It’s a sad fact that humans can come up with endless disturbing methods for causing pain, but it is, nonetheless, a fact. These days, we worry about poor treatment of prisoners and deal with things like how much food they get, the sort of health care they get, their housing, etc. — but things used to be very different. People accused of crimes just a few hundred years ago didn’t go through anything we’d call a court by today’s standards, and they certainly weren’t punished by anything so meager as “time served.” These are the 10 cruelest and most unusual punishments from the Middle Ages and some are so gruesome that they’re more likely to show up in a horror movie than a history book.
Easily the simplest method of torture, exposure is still carried out today in some harsher parts of the world (and sometimes Arizona). Usually, it entailed something as simple as relegation to the stocks, where some poor sap would sit, immobilized by wood planks and chains, until either the sun, the cold, hunger, dehydration, or wild animals would finally put an end to his misery. If he was lucky, a guy sentenced to exposure might be given the opportunity to live after surviving a week or so — if he made it that long. This method’s high visibility also helped ensure that the rest of the population knew the consequences of crossing the local magistrate.
Rats, cute as they may be, aren’t exactly the nicest little creatures when they feel cornered. Medieval sadists were well aware of that when they placed one in a metal cage, which they then placed on the exposed belly of a condemned man. The floor of the cage would be removed, and the top would be heated by flame — it didn’t take long for the rat to realize the only way out was through the soft flesh of the poor bastard he was sitting on. You can figure out the rest.
The Breast Ripper
While being condemned was no picnic for men, it was especially brutal for women. The breast ripper, aptly named, was about as brutal as it was simple. The guy who created the thing was obviously one hell of a misogynist, too, since its sole purpose was to literally tear the breasts of a woman off her chest. Usually, for a woman to get this specific device used her, she’d have to have been accused of something like adultery, or forced miscarriage. If the local torturers weren’t keen on actually using the hand-held version, there was also a variant called the spider, which was basically a set of claws chained to a wall. The woman would be pulled away from the wall by one or two burly men until the claws did their job, which was to the same end as the breast ripper.
The Pear of Anguish
Something shaped like a pear and meant for torture can only be horribly wrong in every way. The pear of anguish, as it was called, was actually a bit like an ancient predecessor to the modern speculum — only much more disturbing and painful. It would be inserted in any one of three orifices depending on the crime; for crimes of gossip or blasphemy, it was the mouth. Men suspected of homosexuality got it in the anus, while adulterous women got it in the vagina. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop at simple insertion, because the pear was built to expand as a screw was turned. It was meant to keep expanding until something ripped.
The Knee Splitter
This rather simple, though menacing-looking device was used on much more than the knee. Torturers would use it on any limb, with joints especially, to slowly clamp down and cause excruciating pain as spikes were driven into flesh. Steady pressure would break bones or dislocate joints, but wouldn’t often kill the condemned individual outright. Either infection, or further torture afterward, would take care of that. This was a handy tool during the Spanish Inquisition.
The infamous rack — a torture device that was meant to not only cause severe physical damage, but also the maximum amount of pain and psychological trauma for any victims allowed to survive. The condemned would be laid out on the rack, with arms tied above the head and feet tied at the bottom. Left wide open and vulnerable, he would be stretched to the breaking point by the torturer, who would turn a wheel beneath the table that caused the ropes to pull tighter. If the torturer kept tightening, the shoulders of the victim would dislocate, and after time his arms would begin to be ripped off — slowly.
If fingernails on chalkboard bothers you, then you probably wouldn’t like the thought of toe wedging very much. It’s exactly what it sounds like; taking sharp wooden or metallic wedges and hammering them into toes underneath toenails, so as to cause them to violently rip off. This particular torture is an ancient one, and was also known to have been used on fingers.
Like a tiny little version of the knee splitter, only without the spikes — thumbscrews were meant to cause excruciating pain that could last for hours without killing the accused. It was nearly always used as a method for extracting a confession, since it was so unlikely to be lethal on its own. It could be used on thumbs, fingers, or toes, and was rarely the only thing used on a person.
This one may be named more literally than any other on the list, because foot roasting was quite simply the horrid act of cooking somebody’s feet off. Torturers would tie a person down on a slab of wood or metal, and secure them so that they couldn’t move their feet. They would then set a fire beneath the feet, and use a screen to temporarily stop the flames when they wanted to interrogate further, or simply to tease the condemned for a few moments before allowing the roast to continue. They could stop the fire and begin the process over again the next day, if they wanted to really make it last. Death would almost always occur at some point, usually from infection.
This one wasn’t really meant to do any serious physical damage, but it was so sneaky that it belongs on the list. The heretic’s fork was double-sided fork with sharp tips that was placed between the sternum and the chin, and strapped at the neck of the individual who was to be put through this demeaning and tiring game. It may not be as grisly as something like the rack, or even as direct as thumbscrews, but the point of its use was based on the long-term. A guy could be strapped with one of these things and left to rot, hands tied behind his back, for days. We take for granted how long we can hold our heads up, and these things often caused horrible infections at the puncture sites.