History of the Medieval Torture Devices Used During the Dark Ages

Thumbscrew Torture

The Thumbscrew torture was used during the Middle Ages, most notoriously during the inquisition.

medieval torture devices

When a victim refused to reveal sensitive information, he or she would be subject to the thumbscrew. The victim's hands were placed in the device (see below) and the torturer would crush the victim's fingers slowly.

medieval torture devices

Another common application of the thumbscrew was to crush a victim's toes. A (bigger) variant of this torture was used to crush knees, arms and even heads

Medieval Torture - Tean Zu

Tean Zu is an ancient Chinese torture device originally designed for women, though it quickly appealed torturers for male victims. It's a relatively simple and yet painful torture, where a person's fingers were placed on a flat surface. Wooden sticks were placed between the fingers connected by strings. When a victim refused to talk or deliver information to the torturer, he would tighten the string a bit more causing the tables to crush the fingers.

This torture was sometimes used in the West, for it did not damage the skin nor kill the victim.

Medieval Heat Torture

Designed in Ancient Turkey (Greece), the Heat Torture was extremely painful and humiliating. After a person was "convicted", he or she would be locked inside a coffin made of brass (sometimes called the Brazen Bull).

The victim's feet were creatively fixed to the ground. Sometimes with ropes, sometimes with nails and sometimes they were not fixed at all. The coffin was placed vertically on top of a fire where it was left for many hours until the brass turned "red hot".

According to some historians including Herodotus, the Heat Torture was the most common torture in Greece. As years passed, the Brazen Bull became more painful and amusing for those outside. At one point, the most sophisticated device had a complex set of tubes so the victim's screams could be heard as an "infuriated ox". Apparently, this amused certain rulers such as the Roman Emperor Hadrian who, according to legend, burnt entire families with the device.


Mostly in early Medieval Times, heretics and witches were condemned to be fixed to the ground with iron nails. Spreading arms and legs while being naked under the sun resulted in having very strong sunburns all around a person's body. If this wasn't enough, wild animals used to eat the victim alive; the pain of having an animal eating burnt flesh is comparable to the wheel and other more recent torture devices.

The victim was lucky if the closest animal was a bear; for there were smaller animals, such as mice; who would eat him slowly.

The Iron Maiden

The iron maiden is in fact a sarcophagus. The only two main differences are that it has tips all over the front door and that people died after getting in--and not before.

The Iron Maiden was introduced in Germany. Even though it is commonly believed that it was used in the Middle Ages, the truth is that it was invented a few centuries later. Very few people had the misfortune of experiencing what it feels like to be trapped in this sarcophagus.

Normally, the big door would be shut slowly; the tips crushing a person in agonizing pain. There was a tube in the bottom that made the victim see his own blood as it poured out of his body. The few people that did make it to this device, lasted more than 2 days before death finally struck them.

The Stocks

The victim would place his or her hands and feet in the open device later to be closed. Depending on the crime, a person could be sentenced to many days, or even weeks of staying confined by the stocks.

Generally placed near a town, the victim was subject to the public's harm. In a mild case, the sentenced person would leave with just a few punches in the face and a lot of urine in his or her body.

In a more severe case, townspeople acted very harsh and stoning was very common. Some people died and others were left severely injured. Cutting was very common, and some very offensive villagers would cut off parts of the victim (such as a hand) to later be burned; stopping him from dying.

Sometimes, death penalty was sentenced by this device. The victim was to be left confined to the stocks somewhere while the public, sun and animals did their job to kill him.

Even though in movies they portrait the stocks harmless, the reality was quite different. People suffered a lot and sometimes those who wanted to save the victim were also tortured by this method.


This is one of the most humiliating tortures ever designed by the human mind. When a women was accused of being a whore or a witch, she was tied to a horse and grabbed everywhere the rider wanted. When the person was hated by the people, stones (hence the name) and other sharp or hot materials were placed on the floor to increase the victim's suffering while being taken all over town for everyone to see.

When on death penalty, the victim would take a long time to die; normally more than an hour. Villagers would scream things and yell insults to the unfortunate person. If they were bored, they would grab stones and throw them at their victim; thus increasing dying speed--and pain.

The Keep Torture

Known as "The Keep", this is one of the most embarrassing and painful tortures ever designed by the human mind. A victim would be sometimes fixed with iron nails to the cage and the door would be shut forever. The small openings in "The Keep" were big enough for hungry birds to eat whatever they could. The defenseless victim, having his arms tied with a rope, had nothing better to do than to hysterically stare at the birds--and other animals--eating him alive.

Normally suited for nobles and the alike, this torture wasn't only painful; but socially speaking, it killed whatever honor a person had left. The cage would be hung on the main square--or on a church--exhibiting the victim's fate to a whole town.

After many days of agonizing and severe pain, the unlucky person would finally pass out. Sometimes the townspeople would throw stones or other objects to "awake" him.

In the most severe punishments, the victim would be let down; and after a week or so of resting, he would be put up there again. Sometimes this intermittent punishment occurred three or four times until he was sent to another torture machine or until he finally died because of the birds--and the sun.

The Pear of Anguish

Used during Medieval Times, the Pear of Anguish was an extremely painful device used to punish homosexuals, witches and women accused of inducing a miscarriage.

The Whip

Not popularly seen as a very painful torture, the whip was in fact a menace.

The whip has been used throughout the millennia to inspire terror to whole nations. From Egypt to France, the whip has been a fearful torture device.

In the Netherlands, kids were the ones who punished their victims. It was said "so they could be better executioners some day."

Pirates seldom used whips to punish offenders. They were very effective as some historians narrate us.

Even today, the whip is used in many countries of the Middle East and Indonesia.

The Guillotine

Probably due to the dim amount of suffering, guillotines were widely used. It is common belief that the guillotine is a French invention; nevertheless, its origins are much older. The Scots were the first to use a smaller guillotine as a means of execution for nobles. When the French found out about this very useful device, they decided to employ it officially as a way to punish everyone and not just nobles. It was the physician named Joseph-lgnace Guillotin who introduced this merciless device to France.

Before being used, the guillotine was tested with dead bodies from a hospital. It was ready on April 4, 1792 at Paris. The first official execution in Paris occurred on the 25th of that month.

From 1792 to 1794, France used this machine very often. Louis XVI had his head cut on January 21, 1793. Hence the name "Le Louison" until in 1800 the term "guillotine" was employed.

It has been proven that a person whose head has been cut, is conscious for a few seconds. Probably a little more than the time it takes for the head to fall on the floor. Some people could even blink before dying. This deadly machine was used in many places such as The Papal States, France, Scotland, and other European countries. In France, its use stopped only after the abolition of the death penalty under Mitterrand in 1981.

The Pear of Anguish had the shape of a pear; As a handle was turned, the spoon-shaped lobes opened; increasing pain. Even though the Pear of Anguish was mostly used for oral punishments, homosexuals had it fixed in their anus and women in their vagina. Causing severe pain, after this torture was employed on the mouth; the victim's teeth would get destroyed; making blood pour out of the victim's mouth often causing death.

If introduced in the anus or vagina, death was a step away. The Pear of Anguish was rarely washed, thus causing infections very frequently. If the victim didn't die by an infection however, he would die by other diseases caused by the severe damage of his or her intestines.

Breast Ripper

When a woman slept with a man, who wasn't his husband, she could either continue doing it until someone found out; or she could be sentenced to "The Breast Ripper."

Consisting on ripping a woman's breasts, this torture very often caused infections and death within a few months. If the woman was lucky enough to survive, she would never be the same.

This torture was widely used in the Dark Ages and, mainly, in the inquisition.

Impaling Torture

Vlad the Impaler, commonly referred to as Dracula today, impaled thousands of persons during his reign. At the time, Vlad was known as a hero and a good ruler - the severity of his punishments made him famous and feared. During his reign, a thief could be impaled just for stealing bread - or even worse - Vlad impaled many thousands of captured soldiers to inspire fear upon his enemies.

The victim's hands would be tied to prevent any chance of escaping. The stick was fixed to the ground and it was too big for the victim's feet to reach the ground. Finally, it took many hours - or days even (depending on the victim's strength and weight) for the stick to reach a vital organ.

There is no much evidence of the impaling torture being common during the Dark Ages - as a matter of fact, it was considered as the "Cruelest torture ever designed by the human mind."

The most common way of impalement was through the anus - but variations existed. Vlad impaled people from the chest, legs, arms and; surprisingly, form the skull. Most of these were for decoration purposes, because, as noted above - Vlad impaled a whole army and his main purpose was to scare his enemies - he succeeded by leaving "A forest of rotting men."

In rare cases, the stick would go perfectly from the anus to the mouth - in other cases the stick would stay stuck with a bone - it would go out through the chest or, more commonly, through the neck.

Vlad was so cruel that he would sometimes impale children and then make their mothers eat them. At the same time, he would be having a feast while watching the victims be impaled right in front of him. For this reason and others, Vlad is known today as Dracula, the blood-thirsty vampire.

The Chair of Torture

Just looking at the "chair" will make a person understand why medieval torture is so terrible. The unlucky victim would be forced to sit down on the chair. The stick that can be seen in the leg-level of the chair has a handle that was intended to push the victim's legs even harder against the tips. If this wasn't enough, a similar device can also be seen for the hands, back and feet.

Even though this torture gives a sense of a quick death; a person could last a day or more sitting on the chair. This way of torture was normally used to make a person confess anything. If he told the truth, he'd be given a quick death. If he refused, the torturer could turn the handle a little bit more, and the victim would feel an indescribable pain.

The victim would be alive until his blood slowly drained out of his body. This took a while because the tips themselves--and the pressure being exerted on the victim--would stop the blood from pouring out rapidly.

This torture wasn't used a lot. In fact, it was rarely used. But when a person was sentenced to it, he'd find a way to prevent it. There are records of people committing suicide before actually being subject to this torture.

Dunk Stool

The Dunk Stool was a torture commonly used to make witches confess their witchery and heresy. It consisted of a simple chair tied to a three or a stick.

The victim would be intermittently submerged in a river or pond. At the beginning, he or she would be submerged for less than a minute, but if the victim refused to reveal information or deny charges; the period of under water could increment dramatically; up to two minutes or more.

Eventually, the victim died. Nevertheless, death by the Dunk Stool was better than what would await a witch or sorcerer if proven guilty.

Chinese Torture

Chinese torture was a different way to punish offenders. It was meant to be "as painful as the human body can resist." Making a person laugh until his death--Chinese invention. The Chinese not only knew extremely well how to get the truth out of anyone, they made victims hate their torturers.
The most common way to make someone speak was with the use of a torture called "the blade." It consisted of a small--very sharp--dagger. The torturer would make one cut at a time to his victim, if he refused to speak, he could go on endlessly. A thousand cuts were not enough to kill a person. He could continue living until all his blood drained out of his body very slowly. This rarely happened since a victim could be cured and tortured for months--or years.

In medieval China, if someone didn't obey the emperor, he'd be killed. If anyone refused to believe in the emperor, he'd be tortured and killed. If someone offended the emperor, what was going to await him is best described as "hell."

That's the reason of the now infamous "Chinese Torture." But it didn't include only cutting and laughing; it was much more. They also developed highly psychological tortures. Depriving sleep was one of the most commonly used.

"The Ball" was totally psychological. It consisted of fixing a person to a wall (in good cases with ropes, bad cases with nails) and tying a small ball all the way from the roof to the head of the victim. The rope would go back and forth hitting the person's forehead until it reached his brain--after many months--and he finally died. In the middle stage of the torturing process, the victim would be shouting in agonizing pain since he could feel how the blood from his forehead was reaching his eyes (sometimes causing blindness).

Chinese torture was very cruel.

History of Medieval Torture

During the Dark Ages, torture was used to punish offenders. Whether they were spies, traitors or thieves, torture was the most common method used to punish them. If a criminal's offense was bad enough, he could be sentenced to death after a long painful death. Most punishments were given in the town's main square; to show villagers what happened if they committed a crime.

After its invention in the late XVIII century, the most common way to kill someone was with the guillotine. Though this punishment was always painless, criminals who offended someone in the previous centuries were not as lucky for very painful devices existed.

If someone denied giving away valuable information, there were many ways to make him talk. Known as the Judas Chair, an offender would be forced to sit on a pyramid-shaped chair making his or her anus gradually bigger; thus killing him in a matter of days. When he agreed to talk, he would be removed from the chair; but the damage was already done. 

The wheel was largely used for blasphemers, traitors, homosexuals and spies. A person sentenced to the wheel would try to look for ways to kill himself because he knew that the pain awaiting him was going to be enormous.

We have the misconception of thinking that the church was against these practices. While some archbishops were actually against torture, many others used these methods as a way to punish blasphemers and people who insulted God--or the church--somehow.

Torture was widely used throughout the Dark Ages and it was very notorious in rulers who wanted honesty and peace such as Vlad Tepes.

Though its use slowly declined as centuries passed, torture was still widely used until the XIX century in Europe when it was banned from most European countries. Many important people such as Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (contributor to the guillotine's creation) were against torture and argued that death should be given painlessly without any pain caused on purpose.

Obviously it took much time for such claims to be heard, but in the case of the guillotine, a new beginning was marked for human dignity was respected and the French church finally believed in not causing much pain before a person's death.

Burning at the Stake

Another common form of execution was by burning at the stake. This was mainly the case during the inquisition or when a heretic was found - additionally, witches were also famous for being burnt at the stake very frequently.

A repentant heretic would be hanged and then burnt in order to minimize his pain. Nevertheless, those who did not repent would find themselves burnt with green wood to enlarge the whole process and to give an spectacle for the whole family.

When many heretics were condemned and resources were scarce, they could be simply burnt together by tying one next to the other. Then they would be burnt alive.

When the church wanted extreme pain to be suffered while making the burning at the stake execution, they would very frequently place the victim(s) on top of hot coals and leaving them to roast.

Disembowelment Torture

The disembowelment torture was used to punish thieves and those accused of adulterism. This was generally done in public, for everyone to see; though later this practice was more common inside a dungeon - with mice.

The victim had a fine cut made in the gut - leaving some of his intestines to be seen. During the early Middle Ages, it was common to simply leave him to catch an infection. Nevertheless, during the later Medieval Times, torturers began using small animals to cause the victim's death faster and more painful. Usually the torturer had a couple of starving mice in a box. When they were placed on top of the naked victim, they would begin eating him slowly. We have about 6 meters of intestines which were slowly eaten by the starving mice leaving the victim to stare in agonizing pain.

Ultimately, the victim suffered of an infection - which caused death in a couple of days.

The Head Vice

During the Inquisition, new ways for torture were sought - that is ways without "breaking any skin" as the church dictated.

The Head Vice did not break any skin by itself, but it was nevertheless; very deadly and painful.

What did the Head Vice consist of? For Heretics, the church could sentence them to death with the Head Vice - a device just big enough to fit the victim's head which would be tightened eventually crushing the victim's teeth and breaking bones. Ultimately, the victim's eyes would fall out of their sockets.

This was, of course, a very innovative torture and also very messy. Reason for which, torturers sometimes preferred to make another vice instead of cleaning the one with the person's eyes on it. Of course meaner executioners took advantage of this and simply used it with all the remainings on the new victim - which were quite frequent.

The Wheel Torture Device

When the offense was not serious enough, sometimes the victim would survice. Those who survived narrate The Wheel as being the most painful torturing device ever made.

Of course this is very subjective because there was no comparison in the first place, but there is something very clear: The Wheel was terribly painful and mostly deadly.

The wheel had many variants out of which using horses for pulling a person was the most common. In order to accomplish this, the victim would have his feet tied with a rope to a caged wild horse. His hands would be sometimes fixed to the wall (sometimes with nails to imitate Jesus Christ and give it a more religious meaning).

When everything was ready, the horse would be ordered to ride at full speed with the only impediment of the agonizing human. After much struggle from the horse, the person's bones would finally break. For very strong people, sometimes two or three horses were used instead of one to accelerate the process and make it overall more painful and faster.

In general, sepparating a person in two was almost impossible when using any variants of the wheel as bones had to be completely crushed and human skin is very resistant to this. Nevertheless, when horses were very hungry and ordered to run and when there were two or three or them, sometimes the victim would have his arms sepparated which was, in their words, "quite an spectacle".

Of course there were many other variants. The wheel itself was a device used for stretching a person using specifically a wheel. The torturer would turn a handle with a person tied to the wheel - the more he pulled, the more the wheel would be turned and the more the person would be stretched.

Sometimes to cause more pain, the wheel would itself move around with the person on top of it - like when roasting a chicken. To delve deeper into the analogy, sometimes fire was used as well to even cause more pain. Additionally, very mean torturers would place nails in the floor to potentially hurt the victim while not killing him.

The wheel's origins are unknown, but unfortunately for the tortured victims, it existed through most of the Dark Ages and it was very common in England, France and even Germany.

Witch Punishments

Punishments for witches varied from town to town. Some towns even believed that torturing a witch would cause them bad luck and furthermore they avoided it!

The most common cause of killing witches was to be burnt at the stake. This was easy, cheap and was said to "burn away evil spirits".

The Dunk Stool was also widely used as a witch could last many hours suffering and the townspeople could watch from a distance.

Of course torturing witches was a common practice as witches were very common themselves! Unfortunately, most of them were never proven guilty and they were just tortured and killed to force them to prove themselves guilty.

The inquisition was full of such false trials and witches were said to be everywhere.

People during the Dark Ages were very superstitious.

The Cat's Paw

Cat's Paw

This torture was used to punish any type of offenders. Nevertheless, it was commonly reserved for thieves and unfaithful wives.

The cat's paw could be used to rip off the skin of any part of the body including, but not limited to, the breasts, face, back or chest.

This torture very frequently caused death not because of the injuries per se, but because of the infections that came along with the torture as sometimes the cat's paw would cut so deeply that one could see the bone itself which, combined with the fact that this device was very seldom - if at all - washed, could bring deadly infections and diseases.

The Chastity Belt

The chastity belt was widely used in Italy and later on it spread to France during the XV century.

The true use of the chastity belt is unknown. Many historians state that the belt was made to prevent women from being raped while their husbands were away - this is backed up by the fact that many belts were made of luxurious materials such as silver and gold.

Nevertheless, other chastity belts have been found which suggest a much meaner use.

Chastity Belt

This devise was probably used for prostitutes or unfaithful wives.

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