Use It Right – Medieval Torture Devices

It’s hard to write an original piece on this subject matter. There are already plenty of Top Ten lists or quick and dirty descriptors as well as hundreds of books. I’m also sure that for some of my more morbid friends this article won’t present too much new information, but I would like to have it up on my blog for posterity. From Middle School through early High School I loved learning about the Dark & Middle Ages. Specifically torture, the plague, and the Inquisition. Bring out your dead!

I had a recent fever for the flavor of torture because I kept stumbling across sites mentioning devices that I would either be unfamiliar with the name or the specific use (apply directly to…?). I wanted to be better educated. My favorite spot to catch up on learnin’ about Medieval life & times (and the best resource for my post today) is medievality.com. This site has the most comprehensive collection of devices. Now, while everyone is familiar with the Iron Maiden (excellent!), the Chair of Torture, the Rack, and probably several others (depending on what popular fiction you are into), you probably are misinformed about specific details on their implementation. This may be due to how it looks or it could be due to how it is used or spoken about in fiction. I am going to take this time to clarify some points that I found interesting.

For instance: Edgar Allen Poe in “The Pit and The Pendulum” gives the impression that the pendulum is just that: a swinging, semi-circular device like that in a clock, except slowly lowering (even Wikipedia thinks this). Per medievality.com on this subject, we see it as an object used to slowly elevate the arms of the victim. I wondered if this was something they came up with for lack of better evidence. Another specialty website, Occasional Hell, concurred that the original concept is wrong.

Occasional Hell does have a great selection of information (and a coloring book you can buy! – gift idea for me, guys), but we disagree on what “gibbeting” is. The hanging cage or coffin torture or “the keep torture” (no one can agree on the damn name) could be used as lethal or non-lethal and was very cruel torture in which a body was placed in a restricting device and placed outside to die or waste away by exposure and animals. But my understanding of “gibbet” by reading about the pirate Captain “Calico” Jack Rackham* and the reference in my favorite author Mary Roach’s book “Stiff” (Norton, 2003) is that you are already dead when you recieve that sentence. The act of having your body mutilated is sentencing your soul. Displaying it for the townsfolk is a warning:
“To gibbet is to dip a corpse in tar and suspend it in a flat iron cage (the gibbet) in plain view of townsfolk while it rots and gets pecked apart by crows. A stroll through the square must have been a whole different plate of tamales back then.” (Roach, p.41)

Then there is the “Chair of Torture”. Yes, commonly it was used for the pressure applied slowly to drain you… er, the victim, of blood through the spikes.** What is not commonly mentioned is the fire. That thing is metal. Many of these chairs were built with a way of putting coals underneath so it would heat up. Heat & pressure. Delightful. In fact, a lot of torture devices could be modified for heat if someone really wanted to set something on fire – the head crusher, the breast ripper (don’t think about it don’t think about it), the boot. All fun times.

So what are my new favorite torture devices I learned about this week? Well, I found out about the Pear of Anguish:


It has a pleasant shape, it kind of reminds me of a key, and the meaning and method of torture is quite imaginative. There were different sizes and shapes to stick in different orifices (depending on gender & crime). You would be punished with this if you were a blasphemer, supposedly homosexual, adulterous, or a consort with demons. If you didn’t die from it, you could die later from infection or you would be disfigured for life.

And then there’s the Crocodile Shears (I will be hated for this, I don’t care):

A very special… special device. Not used often, but a good deterrent for would-be plotters against the throne. Yeah, sure you could use it for fingers, but it’s just the right size for the part of anatomy that will teach your traitors a lesson. And most likely kill them.

And the less lethal, just plain silly “Mask of Infamy”:

Coming in a variety of shapes and flavors, this told your friends and neighbors that you have been very stupid. Similar to branks (or the shrew’s collar) which was meant to shut a woman up and embarrass her, the Mask of Infamy took it to a whole new level. You not only couldn’t talk, but an image of utter absurdity was associated with you from then on. If you… survived the ordeal.

If you find yourself in Europe, you can seek out museums with torture devices on display, such as The Torture Museum (San Gimignano, Italy) (by the way, I recommend just going to the corkscrew-balloon website if you are into the bizarre and morbid). There are a few spots in America, but most are with replicas. If you go to Medieval Times, they have a little one set up that you can drunkenly stumble through if it’s part of your special pass. I got to go last Valentine’s Day. It was very romantic.

*The awesomest of awesome pirates. If you don’t agree with this, I will fight you. No lie.
**And Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow would make you think it or the iron maiden will have you explode in blood. Still worth the watch. The comedic amount of blood is probably what allows the brain override the nausea factor.

Again, I appreciate anyone who has made it this far through another one of my crazy, delusionally long posts. I know the post is late today. I should have done the research & writing yesterday (had the research, but was lazy). Hopefully my ADD will keep me to shorter posts later this week. And no, I didn’t want to talk about the Judas Cradle.

[Edit from December 2012: This has been far and away the most searched for and read post on my blog. If you sickos get this far please like, comment, or share.]

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About Strix Varia

Seeking the strange creatures of the Internet while staving off the boredom of being unemployed and far from old friends. Follow the blog if you need something with which to pass the time away.

Posted on February 22, 2011, in education week, guilty pleasures, history and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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