply faced prison or some other form of conventional prison punishment.
In most medieval towns, people who were tried for crimes went before a town council. But torture was the sentence only for those found guilty of extreme crimes. For most other people, a short incarceration or banishment from the community was the worst punishment they might have to face.
Nonetheless, the legends of medieval torture chambers and the use of mechanisms of horror to punish the guilty continue to be part of the lore of medieval history. And while we can all enjoy that lore and the entertainment value legend and myth brings, its good to know the truth about the history of torture because it helps in framing how we see torture as part of military or civilian punishment or interrogation in modern times.