Methods of Medieval Torture

Without a doubt, there is not a single person living today that would attempt to disprove the known fact that methods of torture during medieval times were both cruel and most definitely did not fit the crime in which they were intended to compensate for. This paper is intended to confirm the media’s portrayal, specifically Hollywood, of the tortuous methods of a time period where the techniques and procedures utilized to prove a point were perceived as reasonable.

Contrary to most popular opinion, methods of medieval torture were actually chosen with much deliberation and were not executed until a legitimate conviction had been proven. A conviction “of serious crime required either the testimony of two impeachable eyewitnesses or the defendant’s confession before the judge. ”1 It is evident that the methods used to torture, maim, and kill criminals between the 13th and 16th centuries were definitely heinous, but during that time period, these methods were proven to be successful, just, and a crucial element of a very historical judicial system.

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Within that “judicial torture” system, the most popular methods of horrific medieval torture included, but were not limited to, water torture, Before scrutinizing the different methods of medieval torture, a more in-depth analysis must be written to explain the science behind all of these methods. In 1866, Edward H. Lecky put the strange science of medieval torture into his own descriptive words: What strikes us most in considering the medieval tortures is not so much their diabolical barbarity … as the extraordinary variety, and what may be termed the artistic skill, they displayed.

They represent a condition of thought in which men had pondered long and carefully on all the forms of suffering, had compared and combined the different kinds of torture, till they had become the most consummate masters of their art, had expanded on the subject all the resources of the utmost ingenuity, and had pursued it with the ardor of a passion. The system was matured under the medieval habit of thought, it was adopted by the inquisitors, and it received its finishing touches from their ingenuity. Most methods were not torture techniques that consisted of their face value; torture methods were strategically created for two reasons: in order to reprimand guilt or the reason that most individuals have never known or realized, in order to prove innocence. Although some torture methods were definitely more effective than others, many forms existed that everyone in the middle ages thought could prove guilt or innocence; the philosophy behind it being that the Gods above would prevent any pain to the individual if that person was innocent.

If the individual was guilty, then the method of medieval justice became grueling torture. 3 However, on the contrary, would it not be suffice if other methods were used to deem innocence or guilt? Christopher Einolf wrote the following regarding medieval torture methods: Finally, medieval ordeals are not considered torture, even though some ordeals involved pain, as inflicting pain was not the goal of the ordeal. Instead, pain was an incidental part of a procedure designed to ascertain God’s opinion of whether the person was truthful or untruthful, guilty of innocent.

Some ordeals, such as the ordeal to test for witchcraft by having a suspected witch float in water (on the theory that water would “reject” a witch as unnatural and a witch would float), did not involve pain at all, demonstrating that the infliction of pain was not a necessary component of the ordeal. 4 It is interesting to hear the opinion of another author, especially when speaking about something as horrific as torture.

Regardless, if the medieval justice system was attempting to prove innocence or guilt through torture, in retrospect, it seems obvious that maybe other means were available and could have been utilized to prove that- not necessarily pain. In addition to proving innocence or guilt, it is imperative that one more aspect of the medieval judicial system be addressed. Not only was the use of torture essential for so-called “proof,” torture was utilized in order to more or less induce a confession, not just to observe how pain and torture affected the individual in question.

In order to examine the inducing of a confession more closely, John Langbein wrote the following: But torture as the medieval lawyers understood it had nothing to do with official misconduct or with criminal sanctions. Rather, the application of torture was a routine and judicially supervised feature of European criminal procedure. Under certain circumstances the law permitted the criminal courts to employ physical coercion against suspected criminals in order to induce them to confess.

The law went to great lengths to limit this technique of extorting confessions to cases in which it was thought that the accused was highly likely to be guilty, and to surround the use of torture with other safeguards…5 Water torture, one of the first invented torture methods, came in numerous forms. First, boiling water was used in order to examine innocence or not. For minor offenses, the hand would be put in boiling water until a decent burn occurred; for major offenses, the entire arm would be submerged for a length of time. The burns would then be covered and after three days, the bandages would be removed.

If the burn was still visible, the accused was guilty; if the burn was gone (which never happened), then the accused was innocent. 6 Needless to say, there was an overabundance of guilty persons. Other than attempting to drown a person being potentially accused, another method involved the use of ice cold water. The hands and feet would be bound together tightly, and then another rope would be attached to the feet and hands. A knot would be tied at a specified distance from the bound feet and hands. The body would be lowered into a pool of the ice cold water; if the knot was submerged, the person was deemed innocent.

If that knot never touched the water and remained dry, then the individual would just stay submerged because that proved guilty. As cruel as this method seems, it pleased those who were being entertained by observing it. 7 The next popular form of torture during medieval times was categorized as mutilation. “Death and mutilation were standard punishments for major crimes throughout medieval Europe, and in many other societies and times as well. ”8 Mutilation was obviously not a technique used to prove innocence or guilt; it was used immediately upon finding out guilt or confession.

The more pain that could be inflicted among the accused, the more justice was served (in the eyes of the onlookers and those directly affected by the major crime). “As the middle ages progressed, the popularity of mutilation peaked and then fell…therefore a thief would lose his hand or perhaps his covetous eyes. A poacher would risk his legs, by which he trespassed on another’s land. ”9 Normally, a mutilation would take place on what was called the pillory. A pillory was a metal or wooden framework used to secure the hands and feet of a victim who was about to feel the losing side of the medieval justice system. 0 While having the victim properly secured on a pillory, the torturer would have the perfect platform to successfully perform his tasks. Whether it was cutting eyes out, lips off, or removing fingers and toes one by one, justice was going to be served. Additionally, Karen Farrington elaborated on the extent in which mutilation occurs: The mutilation of the dead also occurred. It became the custom to punish the most reviled criminals, those who were convicted as traitors, by hanging, drawing and quartering them. The drawing was the method by which they arrived at the gallows.

They were affixed to hurdles and pulled by a horse. After being hanged, their bodies were taken down, beheaded, and cut into four quarters. Just as severed heads were set upon poles and placed at vantage points, so were the quarters. 11 Lastly, the most popular form of medieval justice came in the form categorized as the “torture chamber. ” Even though all methods of torture could be performed within a torture chamber, most tortures, other than those performed in the torture chamber, were performed in front of audiences, more or less the “courtroom. It was in these chambers that most of the potentially accused were forced to confess. “Medieval law required the accused to admit their guilt. So confessions were extracted at any price. No matter that the ‘guilty’ plea was won by coercion of the vilest means [those means took place in the torture chamber]. ”12 Even though everyone in the medieval era believed that when the accused went to the underworld they would receive just treatment for whatever the accused did, the rulers and spectators alive on the surface wanted to ensure that they sent their accused properly to hell.

Stephen Teiser wrote the following regarding what rulers and citizens of the medieval era contemplated when comparing crimes and punishments with hell: The tortures of the underworld are hardly arbitrary; most kinds of torture correspond formally to the nefarious deeds that are their cause. Those who use their mouths to tell lies, for example, are repaid by having molten lead poured down their throats, while those who withhold food offerings from wandering monks are reborn to perpetual hunger. 3 It is evident that the citizens of the medieval era want to witness the harsh treatment of torture, but unfortunately for the excited spectator, they usually do not get to witness the forced gruesome confessions in the torture chambers; they only witness what is performed after the confession has been given. But, according to historic records and this paper, it is definitely apparent that the treatment completed after a confession in front of an audience is just as dreadful as the suffering that takes place in a torture chamber.

After completing the extremely interesting research to complete this paper, it is now particularly clear as to how and why torture methods were widely utilized in the medieval era. To use these horrifying methods to first observe whether or not someone was guilty or innocent is beyond comprehension, but 500 years ago, it was normal judicial practice. Furthermore, it is unfathomable that most confessions were forced out of the potentially accused. To imagine how many individuals confessed that were innocent just to stop enduring the insurmountable pain is beyond anyone.

But, it cannot be emphasized enough, the judicial torture system of the medieval era was one that the citizens of those years respected, admired, and most importantly, adhered to- almost certainly preventing numerous serious crimes form occurring. Notes 1. Mirjan Damaska, “Review: The Death of Legal Torture,” The Yale Law Journal 87, no. 4 (1978): 861-862. 2. Edward H. Lecky, History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, Volume 1 (New York: D. Appleton, 1886), 332. 3. Karen Farrington, Hamlyn History of Punishment and Torture: A Journey through the Darkside of Justice (New York: Sterling, 1996), 22. . Christopher J. Einolf, “The Fall and Rise of Torture: A Comparative and Historical Analysis. ” Sociological Theory 25, no. 2 (2007): 101-121. 5. John H. Langbein, “Torture and Plea Bargaining,” The University of Chicago Law Review 46, no. 1 (1978): 3. 6. Farrington, Hamlyn History, 22. 7. Farrington, Hamlyn History, 23. 8. Warren C. Hollister, “Royal Acts of Mutilation: The Case Against Henry I,” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 10, no. 4 (1978): 331. 9. Farrington, Hamlyn History, 26. 10. Farrington, Hamlyn History, 27. 11. Farrington, Hamlyn History, 27. 2. Farrington, Hamlyn History, 28. 13. Stephen F. Teiser, “Having Once Died and Returned to Life: Representations of Hell in Medieval China,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 48, no. 2 (1988): 435. Bibliography Damaska, Mirjan. “Review: The Death of Legal Torture. ” The Yale Law Journal 87, no. 4 (1978): 860-884. Einolf, Christopher J. “The Fall and Rise of Torture: A Comparative and Historical Analysis. ” Sociological Theory 25, no. 2 (2007): 101-121. Farrington, Karen. Hamlyn History of Punishment and Torture: A Journey through the Dark Side of Justice. New York: Sterling, 1996.

Hollister, Warren C. “Royal Acts of Mutilation: The Case Against Henry I. ” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned wit British Studies 10, no. 4 (1978): 330-340. Langbein, John H. “Torture and Plea Bargaining. ” The University of Chicago Law Review 46, no. 1 (1978): 3-22. Lecky, Edward H. History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, Volume 1. New York: D. Appleton, 1866. Teiser, Stephen F. “Having Once Died and Returned to Life: Representations of Hell in Medieval China. ” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 48, no. 2 (1988): 433-464.

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Methods of Medieval Torture. (2018, Jun 04). Retrieved from