Middle Ages Torture: Devices & Techniques

The Middle Ages was violent and marked by widespread tumult. These was a undeniably barbarous period in which the local lawmakers were driven by outwardly feelings of pitilessness, which further led to the unashamed middle ages torture of slaves, prisoners and other offenders . Torture chambers were a feature in most of the castles and there were no laws that regulated the manner with which people who faced torture should be treated.

In the middle Ages, torture was perceived as a legal method of attaining justice and of making the offenders confess about the crimes they were accused of. The prevailing rulers and those who participated in the spates of torture used these confessions as testimonies in the trials and inquires that ensued.

The torture chambers, which were a common feature in every castle, were typically situated in the lower levels of the palace. There were winding entryways that led to the chambers; this ensured that the voices of the tormented prisoners were muffled. These chambers were also very tiny , some of which measured eleven feet high and seven feet wide and accommodated more than 10 prisoners at any given time.

In the medieval ages, torture was used to punish heretical behavior and sexual offenders. The society also used torture to persecute others for their religious affiliations. The Church used torture to force others to convert to Christianity and because the Church used torture, government authorities used the same means too.

The church made attempts to condemn the uncivil middle age torture and warned that this type of punishment was against divine and human law. Pope Gregory I issued a decree that ruled out torture as a means of punishment. However torture continued as the main source of punishment among the citizens and was also used by the state.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the local rulers adopted harsher methods of punishment as they saw that the citizens respected these modes of punishment. As a method of punishment became commonplace, the next generation sought out harsher methods of torturing offenders.


Middle ages torture entailed the use of numerous devices. The use of a device for torture depended on the type of crime that a person had committed. The devices used were also a reflection of the society’s culture and customers. Here are some of the most commonly used devices during that time:

Head Crusher

The header crusher worked by placing the offender’s head on the top cap and his chin on the lower cap. The head crusher screw would then be gradually turned, in effect crushing the skull. Initially the offender’s teeth would be destroyed, and then the jaws would be damaged and broken into pieces.

The eyes would then be forced out of their socket; some head crushers had devices that would catch the eyes as they fell from their socket.  Finally, this device would be used to completely crash the skull. Some of the people who handled this device would simply use it to tightly hold the offender’s head and then hit the upper cap so that the victim endured a lot of pain before dying.

The Head Crusher

Knee Splitter

The knee splitter was one of the most popular devices for middle ages torture. It was largely used during the Inquisition. The knee splitter split the offender’s knees so that the knees would become nonfunctional. This device was created using two wooden blocks that had spikes on them. It also featured two large screws that held the wooden blocks together.

The device would be placed on top and below the victim’s knees and then the screws would be adjusted accordingly to crash the victim’s knees and to destroy them. The knee splitter was also used to crash the arms.

The Knee Splitter

The Scavengers Daughter

Sir William Skevington invented the Scavenger’s Daughter for punishment, during the time of Henry VIII. This device had an A- shape metal frame upon which the victim’s head would be tied. The victim’s hand would then be wrapped at the middle point of the device and his legs would be spread apart and tied to the stands. The head would typically swing downward and the knees would be compressed enough that blood would gush out from the nose and ears. This device had the opposite effect of the rack, used to compress the body.

The Scavengers Daughter

Judas Chair

Judas Chair was a pyramid shaped chair, which was usually used to torture sexual offenders. The chair was designed in such a way that the victim would be lifted up and then slowly placed onto a sharp point on the pyramid. The idea was to rest the victim’s weight on the sharp point on his anus, scrotum, or the lower vertebrae.

The person who conducted the punishment would raise or lower the pressure of the body weight according to the interrogator’s request. The chair was designed to hold the weight of a victim as he is consistently rocked upon the sharp point. As such this device was known as culla di Giuda in Italian, Judaswiege in German and as la veille in French meaning “wake.”

Judas Chair

Choke Pear

The Choke Pear had several versions but all of them were used to inflict torture through the vaginal and rectal areas or the mouth. The device featured a screw, which would be used to expand any of the areas that it was inserted. The choke pear also featured sharp prongs at the tips of the segment, used to tear the throat, the cervical area or the intestines. This device was used to punish women accused of having intercourse with Satan, males who were perceived as having homosexual tendencies and on heretical priests.

Breast Ripper

The breast stripper was used for purposes of interrogation and for full-blown punishment. As a means of punishment, the devices was heated up and used to mark the breasts of women who bore children outside of marriage. As a means of interrogation, the device was used to force a confession from women who were accused of spreading gossip, committing blasphemy, being adulterous, or carrying out an abortion.

The device featured claws that either would be heated or used cold, to tear a woman’s breasts. A version of the breast stripper was known as Spider and featured two bars clawed and projected from a wall. The woman’s breasts would then be pulled against the bars until they tore.

Crocodile Shears

The crocodile shears were used for the punishment and torture of those who tried to assassinate the king and those who were successful at it. This device was made from iron but in place of the regular blades, the shears featured cylindrical jaws that formed an elongated and thin tube when closed. The interiors of the jaws were laced with spikes, which would be heated and applied to the victim’s penis. The penis would then be pulled from the victim’s body. This punishment would also lead to arterial damage of the blood vessels in the penis.


Thumbscrews were used for punishment and interrogation. The device featured spiked iron bars held together with screws. Victims would have their thumbs, toes and fingers placed in between the device and the screws would be gradually adjusted to crush a specific part of the body. The intention of using the thumbscrew was to break the bones of the victims. Most interrogators preferred this device, as they would carry it with them beyond the torture chambers.


Rack Torture

This torture technique involved the use of a Rack machine. The technique involved inflicting pain through stretching and dislocation. Although this technique was largely used n England, it originated from Greek. The rack was a device that featured a rectangle shaped wood frame, which had a roller on all four ends. The offender’s feet would be tied to one of the rollers, his hands would be tied to the other, then a knob, and ratchet would be tied to the upper rollers.

The knob and ratchet would then be adjusted gradually so that the chain tension increased. Meanwhile the victim would lie on a board with his ankles and wrists and as the rollers on the other end were adjusted, his body would stretch. This resulted into the dislocation of limbs and sometimes the limbs would be detached from their socket.

Iron Balls Torture

This method of torture entailed hanging the victim by his wrists using a large iron ball attached to the foot. In Italy, an extreme version of iron balls torture known as veglia was used; it involved stretching the body in a horizontal position using ropes that passed through the rings that were nailed through the walls.

The ropes would then be tied to the victim’s limbs and his only support was a diamond shaped stake, which was attached at the tail of the backbone.  During this punishment, both a physician and surgeon would be there to feel the victim’s pulse on the sides of the head. This way these medical professionals were able to tell when the victim could not take the pain any more. At this point, the victim would be let loose and heated irons and restorative pills would be used to revive the victim. This process would go on for six continuous hours.

Execution By Quartering

Quartering was one of the most violent middle age torture techniques. The punishment entailed a series of techniques and preliminary tortures such as amputation of a limb, laceration of the face, breasts or thighs. After these initial procedures, the victims limbs were tied up from the foot to the knee and then from the elbow to the wrist.

The ropes were then attached to four metal bars upon which a tough horse was fitted. At first the horses were slightly urged and they jerked the victim and then the horses were whipped so that they attempted  run in different directions. If the victims’ limbs were not yet dislocated, the person carrying out the execution would use a hatchet to cut through the victims limbs. When each of the four horses had detached a limb, the limbs would then be placed in a trunk where they would be burnt.

At other times, the body, lacking limbs would be hang for public display or the four limbs would be sent to four different location in a kingdom with inscriptions denoting why the limb was disposed this way – usually a form of threat.

Water Torture

Water torture was widespread in Europe and especially in the French city of Paris. This was one of the forms of torture that were not as dangerous and was largely used as an interrogation technique. The process involved tying the victim to a board horizontally supported by two trestles. The person carrying out the torture would pinch the victim’s nose and then use a horn to pour approximately nine pints of water through the victim’s mouth. The extraneous punishment involved doubling the amount of water that was put through a victim’s mouth. At the end, the victim was set loose and subjected to torture by heating.


Flagellation is a torture technique borrowed from the Roman Empire. This form of middle ages torture was done before a victim was crucified. Those who carried out this type of punishment used whips laced with small bones or metals. The whip often caused severe damage to the victim as it lacerate his body parts and could lead to losing an eye. The victim would lose a lot of blood and suffer hypovolemic shock.

This form of torture was applied on those who did not belong to a kingdom or an outsider who was deemed to have committed a crime such as blasphemy. The technique began with stripping the victim and then binding him to a pillar over which he would bend. Alternately, the victim would be tied to a longer pillar so that he would stretch. Two or sometimes six punishers would hit the victim on his shoulders, his body and his feet. The punishers would inflict as many blows as they deemed appropriate and even though they were not supposed to kill the offender, this type of torture was seen as a half-death.


The Statute of Vagabonds of 1547 decreed that vagabonds, brawlers and gypsies be branded to distinguish them from the rest of society. The vagabonds and gypsies were to have a V marked on their breasts while brawlers were to be branded with an F indicting that they were fighters. Slaves who attempted to run away were marked with an S on their forehead or check.

Those in charge of conducting this type of punishment used various techniques of branding and burning. They commonly used hot irons to brand the victims and sometimes they would pass a red-hot iron across the victim’s eyes until the blazing heat damaged their eyes.  The iron that was used for branding was long with a wooden handle at the extreme end and the brand with the respective letter on the other end. The punishers used two iron rings to tie the victim’s hands as they branded them.

The Boot Torture

The boot torture was invented to apply pain on the victim’s feet.  In this mode of torture, the victim hardly died but suffered excruciating pain. The technique involved forcing the victim to put on Spanish high boots made from soft leather. The victim would then be tied to a table close to a big fire and then boiling water would be poured onto the boots, which would absorb the heat. This heat from the boiling water and the large fire would severely injure the victim and often eat at his bones and flesh.

Other forms of foot torture entailed the use of foot presses, which featured two iron plates, placed horizontally. The press was placed around the victim’s foot and would then be used to crush his bones and cause damage to his flesh. Sometimes spikes would lace the plate and at other times, the device was attached to a drill so that a hole was drilled at the sole of the victim feet.

Another technique was foot roasting which entailed smearing the victim’s feet with cooking oil and then placing them over a red furnace. The intensity of the fire was regulated using a bellow. During interrogation, a shield would be placed between the fire and the victim’s feet; the shield would be removed if the victims did not answer the questions appropriately.

The Coffin Torture

The Coffin Torture was one the dreariest Middle Ages torture and is still depicted as such in modern day films. In this technique, the victim was put in a metal cage that espoused the shape of a human. In the event that the victim was overweight, the punishers would force him into an even smaller metal coffin. Sometimes the punishers would make the coffin larger than the body of the victim so that the victim feels more uncomfortable.

The cage would then hang from a gallows or tree for everyone to witness the process. Victims who were subjected to this form of torture always died and their body was left to the animals and bird to pick on the victims flesh. Onlookers were allowed to throw stones at the victims to make the process more painful for him or her. Crimes such as blasphemy and heresy attracted this form of punishment.

Catherine Wheel Torture

The Catherine wheel torture technique used a lethal device that killed its victims, though at a slow rate. The technique entailed tying the victim to a wooden wheel that consisted of spokes. The torturer then revolved the wheel while smashing the victim’s limbs using a harmer. Once the victim’s bones broke, he was left to die at the wheel.

At other times, the wheel was placed at a convenient place where birds would eat up the human flesh. It took up to three days for the victim to die from dehydration. Sometimes the executioner inflicting heavy blows on the victim’s stomach and chest until he died, hastened the process.

Ducking Stool

The Ducking Stool was a form of torture reserved for women. The punishment entailed the use of a chair hanged on a lever. The woman was tied to the chair, which was placed along a river. The chair would then be rocked across the river using the hanging lever and the woman would be plunged into the cold waters of the river. How deep the woman was plunged into the water was the operator’s discretion and the nature of the crime. This torture would go on for just a few minutes but sometimes the punishment would last an entire day.

The types of crime that attracted this form of punishment included engagement in witchcraft or prostitution. Women, who participated in gossip, were shrewd or spread heresy, were also subject to this type of punishment. This middle ages torture method was also used to test if a woman who was suspected to be a witch actually was. Although the early uses of this mode of punishment involved the use of a chair, later uses did not require the chair.

The later application of this mode of punishment involved attaching a rope to the victim’s waist and then throwing her into the river. If she floated then it was ruled that she was indeed a witch but if she drowned, she was considered innocent. This method of torture was also applied on males suspected to be involved in witchcraft.

Saw Torture

The saw torture technique entailed the use of saws to kill people who were accused of engaging in witchcraft, murder, adultery, theft or blasphemy. In this technique, the torturers tied the victim upside down causing blood to rush to the brain and allowing the victim to stay conscious. After several hours of public humiliation and physical torture, the victim would be sliced into half using a saw. Although the victims were typically cut up in half completely, sometimes the torturers would cut them up to the abdomen just to make the process of dying last longer.

8 thoughts on “Middle Ages Torture: Devices & Techniques”

  1. I believe in being idealistic when commenting on a subject such as this – so I’m not going to leave a name or email address as to who I am or an email address. People need to realize these methods were the norm back during that period of history namely for religious heresy. I doubt people like “Purple Cheese” or “Victoria” wouldn’t be going ” He He He He” if they were paying the consequences for crimes back then. These were meant to be and often held up as examples of what happened to citizens of societies who violated certain laws and norms of the day. They were designed to invoke fear into compliance with the laws. I wouldn’t find it “neat” and “cute” if consequences such as this existed for crimes in this country today. I’d be thankful for a Constitution that prohibits what is defined as cruel and unusual punishment. Food for thought. On second thought maybe I will leave my name.

  2. Well….
    I skipped through this allot I’m sorry to say. It’s VERY informative… But it’s a bit too much for me…. I’m too squeamish while reading…. Thank you for the research and efforts you put in this article. I’m working on a book and I needed at least some of it to be realistic…. *sigh* Poor characters… Now I know exactly what they’ll go through.


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