Medieval waterboarding and other tortures

Medieval use of water to extract confessions

As we know, the Templar leaders were tortured in to confessions after being arrested in Paris and elsewhere when the Order was suppressed in the early fourteenth century.  One unfortunate Templar carried the charred remains of his toes in a box after having his feet severely burnt under torture.  Burning with hot irons was a fairly common and straight forward form of interrogative torture – just branding the torso repeatedly until the victim confessed all.

It was often enough to be shown the instruments of torture for many to decide they’d rather give in and sign a confession – even if that meant death on the scaffold.  And death on the scaffold was not guaranteed to be a slow affair.  Hanging was by strangulation and treason was punished by being hung till you were ‘half dead’ (which is why ‘hung till you are dead’ is specified in judicial death sentences as opposed to being cut down while still alive) and then disemboweled and castrated before your body was then cut in to quarters.

If somebody decided not to sign a confession and underwent torture, then an increasingly ghoulish array of devices was developed in the Middle Ages to encourage victims to condemn themselves.  If fingernails and teeth being pulled didn’t do the trick, it was time to move on to head vice type contraptions – slowly squeezing the skull.  Or the notorious thumbscrews, breaking your digits and rendering them quite useless.

Torture devices were often intended to match the crime.  So the ‘pear of anguish’ was a rather bizarre contraption which might be inserted in to the mouth of a blasphemer or the anus of a ‘sodomite’ and by turning a screw, four flaps would extend outwards stretching the orifice to breaking point.  Makes me shuffle in my seat I can tell you!

The mutilation of crime suspects was often a public affair.  The individual had not been found guilty yet of their crime but to prove their innocence had to undergo a ‘trial by ordeal’.  This normally involved fire or water.  The fire test had different variants but at its simplest, an accused person would be ordered to pick up a red hot iron bar and walk several paces.  This might be down the aisle of a church in front of the person’s neighbours.  The bar would be dropped, the hand wrapped in bandages and then examined after, typically, three days.  Failure to heal was a good sign of guilt and the accused might be led away to be hung or exiled from the village, which could be a death sentence in of itself.

Grim executions included boiling – not a common form of execution to my knowledge.  One used I believe against cooks who tried to poison their patrons – kind of appropriate.  With advanced warning for those of you who are sensitive – here is a dramatisation (from The Tudors) of death by boiling.




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