The Middle Ages were not a nice period to live in by our cushy modern standards. Most people were poor, they suffered from disease, and their freedom was owned by wealthy landowners. And if you committed a crime and could not afford to pay a fine, your hand might have been chopped off or your tongue and lips cut out.
Torture was not as common as many people think, but God forbid if the authorities wanted you to confess something! The Middle Ages were the golden age of torture techniques and devices that inflicted horrible pain. Today’s “sanctioned” torture techniques are designed to cause psychological or emotional distress, with some limited physical hardship. But the devices used in the Middle Ages were truly frightening to behold, and there were more than a few people in those days who enjoyed conjuring the most gruesome devices. Warning: these descriptions are not for the faint of heart!
Often, the pole would emerge through the sternum so that its tip could be placed under the chin to prevent further sliding. It could take the victim three days to die. Vlad did this to between 20,000 and 300,000. It is said he enjoyed having a meal while watching impalements. (Photo by Trevor Matich)
The victim was usually naked, adding to the overall humiliation of the torture and sometimes weights were added to the legs to increase the pain and hasten death. This torture could last anywhere from a few hours to complete days. The device was rarely washed, so the victim could also be plagued with a painful infection.
Serious crimes, such as heresy or blasphemy, were punished by death inside the coffin where the victim was placed under the sun allowing birds or animals to eat his or her flesh. Sometimes onlookers would throw rocks and other objects to further increase the pain. (Photo by Charles Bray)
In the later Middle Ages, a new variant of rack appeared. Spikes were added that penetrated the victim's back when he or she were forced to lie on table. As the limbs were pulled apart, so was the spinal cord, increasing not only the physical pain, but the psychological pain of knowing that, even if he or she were to survive, mobility of any kind would be lost forever.
The claws were often placed, red hot, on the victim's exposed breasts, the spikes penetrating to achieve a powerful grasp. They were then pulled to rip off or shred the breasts. If the victim wasn't killed she would be scarred for life as her breasts were literally torn apart.
A common variant was known as "The Spider," which is a similar instrument attached to a wall. The victim's breasts were fixed to the claws and the woman was pulled by the torturer away from the wall, removing or mutilating them. This was a brutal punishment that often resulted in the victim's death.
The instrument consisted of four leaves that slowly separated from each other as the torturer turned the screw at the top. The device would tear the skin at the very least or expand to mutilate the victim’s orifice. It could dislocated or break the jawbones
Pears of Anguish still in existence are lavishly engraved or adorned to differentiate between the anal, vaginal and oral pears. This torture rarely brought death, but was often followed by other torture methods.
Once his bones were broken, he was left on the wheel to die. Sometimes the wheel was placed on a tall pole so birds could pick and eat the flesh of the still-living human. It could take up to two or three days for him to die of dehydration.
Sometimes it was 'mercifully' ordered that the executioner strike the criminal on the chest and stomach, blows known as the coups de grâce (French: "blow of mercy"), which caused lethal injuries, leading to the end of the death by torture.
The victim was tied upside down, allowing blood to be diverted to the brain. This ensured that the victim maintained consciousness for as long as possible, it slowed the loss of blood and caused maximum humiliation. The torture could last several hours.
While some victims were cut completely in half as a symbolic gesture, most were only cut up to their abdomen to prolong the time it took to die.
This instrument was an effective way to extract confessions, as the period of pain could be prolonged for many hours if the torturer chose to. If the torture was stopped midway, the victim often had irreparable damage done to the brain, jaw or eyes.
The number of spikes the knee splitter contained varied from three to more than twenty. Some claws were heated beforehand to maximize pain - others had dozens of small claws that penetrated the flesh slowly and painfully.
David Morton is a Vancouver-based blogger and writer, who is working on a novel about monasteries in the Middle Ages. He is also a teacher of English as a second language. You can read his blog at http://blog.dmorton.ca