Tap to Read ➤

Medieval Punishments and Torture Devices

Roy D'Silva
Torture was used even during the medieval times as a means of extracting information and punishment. This article takes a look at the various methods that were employed in this process.
As much as fairy tales and modern media try to tell us that the medieval world was a romantic time to live in, nothing can be far from the truth.Not all kings were just, and not all Lords married their slaves.

Your browser doesn't support HTML5 video.

The rampant freedom to torture for the sake of information or punishment gave rise to unique, or bizarre, or grotesque, or gory, it's all a matter of how you take it - punishment tools, methods and contraptions.
In fact, some kings had employed people who were known for their gruesome ways of torture, and were infamous for their torture chambers. Medieval torture methods were not totally illogical or unbelievable; many of these methods and contraptions have been adapted and are being used even in modern times.

The Rack

The Rack was a rectangular frame with rollers, either at only one end or both. The victim's hands and legs would be tied to the ends of the rack, with a handle being moved to gradually increase the pressure on the victim's body, thus excruciatingly dislocating the joints in the body.
The rack still remains a famous symbol of medieval times, and has been used or hinted on while discussing medieval life. The famous revolutionary Guy Fawkes was among the few notable people who are known to have been tortured on this mean machine.


Possibly the most basic of all torture devices, these were a set of handcuffs by which the victim would be hung for hours on end. Needless to say, this would put all the pressure on the wrists, thereby resulting in excruciating pain to the victim.
The manacles were English torture devices, and were believed to be designed by Richard Topcliffe, a notorious priest - hunter, landlord, and a torturer, who was in service to the Queen of England as an official interrogator.
Topcliffe was known for his sadistic methods and mind games, which he used in his favor against the prisoners, and had also designed a torture chamber.

Iron Maiden

The Iron Maiden was another popular form of torture in the Medieval age. It was a human-sized box with the insides full of sharp spikes, structured with a double door. The device was a German make that measured 7 feet in height and about 3 feet in width.
The whole casket was believed to be a Gothic depiction of Mary, The Mother Of Jesus. Famous people who were believed to be introduced to the Iron Maiden include Apega - the wife of Nabis a Spartan, and Marcus Atilius Regulus - a roman general during the First Punic War around 250 B.C.

The Water Wheel

The Water Wheel was simply a big enough wheel set in a pool of water. The victim would be tied on the rim of the water wheel, and the wheel would be moved. This would force the victims to be dunked in water, as well as having their muscles and joints stretched.
This caused heavy asphyxia and disjointed bones at irregular intervals by the spinning of the wheel. Other methods of water damage included tying a prisoner with ropes to a hard stone bed and pouring water through a funnel on his mouth which was covered with a thin sheet of cloth.
The torturers would then proceed to make the prisoner swallow large amounts of water whilst consistently clubbing his bloated body with heavy blows.

The Cage

The Cage was a simple small box which would house the prisoner for years if needed, which also caused convulsions and a miserable feeling over time. Most of the cages were hung from the ceiling, or sometimes, the victim would be just dumped into a cage on the floor bereft of attending a toilet.
Rats were also occasionally dropped inside the cage, adding to the misery.

The Head Crusher

A horrific and largely feared device, the Head Crusher was a steel dome, sized enough to fit the human head, and was supported with two vertical steel bars on either sides, with a T-shaped screw bar at the top and another flat bar at the base.
The prisoner's chin would be placed strategically on the lower base bar, and the dome would descend, wrapping itself firmly around the prisoner's head.
The torturer would then start to turn the screw from the top which would compress the head, resulting firstly in smashing the jawbone whilst cracking the teeth out, and forcing the eye sockets out of place, accompanied eventually with parts of the brain squeezing out of the ears.

The Street Sweeper's Daughter

Widely used in Russia back in the Medieval times, this was a circular metal contraption in which the victim was forced to kneel down with his chest touching his knees in a crouching position inside the machine, and the grip would be tightened by compressing the bones, causing a heavy flow of blood from the nose and ears.
All this done in public view with spectators hurling stones at the victim, would eventually result in the victim suffering from paranoia and madness.
Other torture devices used during these times were,
  • The Collar
  • Drunkard's Cloak
  • Heretic's Fork
  • Foot Screw
  • Foot Press
  • Spanish Boot
Whipping (Flagellation): Whipping was a common practice in Medieval times. It was also the fastest way of administering justice to criminals. The type of whip would depend on the type of crime or misdemeanor committed.
While most whips were made up of a single strand of leather attached to a handle, there have been records of three tail whips, or chain whips too.
Bastinado: Bastinado was the practice of hitting the soles of the feet with either a whip or a cane. Also, some victims were forced to walk with weights attached to their bodies, after the beating.
Besides these forms of punishments, there were numerous other methods used, such as:
  • blinding
  • boiling
  • starvation
  • tongue removal
  • drowning
  • roasting
  • choking
  • finger(s) removal
  • mutilation of the genitals
  • quartering
There were many other Medieval punishment contraptions amongst the ones mentioned above. However, the ones enlisted here were some of the most famous and deadliest ones in use. Most of these devices are found in inquisition history and literature.