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The 7 Strangest Medieval Torture Devices

Medieval Torture Equipment
Photo Oz/Shutterstock

Tortue tactics of the past were even more extreme than today’s waterboarding. Most medieval torture ended in death, whether the person being tortured confessed or not. Often, the person bled to death or was left until they starved.

Torture devices are meant to kill the accused slowly and painfully. Whether you could admit to your crime or you were actually innocent, there was usually no coming back from many of the forms of human torture from centuries past.

The Iron Maiden

The Iron Maiden is most popularly known as a European torture device that was used in the Middle Ages. While it seems that accounts of similar contraptions have been found for that period, there is no proof that the Iron Maiden was really a thing back then.

The precursors to the Iron Maiden were boxes with nails in them that only injured the tortured person if they moved into the nails or fell asleep. The Iron Maiden in the shape of a sarcophagus, which had spikes that would immediately pierce the person inside, seems to have been created in the eighteenth century. The spikes still weren’t long enough for an instant kill, leaving the punished to suffer for a couple of days first.

The Breast Ripper

As shocking as it may be, torture devices were made specifically for women. The breast ripper is one of the most frightening of them. The concept of women-centric torture was that these creations would damage a woman’s feminity.

This form of torture wouldn’t automatically kill a woman, but there was a likely chance of developing an infection that would bring about a slow and painful death. The torture itself damaged the breasts of the accused with a claw that was attached and then pulled away from the woman who would be shackled to the wall. The claw would pull and shred her breasts.

In medieval times, it seems this was a popular way to punish women for adultery, among other crimes.

The Stocks

Stocks in Keevil, Wiltshire
My another account / Public domain

Instead of killing someone for doing wrong deeds, the stocks were a way to humiliate those who committed petty crimes. If you stole from someone, you were likely to be placed in the stocks, a device that bound them immobile.

You can see the stocks at some tourist attractions, where you put your head and arms through a large wooden contraption. Those who were tortured in this way were strapped in and left for hours or days. While it was less common to be killed in the stocks, being left in extremely cold or hot weather for days was enough to kill some.

The Catherine Wheel

The Catherine Wheel had a more ominous name—the breaking wheel. It’s another medieval torture device with the sole purpose of killing someone slowly as punishment for their crimes. Its name originates from a connection with Saint Catherine of Alexandria. St. Catherine was a martyr who became known as Saint Catherine of the Wheel, when the spiked wheel meant to kill her broke at her touch.

The breaking wheel is a large wagon wheel with radial spokes, which the prisoner was attached to, and their body contorted to the curve of the wheel. They would then be bludgeoned. People were often left on the wheel and tortured for days. Upon death, the prisoner could then be displayed for all to see, while still attached to the wheel.

The Rack

wood carving of man tortured on rack
See page for author / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

The rack was created in the 1400s as a way to torture prisoners in the Tower of London. The rack was simply a table with rollers at the end to which ropes were attached. A person would be strapped in, with their hands and feet bound to the rollers. Then, the accused would be stretched to death.

As the rollers pulled the body, elongating it beyond repair, joints would pop out of place, and ligaments would tear. At a later point, an ingenue in torture would add spikes to the rack, making it even more painful a form of torture.

Rat Torture

Some forms of torture are even more disturbing than others. One such torture sure to instill nightmares in your mind for weeks to come is rat torture. To afflict suffering, a rat was placed on a man’s abdomen, and a cage was strapped over the rat to keep it on him. The rats used for this torment were starved, which made them ravenously eat the human or at least try to bite and claw their way out of the cage through the person’s body.

Rat torture appears to have begun in the seventeenth century and was still in use well into the later parts of the twentieth century. Rat torture went far beyond caging a rat to a person’s body. Even more gruesome a punishment was having rats inside you, which were forced inside your body with a telescope.

Drawn and Quartered

In fourteenth-century England, the punishment fo choice for those who betrayed the crown was to be hung, then drawn and quartered—a punishment not even befitting an animal in a slaughterhouse.

The first step was to be hung. Usually, hanging a guilty person is what leads to death, but in the case of being drawn and quartered, the prisoner was taken down before death. The next step was to be pulled behind a horse or carriage, which is enough to leave you with lots of scrapes and bruises and possibly some broken bones. The final act of punishment was to quarter the accused, which meant cutting them open and disemboweling them. The quartering process was even more gruesome than the rest and done while the person was still alive.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »