7 Disturbing Torture Devices from Medieval Europe

We often perceive the Middle Ages as a dark period in history, with people frequently being tortured to death using a litany of creative devices.

The Brazen Bull, which whistled the screams of the person burning to death inside, the Iron Maiden which pierced its victims all over or the Pear of Anguish which was inserted into a person’s orifices and… stretched.

Well, none of those actually existed; or at least not quite. Historians debate the Brazen Bull’s legitimacy, suggesting it could have been propaganda from the era. The Iron Maiden didn’t appear in text until the late 18th century, and there are no mentions of the Pear of Anguish in any first-hand historical accounts.

 That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of real and disturbing torture devices used in the medieval period, just that they’re not what you might expect.

We’ve put together the top 7 most disturbing torture devices actually used in medieval Europe.

7. Torture Device: The Boot

The Boot has many variations throughout history; but in the medieval period the most common version was named The Spanish Boot. In all cases, the boot was fitted to the specific victim – tailor-made for your torture!

Once fitted, the torturer would hammer iron or wooden wedges in the space between your flesh and the boot, slowly crushing bones as the pressure increased.

The Spanish boot

The pain would be so excruciating the victim would pass out; if they didn’t confess first.

And I thought high heels were bad…

6. Torture Device: The Rack

Arguably the most famous torture device on this list, and the chosen way to demonstrate torture in medieval Europe in every film and television series you’ve ever seen.

We don’t know when the rack was first introduced as a torture device; some of our earliest recordings of this method are as far back as Ancient Greece. But it was in 15th century Britain it really became infamous.

The Rack torture device

A nasty form of torture. The torturer would splay the victim out across a wooden board, laid horizontally to the ground. They would secure their hands and feet to rollers on each side of the device so their body was in a cross position. Then the turning would begin…

As the wheel turned, it would stretch each limb upwards and outwards until joints were painfully pulled from their sockets. Cartilage and bone would stretch and break as the victim screamed in pain and revealed whatever information they were thought to be hiding.

Plus, it had the added benefit of being able to administer additional torture as the victim laid prone and broken. The joys of medieval Europe.

5. Torture Device: The Iron Chair

The more famous version of this device – the Iron Maiden, didn’t actually come to fruition until the 1800s. It was instead the Iron Chair that was used in the Middle Ages.

Similar to the Iron Maiden, the victim was tied down onto a chair covered in anywhere between 500 and 1500 spikes. As the person sat on the chair and the spikes drove into their body, they would experience extreme pain.

The Iron Chair Medieval Torture Device

It was an effective torture device, as the spikes didn’t go far enough up to puncture vital organs and the wound was sealed by the victims weight, making bleeding out unlikely. This meant that when released from the chair, blood would pour out of you like a gruesome watering can.

In addition, the chair offered a great way to add additional means of torture. Such as placing a fire under it in order to heat the metal and add a dose of burning to your impalement.

4. Torture Device: The Breast Ripper

Does what it says on the tin. A medieval torture device, the Breast Ripper (or Iron Spider) was used on adulterous women, or those who performed self-abortions.

The breast ripper, medieval torture device

The top of the device had hooks which were attached to the wall, whilst the long fangs of the device clamped on either side of the offender’s breast. They’d then rip the victim away, tearing the flesh and ripping away their breast. This not only left victims scarred as intended but often caused infections that could lead to serious illness and/or death.  

Not the type of breast reduction women are looking for…

3. Torture Device: The Wooden Horse

Bet you didn’t know gym equipment had such disturbing origins…

The wooden horse back then looks exactly like it does today, except the original use was far more sinister than gymnastics.

The Cheval Wooden Horse Torture Device Medieval

Made from wood, the accused would straddle the horse or chevalet (as the French would say), and the torturer would add additional weights to their legs and ankles, forcing their groin to grind into the wood beneath.

This was often painful and humiliating, injuring the person’s crotch and possibly causing irreparable damage to their nether regions.

2. Torture Device: The Strappado

If you came here looking for BDSM information, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

This fun-filled torture device was a favourite of the Spanish Inquisition and involved tying a person’s arms behind their backs and lifting them high into the air by the rope, their limbs twisted awkwardly behind them.

The Strappado medieval torture device

This torture method would often result in painful dislocation of the person’s joints and long-term permanent damage to their nerves and tendons.

Another version of this torture device involved repeatedly and abruptly dropping the victim from the air and catching them before they reached the ground, resulting in further damage to their arms and breaking their shoulders.

1. Torture Device: The Scavenger’s Daughter

The Scavenger’s Daughter was used during the reign of Henry VIII and sounds more like one of his conquests than a torture device. Unlike Henry’s wives, though, the torture device was rarely used.

The Scavenger’s Daughter is best described as the ‘reverse rack’. Instead of stretching the victim’s bones, it would painfully crush and compress them.

The Scavenger's Daughter Medieval Torture Device

The torturer strapped the head and feet of the victim to this metal contraption that would then fold, forcing the person’s head down between their knees and crushing their internal organs, causing their eyes and nose to bleed.

That’s one way to force a confession…

There you have it. 7 torture devices really used in medieval Europe. And I thought listening to Trump was torture enough…

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