You Are At: AllSands Home > Potluck4 > Inquisition torture techniques
Webster's Dictionary defines torture as "something that causes agony or pain; the infliction of intense pain; torment; to punish or coerce by inflicting excruciating pain." But this succinct definition can do little to illustrate the true depths of human torment that were endured during medieval times.

A vast plethora of torture techniques were used in Europe and other continents for many centuries, some of which have even been known to surface (illegally) in modern times. Punishments handed down from medieval times remained legal throughout the majority of Catholic Europe until after the end of the Napoleonic era, most especially in Austria, Bavaria, Italy (with the exceptions of Tuscany, Lucca and Parma), and of course, in Spain.

Throughout man's history, people have questioned why one human being would choose to torture another. Can he feel no empathy? No sympathy? No pain? Are men who torture oblivious to these emotions, or do they simply rationalize them away, convincing themselves and those around them that they are doing what they are doing for the greater good of mankind? The Nazis, for example, convinced themselves that their victims were not really human, therefore their pain had limited significance. The Inquisitors justified their actions by telling themselves that torture was a means of saving the heretic's soul by causing him to confess his sins and repent. Of course, in many cases, torture was merely the swiftest means of coercing a person to provide information or perform certain activities against his will.

Physical torture was the most abhorrent in medieval Europe, where torture devices included everything from the Breast Ripper to the Head Crusher to The Wheel. The Papal Inquisition, Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and the Tower of London all contributed to the widespread adoption of torture techniques, making the practice of torment virtually commonplace. Interestingly, many of these devices are at present, on display in the Tower of London.

While every torture device used in medieval times was, in some form, used to inflict pain, each mechanism had its own unique slant on how to push the physical and psychological limits of a fellow human being to the maximum:

The Breast Ripper was popular in France and Germany all the way up through the early nineteenth century. It consisted of four claws that slowly ripped away at the breasts of women accused of heresy, blasphemy, adultery and pretty much any criminal act they could pin on her (so to speak). Women who performed their own abortions, those who were thought to be witches, unwed mothers and a variety of other "torture-worthy" crimes were all considered to be legitimate and legal reasons to perform what must have been an utterly agonizing procedure. Even more horrendous is the fact that the practice was often executed in front of the women's children.

The Head Crusher was used primarily as a means of capital punishment. The intent was to place excessive amounts of pressure on the skull via a screw or a nail, in an attempt to facilitate the gradual development of brain damage, and eventually, death. The device essentially functioned as a vice, pushing the victim's chin up from the bottom, while his skull was being simultaneously pressed down from the top. As a result, the victim's teeth would shatter under the force, their facial bones would crack and splinter, and at times, their eyes would actually burst forth from their sockets. The final blow came when the brain was ultimately compressed.

The Wheel was one of the most excruciating methods of torture and execution practiced in medieval Europe, in that it was not only painful but also humiliating. Second only to hanging, the wheel was the most prevalent means of execution employed throughout Germanic Europe from the early Middle Ages until the dawn of the eighteenth century. In this particular process, the victim was forced to lie naked on the ground, with all four of his limbs spread out and bound to stakes or iron rings. Wooden slats were then placed beneath the wrists, elbows, ankles, knees and hips. Afterward, the executioner shattered each limb, joint by joint until finally, the crushed extremities were "braided" into the spokes of the large wheel. The victim was then hoisted to the top of the pole, where crows would devour the remains of his flesh and pluck out his eyes. The sheer goriness of this technique made it a popular public spectacle, which led to many victims being executed by the wheel on display in the major public squares of Europe between 1450 and 1750.

The Iron Maiden enclosed the victim within a sort of metal casket. Once the victim was sufficiently skewered within the chamber, the floor inside would open up and drop its captive onto a rack of knives for easy disposal. This device's function leaned more towards execution than torture, yet the death it facilitated was without a doubt, torturous. This is especially true considering that the doors to the container were fitted with interior spikes that pierced the victim's body the moment the doors were shut. Though the first historical mention of an Iron Maiden-style execution dates back only to the early 1500's, experts have deduced that the instrument was probably introduced several decades earlier.

Thumbscrews were one of the most conventional torture devices used in medieval times, simply and efficiently crushing thumbs, fingers and toes in attempts to extract confessions from its unfortunate victims. One reason this method was so popular was that it was a relatively inexpensive and trouble-free torture device.

The Rack is one of the most well known forms of medieval torture. This pain inducing mechanism worked by having the victim lie on a horizontal rack with his hands and ankles tied to rollers on opposite ends. The Inquisitors would perform the interrogation while turning the rollers, stretching the body of the suspect and causing colossal pain. They would stretch the body out until the joints were actually yanked from their sockets, with the ultimate intent of killing the victim either through shock or injuries.

There were many other methods of torture employed in the Middle Ages, which included the Iron Collar, the Bilboes (which compressed the ankles), the Pilliwinks (which squeezed the fingers), and the Brakes (used to break teeth). Victims were also scorched with fire, and tortured with water. Most often, those who managed to survive the physical torture suffered severe mental and psychological distress. Some became inflicted with paranoid schizophrenia, having internalized an unrelenting fear of their tormentors pursuing them.

Whether it is used as a deterrent to unwelcome behavior, a means of extracting confessions or classified information, or simply a means of exerting power over another human being, torture is not a concept that most of us can wrap our minds around. Most of us cannot even fathom either doling out or withstanding extensive physical torture, yet in medieval times, the practice was as common as drinking ale and donning armor.