of punishment and torture is both macabre and mesmerizing. Mankind
has always been a cruel and unusual species of animal, and when
Kings and the law of their courts required a confession in order
to exact guilt (and thereby place a sentence of death); grievous
torture was the first thing that came to mind. It's probably of
no surprise that the majority of historical tortures have been undertaken
to curb religious differences, and for other religious reasons.
As old as civilization itself, the torturing of an individual by
another has a primordial satisfaction to it.
human suffering strikes a cord of bloodlust into most people whether
they admit it or not, so to create the quintessential spectacle
of pain and agony would be a near sexual experience for viewers
and, most especially, the torturers.
widespread use of torture in the middle Ages occurred during the
Inquisitions, where supposed witches and heretics were rounded up
by the hundreds, tortured and executed for crimes against the church.
"The Malleus Maleficarum", a book written in 1484 by Kramer and
Sprenger - two of the most famous inquisitors of the age, was used
for nearly three centuries by inquisitors and witch-hunters alike.
spawned many an anti-witch crusade, giving precise information about
recognition and subsequent punishments of a witch. Following is
a compilation of common methods of torture and torturous execution
throughout the middle Ages. Pick through and find a few of your
favourites to spring on a few of your own victims, if you feel your
personal level of cruelty is becoming a bit too routine.
must stress that much of the following information may be too graphic
for some readers, so if you have a weak constitution or are easily
offended or squeamish, you may not wish to read on.
to as "caning", the bastinado is a form of punishment still used
throughout the Middle and Far East. The accused would be stripped
bare, then bound in a way convenient to receive numerous blows to
the backside, soles of the feet, or the back of the legs with a
heavy shaft of bamboo or rattan. This procedure often broke bones
in the feet or pelvis. Occasionally after the caning, the wounds
would be further aggravated with hot coals, scalding water, itching
dust, or even the bites of red ants.
in a number of Civilizations, boiling and cooking was most classically
used in Ancient Rome, where large human frying pans were used to
slowly cook to death those Christians who would not renounce their
religion, or perhaps they would be boiled in a caldron of oil. Another
popular form of roasting involved a chair made from iron with a
fire pit underneath it. A victim would be bound to the iron chair
and then slowly roasted in the open air as the coals heated the
iron chair. Henry VII, notorious for his sadism, was also a fond
fan of boiling victims alive. Boiling was the death penalty sentence
for prisoners. This was abolished after Henry's son took the throne.
In mid-17th-century Silesia, more than two thousand girls and women
were cooked during a nine-year period in the oven at Neiss
as boot kens or as cashielaws, the boots consisted of wedges that
fitted the legs from ankles to knees. The torturer used a large,
heavy hammer to pound the wedges, driving them closer together.
At each strike, the inquisitor repeated the question.
It was once
commonly believed that a witch’s power could be nullified by destroying
her blood in a fire, hence the practice of burning at the stake.
By far the most well-known punishment for witches was death by burning,
a fate reserved also for heretics. Perhaps the most famous death
by burning was the execution of Joan d’Arc for heresy. In the Dark
Ages, the Celts were fast at work appeasing their hundreds of Gods,
and these gods were hungry. Criminals were stuffed into giant human-shaped
cages made of wicker known as the "Wicker man", and burned alive
to appease the gods. When the supply of criminals ran out, they
resorted to the innocent - proving that hungry gods were not always
was devised by the Phoenicians in about 1,000 BC, and eventually
exported to the Greeks, Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, and Romans.
Crucifixion was considered the most humiliating form of death in
Ancient Rome. The victim was stripped down to the loincloth then
either bound or nailed through the hands and feet to the cross of
wood. Occasionally the victim's limbs would be broken to hasten
the death. Death was slow, being left in the beating desert sun,
flies feasting on the victim's sweat, and more importantly, the
hanging by outstretched arms produced slow suffocation as the ribs,
lungs and diaphragm were restricted.
stool was a punishment which most often befell women prisoners.
Grossly unpleasant, and often fatal, the woman would be strapped
into a seat which hung from the end of a free-moving arm. The seat
and the woman would be dunked into the local river or pond. It was
up to the operators of the stool as to how long she remained under
the water. Many elderly women were killed by the shock of the cold
the garrotte was simply hanging by another name. However, during
Medieval times, executioners began to refine the use of rope until
it became as feared and as vile as any punishment of that dark era.
European executioners first used the garrotte to end the suffering
of men broken on the wheel, but by the turn of the 18th century
the seed of an idea involving slow strangulation was planted in
the minds of Europe’s law-makers. At first, garrottes were nothing
more than an upright post with a hole bored through. The victim
would stand or sit on a seat in front of the post, and a rope was
looped around his or her neck. The ends of the cords were fed through
the hole in the post. The executioner would pull on both ends of
the cord or twist them tourniquet-styled, slowly strangling the
victim. Later modifications included a spike fixed into the wood
frame, at the back of the victim's neck, parting the vertebrae as
the rope strangled.
Maiden of Nuremberg was a tomb-sized container with folding doors.
Upon the inside of the door were vicious spikes. As the prisoner
was shut inside he would be pierced along the length of his body.
The talons were not designed to kill outright, however, and the
pinioned prisoner was left to slowly perish in the utmost pain.
of torture was specific to women. It involved tying a stick into
a woman’s hair and twisting it tighter and tighter. When the Inquisitor
no longer had the strength to twist, he would hold the victim’s
head or fasten it in a holding device until burly men could take
over the chore.
also known as peine forte et dure, was both a death sentence and
a means of drawing out confessions. Adopted as a judicial measure
during the 14th century, pressing reached its peak during the reign
of Henry IV. In Britain, pressing was not abolished until 1772.
a very simple and popular means of extricating confession. The victim
was tied across a board by his ankles and wrists. Rollers at either
end of the board were turned, pulling the body in opposite directions
until dislocation of every joint occurred.
It was often
believed, in Catholic countries that the soul of a heretic or witch
was corrupted, filthy, and bedevilled by all manner of foulness.
To cleanse them before punishment, sometimes the victims were forced
to consume heated or scalding consumables (scalding water, fire
brands, coals, even soaps). The modern day ‘washing the mouth out
with soap’ is a direct descendant.
in late medieval Scotland, the scold’s bridle, witch’s bridle, or
brank, as it was sometimes called, had many different appearances.
Fundamentally, it was the same: a metal cage for the head with a
built-in gag. Some branks were very cruel pieces of work, with spikes
which pierced the tongue. Some simply had a bell built in, a device
which would further humiliate the scold who wore it through the
streets. In the streets, the scold would be subjected to the taunting
and jeering of the crowds which gathered to witness the spectacle.
“In Ipswich the scold was drawn around the town on a cart in the
‘gagging’ chair or ‘tewe,’ as it was known.”
A scold was
defined as: "A troublesome and angry woman who by brawling and
wrangling amongst her neighbours breaks the public peace, increases
discord and becomes a public nuisance to the neighbourhood."
unclear why men should not be pulled up on a similar charge. It
was up to the judges to pronounce on whether a woman was indeed
a scold. Frequently, it was a disgruntled husband bringing his wife
to court. In the old-fashioned, half-timbered houses in the borough,
there was generally fixed on one side of the large open fireplaces
a hook so that when a man’s wife indulged her scolding propensities,
the husband sent for the town gaoler to bring the bridle and had
her bridled and chained to the hook until she promised to behave
herself better for the future. This was presumably carried out as
a favour to the husband, to spare him the trouble of appearing in
court. Branks were first seen in Edinburgh in 1567, and in Glasgow
in 1574. They appeared as far south as Surrey by 1632. The Surrey
bridle was inscribed: Chester presents Walton with a bridle, to
curb women’s tongues that talk too idle
was a form of torture used in conjunction with the strappado. It
was the process of hanging weights from the victim as they were
being tortured with the strappado. Weights ranged from fifty to
five hundred pounds. The greater the weight, the more bones would
is well-documented as a punishment from Biblical times onward, where
a victim would executed by a stone-throwing mob.
was used either on its own or as the merciful partner to burning
at the stake. Because being burnt alive evoked sympathy from the
crowds, victims were generally dispatched of before being consigned
to the flames.
was one of the easiest and, therefore, one of the most common torture
techniques. All one needed to set up a strappado was a sturdy rafter
and a rope. The victim’s wrists were bound behind her/his back,
and the rope would be tossed over the beam. Then, the victim was
repeatedly dropped from a height, so that her/his arms and shoulders
would dislocate. Sometimes weights were attached to the feet (known
as "Squassation"), to ensure more dislocations and greater pain.
Weights of up to 500 pounds have been recorded.
torture was not allowed against witches because witches were not
believed to be conspirators. Tormentum insomnia is torture by sleeplessness,
and was allowable perhaps because it did not seem to be a real torture.
Nonetheless, Matthew Hopkins used it for his advantage in Essex.
In one instance, John Lowe, 70-year-old vicar of Brandeston, was
swum in the moat, kept awake for three days and nights, and then
forced to walk without rest until his feet were blistered. Denied
benefit of clergy, Lowe recited his own burial service on the way
to the gallows.
of torturing accused witches was to tie them up in a sack, string
the sack over a tree limb and set it swinging. The rocking motion
of this witch’s cradle...caused profound disorientation and helped
induce confessions. Most subjected to this also suffered profound
hallucinations, which surely added colour to their confessions.