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: A hooded Inquisitor in a Medieval torture chamber. Source: diter /Adobe Stock

Medieval Torture: The Terrifying Threat of Twisting off Limbs and Burning Flesh


The Medieval period is often called (rightly or wrongly) one of the most brutal eras in European history. One of the most notorious features of the Middle Ages was the use of torture. Although torture had already been used by various societies since ancient times, Medieval Europe is particularly infamous for it. This may be partially due to the assortment of devices the medieval torturer had at his disposal, some of which have survived to this day, and are now displayed in museums.

16th century depiction of Medieval torture. (Public Domain)

16th century depiction of Medieval torture. (Public Domain)

The Infamous Rack

The English word ‘torture’ has its roots in the Latin ‘torquere’, which means ‘to twist’. Indeed, the twisting of limbs was a characteristically Christian torture method, as the shedding of blood was apparently discouraged by the Church.

One of the devices operating on this principle was the rack, which is infamously associated with the Inquisition. The rack was a simple contraption, consisting of a rectangular frame raised from the ground, and a pair of rollers with handles, one at each end of the frame. Ropes were used to fasten the victim’s arms to the roller on one end of the device, and the legs on the other. By turning the handle, the victim’s limbs would be pulled by the ropes.

Torture rack in the fortress of San Leo, Italy. (Anguskirk/CC BY NC ND 2.0)

Torture rack in the fortress of San Leo, Italy. (Anguskirk/CC BY NC ND 2.0)

Like many other torture devices, the rack was used mainly to extract confessions from victims. The rack was designed in such a way that if a person refused to confess, the stretching of his/her limbs could be increased. Apart from causing excruciating pain, being stretched on the rack could also dislocate limbs. If the rack was utilized to its fullest potential, a person’s limbs could even be torn off. Another way of using the rack was to make a victim watch another being tortured on it. This was to induce psychological fear in the observer, and could result in a confession without actually needing to use the device on the person himself.

Medieval Torture Wanted to Extract Confessions

One of the main goals of torture was to extract a confession. Therefore, Medieval torture devices were seldom designed to actually kill their victims. As demonstrated by the rack, a torture device could be used to inflict either physical or psychological pain on its victim and make him/her confess.

Inquisition torture chamber. (Public Domain)

Inquisition torture chamber. (Public Domain)

Some methods were fatal, but they were generally a last resort. One of the most infamous of these was burning at stake, which served as both a torture device and execution method normally reserved for heretics and those accused of practicing witchcraft. A person accused of these crimes had no way of escaping the flames. If the victim did not confess, the torture would continue, and would result in death.

Burning witches, with others held in Stocks. (Public Domain)

Burning witches, with others held in Stocks. (Public Domain)

On the other hand, if he/she confessed, he/she would be executed. The only difference was that those who confessed were strangled before the fire was lit, supposedly sparing them the agony of the flames. Burning someone of the stake is often linked to the Inquisition. The Inquisitors themselves, however, did not execute heretics, and the harshest sentence they could give was life imprisonment. Nevertheless, they could hand heretics over to civil authorities to be burnt at stake.  

But it was also a Punishment

Although torture was often employed to obtain confessions, this was not its only use. During the Middle Ages, torture was also employed as a form of punishment. Physical pain, however, may be regarded as secondary, as the physical suffering caused by devices employed for this form of torture was less severe than that caused by instruments aimed at extracting confessions. These instruments relied instead on public humiliation to punish.

A mask of shame. (Nathan Rupert/CC BY NC ND 2.0)

A mask of shame. (Nathan Rupert/CC BY NC ND 2.0)

One example of this type of torture device was the pillory. This was a wooden or metal frame with holes for locking the head and hands mounted on a post. Pillories were commonly placed in public places, for instance, in the market square, or outside the church, and were used to punish petty criminals. A criminal would usually be pilloried for several hours, during which time the public was free to abuse him/her.

Pillories. (CC0)

Pillories. (CC0)

As the Middle Ages progressed, people began to consider torture a cruel and barbaric practice, and the legality of using torture came into question. In 1628, the legality of using the rack for torture in England was called into question when the Privy Council attempted to rack John Felton, the assassin of the Duke of Buckingham. The judges hearing the case unanimously declared that using the device contradicted the laws of England.

It was also during the 17th century (in 1612 to be exact), that the last recorded burning of a person (a Baptist by the name of Edward Wightman) at stake for heresy took place. The pillory, however, continued to be used until the 19th century, when it was abolished in England in 1837.

Top image: A hooded Inquisitor in a Medieval torture chamber. Source: diter /Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren


Freeman, S., 2008. How the Spanish Inquisition Worked. Available at:

Grabianowski, E., 2008. 10 Medieval Torture Devices. Available at:

Siteseen Ltd., 2018. Medieval Torture and Punishment. Available at:

Torture Museum, 2018. Torture Museum Amsterdam. Available at:, 2013. Medieval Torture. Available at:

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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