How Medieval Torture Devices Worked

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Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there.

Candace Gibson: In a pretty recent podcast we did about the Spanish Inquisition, I got really excited talking about blood and gore. And so we decided that, despite the fact I'm a pretty girlie girl, we would devote a podcast today to torture. And not just any type of torture, the really grizzly kind - medieval torture.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and may I say you're a little bizarre for being so excited about this. But it is interesting in a gruesome kind of way. Speaking of the Inquisition, when I was reading for that podcast, I remember reading that people would see others getting tortured, and often that was just enough to get them to confess. Reading about all these different kinds of torture made me want to confess whatever it is anyone wanted to -

Candace Gibson: I know.

Jane McGrath: It's just amazing.

Candace Gibson: Sort of like watching American Idol tryouts. You're like, "Oh, my gosh. I feel so bad. Just stop right now." So before we get into some of the devices that we're going to tell you guys about - and you'll be squirming in a just a few minutes, soon enough. Hold onto your shorts. Let's just go over torture. A pretty broad definition of torture is that it's bodily or mental pain exacted for a specific reason. And three of those main reasons are for punishment, for getting information, or for obtaining a confession. And torture is carried out by a figure of authority. So those are the parameters.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And it's interesting. Another side effect to torture - a little plus for the authorities who are enacting it - is that it could be a public display to deter others from committing such crimes. And that's the case for many of these.

Candace Gibson: And throughout history, we've seen torture practiced through all different eras and through all different ways. And from the very beginning, I think it's had its opponents and defenders. And you may be surprised to know that torture has had its defenders and opponents throughout history. Aristotle was one of the earliest defenders of torture. I was a little surprised to find that out.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, I didn't know that.

Candace Gibson: Because you think of a philosopher as someone who's very introspective and really thinking about what you're doing to the human body and separation of the mind and body itself. But, no - he was pretty much an advocate of it. And another was Sir Francis Bacon. But when you move on to the enlightenment era and you have thinkers really being thoughtful about things and life and the nature of being and crime and punishment, you see a lot more opponents coming into play.

Jane McGrath: For human rights, I'll bet, and that whole coming out.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. And our modern era, even around the 19th century, that was when you saw people turning away from torture. It was a crime by then to hurt or be violent toward a criminal suspect. And now, we are very active in pursuing torturers - calling out human rights violations. The United Nations has councils that go and investigate. They follow tips. And with the War on Terror today, it's -

Jane McGrath: It's a hot topic.

Candace Gibson: - a very hot button topic. So we see that attitudes toward torture and political prisoners are a whole other can of worms. So we're going to stick to the medieval era for right now. And what's interesting about the medieval era, almost like the Salem Witchcraft Trials that we see later on in early America, was that torture itself was a trial. And you could reveal your innocence or your guilt by how you responded to the pain.

Jane McGrath: That's right. It's ironic, if you go back to the roots to a lot of these torture devices. Some of them were originally developed in Roman times. And they were used often against Christians. It's just very ironic because, by the medieval era and use in inquisition s and stuff like that, the Christians were using it against Christian heretics.

Candace Gibson: Right. And the strange thing about these devices was that people were very seriously contemplating how they could do the most bodily harm to people. And not just kill them swiftly - almost the exact opposite.

Jane McGrath: That would be easy.

Candace Gibson: That would be too easy. That would be like the guillotine, when we told you guys about the French Revolution and how the guillotine was intended to be a humanitarian death device.

Jane McGrath: And you can see that by looking at all of these, yeah.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. These wanted to kill you slowly. And not softly - slowly. So without further ado, we shall take it away.

Jane McGrath: The first one I wanted to talk about was the brazen bull, which is interesting.

Candace Gibson: It sounds like a Sly Stallone movie, but it's not.

Jane McGrath: I had never heard of this before looking into this, but it was a hollow brass statue, basically. And brass was important because it could heat up quickly. And basically it was hollow and shaped like a bull. It had a trapdoor for someone to climb inside. And often they would cut your tongue out even before you climbed in - a little extra kick right there. And so you'd climb in and they'd shut the door behind you. So you'd be trapped in this bull and they would light a fire underneath so that it would heat up and you would slowly die in this agony of heat. And it's an interesting story behind this, too. The inventor is a guy named Perillos. According to the writings of Lucian, at least - we don't know if this is just legend. But he invented this and he was so proud of it, he actually stuck flutes in the nostrils of the brazen bull so that people screaming, when it came out, would sound like a bull's noise.

Candace Gibson: Oh, my gosh.

Jane McGrath: So people watching could get entertainment out of this. So he's showing this off. He's like, "Look at what I've just invented." And he shows this guy named Phalaris, who was a famous tyrant at the time, and Phalaris says, "Oh, yeah. That's great. But I don't think the flutes will actually work. Why don't you climb inside and show me?" And as you might expect, Phalaris closes the door behind him and the inventor ends up being the first victim of this brazen bull.

Candace Gibson: Oh, no. Was it a success?

Jane McGrath: Yes. He died. If you call that a success.

Candace Gibson: Oh, my goodness. So check to that one. Okay, my turn. I think one of my favorites, if I can say that - it's sort of odd, so I retract that immediately. One of the most interesting ones, I think is the rack. And it's a pretty simple concept. The suspect or criminal or heretic is tied down and a crank or wheel tightens the ropes that are attached to his limbs and slowly stretches the body. And usually it stretches so tightly and tautly to the point where limbs are dislocated, and some can even be torn off. And if you were on the rack, it was called being racked or broken on the rack. And there were some variations on the rack, one of which was called the horse. The suspect was tied to a beam, which looked almost like the horse's back facing up. And pulleys down below pulled the limbs down, breaking them. And so you were lying supine and completely broken on the horse. And at that point, you were meant to give your confession. And this one, I guess it could have killed you, and I guess some were designed to kill you. You probably would have been killed eventually from blood loss or agony or some sort of shock that you went into. But again, dying very slowly. And one of the funniest things, to me, about the rack is that everything old is new again, because there is a doctor at the Beverly Hills Physical Medicine Center who has reinvented the rack - not to torture people, but to help them. And after about six years worth of tests and trial, he's created this controlled stretching device. You get a 45-minute session, and it's to help lower back pain, herniated or degenerated discs. And the concept is, you lie down and the stretching creates a vacuum between the vertebrae and your back. And whatever disc may be herniated or giving you grief actually gets sucked back into place.

Jane McGrath: Wow.

Candace Gibson: So again, I think that is amazing. And this news comes courtesy to us through the Medical Devices and Surgical Technology Week publi cation. I was so excited to read about it. This was published in 2003, so I'm not sure if it is still in use. But what a fanciful idea. Way to go.

Jane McGrath: You sound like you want to try it out.

Candace Gibson: I do. My back pain is mostly upper back pain. I ran a marathon over the weekend, so I'm still carrying it. But we'll see.

Jane McGrath: Well, one torture device that I hope does not come back is the wheel. A body could be put on this - it's just basically a giant wheel. You're stretched over the wheel. You could do a couple of different things, they were very creative about this. They could just roll the wheel down a rocky hill, which is my favorite. Or they could mount it so that it could swing or turn on an axle, and they could put whatever they want to roll your body over - whether it was hot coals or spikes or whatever. And often, after they put you on the wheel, they would put the wheel on a pole, high up, out in the hot sun to bake you. And also, you'd have to fight back the crows that were -

Candace Gibson: Oh, gosh. Oh.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, not my favorite.

Candace Gibson: These people were rough. Are you guys still with us? Can you handle this? How about the stake? A pretty straightforward concept. And what's distinctive about the stake in the midst of these others that we've been discussing, is that it was definitely fatal. You would die, pretty much guaranteed, within about half an hour. That's when you would start to lose consciousness. And if you've been under a rock and you don't know what the stake is, it's an upright pole usually made of wood. And you're tied to it and underneath is a pile of very dry wood and a fire. So you become a human bonfire essentially. So even though you lose consciousness within about half an hour, it could take two hours before the victim completely burned to death.

Jane McGrath: That was something that I didn't know before. I just thought someone burning at the stake, it wouldn't be too long. But to hear that it could take up to two hours, that's -

Candace Gibson: It's just wild. And during the Inquisition, the inquisitors thought they were doing the confessors a favor when they would strangle them before they were burned to spare them the agony.

Jane McGrath: That's true. Yeah.

Candace Gibson: But the heretics they would allow to be consumed by fire. And if you were in the Netherlands and you were being burned at the stake, you had a really awful fate awaiting you. Because they had a little preemptive measure they took to muffle the victim's screams, and that smooshing the tongue between two plates of hot iron.

Jane McGrath: Uhh. Yeah, I've read that these sort of things added to the entertainment of the people watching. And that's the most gruesome part about this. I've said that over and over again, but it's terrible.

Candace Gibson: I keep calling them gruesome, and I'm being just as much a voyeur as they are.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, you are. You're weirding me out right now.

Candace Gibson: I know.

Jane McGrath: But the fact that people got entertainment out of this was very horrifying. Another one that's infamous for charitable torture, is iron maiden. You've probably heard of it. It's basically this upright casing for a victim to step into. And people actually didn't think it existed. It was a legend for a little while until they finally found one in Germany in the 20th century.

Candace Gibson: People did think it was fictional. And they found it in Nuremburg, so sometimes it's actually called the Iron Maiden of Nuremburg. And like Jane was saying, it has these spikes inside of it. So once you're led inside the casing and door is shut, the spikes are designed to pierce your organs. But as we were saying - killing me slowly, remember the mantra of all medieval torture devices - the spikes weren't long enough to go completely through your organs. So they would prick them and you would very slowly bleed to death.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And the worst part, I think, are the two spikes that are meant for your eyes.

Candace Gibson: Oh, my gosh. I can't even handle it. So I'm going to tell you guys about a special version of the iron maiden that was modeled after a religious figure in Spain, and that was the Virgin Mary. And it was designed so it looked like the Virgin Mary was hugging the victim. But when the door was closed, she had spikes within her embrace that would pierce into your body.

Jane McGrath: That's not right.

Candace Gibson: No. Definitely not. In the interim, if you want to learn more about medieval torture devices, or if you need a break from all of that and just want to read about the royalty of medieval England, we won't blame you. But just be sure to visit our website at

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