Medieval torture – look away now!


It’s a subject I occasionally touch on but mostly shy away from – torture in the Middle Ages. It’s important to realise that torture was not used quite as much as people think – neither was it simply accepted as the done thing…it’s always had its critics.

Torture wasn’t necessarily conducted in some dark dungeon either – in fact, it could be conducted in front of the village and even in church. If you take the example of ordeal by fire, an accused might be asked to hold a red hot iron bar and walk several paces down the nave of the church to ‘prove’ their innocence. After three days the hand would be examined to see if it had healed or not and guilt was assumed if it hadn’t.

Mutilation was a common punishment with the removal of hands, ears, slitting of noses, branding and whipping. These might be conducted at the pillory – a central meeting point in the village or town.  Those locked in to the pillory or stocks might be pelted and if they were particularly unpopular, the pelting could even result in death.

Hanging was not the instantaneous death we now assume – but was by strangulation, not by a neck breaking drop. That process could take quite a few minutes and if it was for treason, the condemned might be brought down from the gibbet half-alive and disemboweled and castrated.

One case I read of involved a man to be hanged being pardoned by the king only to then discover that in his mercy, the monarch had decided he should be blinded and castrated instead – which duly happened. The poor man’s testicles were then kicked round like footballs by the village youth – all this recorded in the court rolls.

Even being taken to your place of execution was a torture that could kill you as you might be dragged on a hurdle or simply tied to the back of a horse. One Byzantine emperorAndronikos I Komnenos – was so unpopular when he was deposed and condemned to die that on his way to his execution the crowd gouged one of his eyes out, cut off his right hand, pulled out his hair and teeth and threw boiling water in his face. I imagine he was glad to be executed after all that.

But for more about what might happen in a dungeon, I refer you to these video clips.

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