Top 10 Worst Medieval Torture Devices & Methods


The Middle Ages were truly not for the faint of heart.  Most people were peasants and dirt poor.  They lived short, brutal existences, and the peasants had few rights to speak of. And did we mention the torture?  I’m not talking about waterboarding here.  This stuff was brutal.  Some people got really creative in figuring out innovative ways to cause as much slow agony as possible in human beings.

We judged our torture devices on a 30 point scale, with a maximum of 10 points given in the following categories:

  • Originality – How much imagination did it take for the sickos to devise the given torture?
  • Pain – Merely terrible or absolutely agonizing and worse?
  • Duration – Would the torture cause death in mere hours, or days?

10. The Breast Ripper


  • Originality: 6
  • Pain: 7
  • Duration: 4

Total: 17

This was used as a particularly horrific torture for sinful and/or deceitful women.  The claws of this horrific instrument were put on the subject’s breasts.  They often were heated to be red hot.  They were then yanked to either tear off or shred the woman’s breasts.  If the victim didn’t perish, she was horribly disfigured for life.

9. Impaling


  • Originality: 5
  • Pain: 9
  • Duration: 8

Total: 22

The typical technique of psychos such as Vlad the Impaler was to have your buddy sit on a very sharp pole.  The pole would penetrate the anus and the abdomen.  The pole would be put upright and the poor SOB would slide down the pole.  Sometimes, the pole would rip through the breast plate.  The tip of the spear might lodge under the chin so that the person could slide no more.  It’s reported it could take 1-3 days for the person to expire.

8. The Breaking Wheel


  • Originality: 7
  • Pain: 9
  • Duration: 7

Total: 24

The idea here was to tie the poor victim to a wooden wheel.  The wheel would be turned and the torturer would crush the victim’s limbs and joints with an iron hammer or club.  They would be completely shattered.  After that, the victim was left to die on the wheel.  For extra fun, often the wheel would be put on a pole so the birds would flutter down and have a meal of the victim’s eyes and other soft parts.  2-3 days was the normal time to death.

7. Torture By Saw


  • Originality : 9
  • Pain: 10
  • Duration: 5

Total: 25

The big advantage of the saw torture was that it didn’t require special equipment.  All one needed was a two-man saw, a rope, and a tree to hang someone from by their feet.

The victim was tied upside down, in part so that the blood would rush to his or her head.  This would make sure the person stayed conscious for the maximum time.  It also would slow the loss of blood.  Typically, the person was cut as far as the abdomen so that it took longer to die.  Death normally came in mere hours.

6. Knee Splitter


  • Originality: 9
  • Pain: 10
  • Duration: 6

Total: 25

The idea of this sadistic invention was to destroy the knees and other joints.  As the torturer turned the handle, the sharp points destroyed and mutilated any part of the body that was placed there.  It didn’t often cause death, merely horrific pain and terrible disfigurement.  But it often was just the appetizer for more awful and deadly forms of torture.

5. Judas Cradle


  • Originality: 10
  • Pain: 9
  • Duration: 8

Total: 27

This may not be quite as bloody and violent as impalement, but it gets major points for originality and the all-around agony factor.  The anus or vagina of the unfortunate victim was put over the point of the cradle.  Then the person was lowered onto it with ropes.  The idea here is to slowly stretch the orifice over hours or days.  The victim usually had on no clothes and sometimes for extra fun they would put some weights on his or her ankles.  For extra cruelty, the cradle wasn’t washed.  That way the victim could catch a really terrible infection.

4. The Rack


  • Originality: 10
  • Pain: 10
  • Duration: 7

Total: 28

This hideous machine had a wood frame with two ropes on the bottom and two more at the top.  As the torturer would crank the handle, the ropes would pull the victim’s arms and legs.  This would cause them to dislocate terribly and would eventually be ripped off the body.  Later editions of the rack had steel spikes added on the bed.  This would ensure that the victim’s spine also would be torn apart, causing paralysis.

3. Head Crusher


  • Originality: 9
  • Pain: 10
  • Duration: 9

Total: 28

This horrible device was used frequently during the Spanish Inquisition.  The victim’s chin was put on the bar on the bottom and his head beneath the cap on the top.  The torturer would then turn the screw and press the bar and cap together.  This would compress the skull, shattering the victim’s teeth.  The compression would continue for hours.  Eventually the eyeballs would pop out of the sockets.

2. Rat Torture


  • Originality: 10
  • Pain: 10
  • Duration: 8

Total: 29

What could be so terrible about some rats?  They’re cute, right?  Well, imagine this: your hands and feet are tied down, and your stomach is covered with a metal container with a rat inside.  The container is slowly heated, and the rat rips through your digestive tract to escape.

1.  Brazen Bull


  • Originality: 10
  • Pain: 10
  • Duration: 10

Total: 30

What a horrible way to go: the victim is placed inside a large, hollow, metal bull and locked inside.  A fire is lit beneath it, and the victim slowly burns to death.  The ancient Greeks also used this device.  They created a bunch of tubes around the head so that the agonized screams of the victim would sound somewhat like an angry bull.

Written By Joseph Pickett

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  1. Freaking horrid. The depth human depravity astounds me. As if such mental and physical effort was directed towards designing such vile contrivances. Mercy!

  2. about 10-15 years ago we walked through a travelling museum of torture devices, and my personal favorite was a set of conventional locks in which a detainee was was restrained by his head and hands so as to not be able to stand, nor sit, in a bent over position, and a goat was chained to the locks, unfed, and not given any water.. the description was that ultimately the goat was the executioner.. one lick at a time..

    • As those traveling museums do, they make stuff up – or at least mix it up. To tie or chain a person in a uncomfortable position was a common – and often deadly on its own, because the victim suffocated – punishment and torture, especially in the military.
      The goats usually don’t go with that but where, according to some written records (among them the famous 17th century novel “Der Abenteuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch”), used to torture people by letting them lick of salt or honey from the victims feet. This is however a rather mild and effective form of torture and was surely never used as execution, but to make people confess. Quite human compared to most of the other stuff, which directly caused permanent physical harm.
      As I already wrote, actual medieval torture was far less colorful and innovative than 19th century scholars wanted to make us think. Most of the time it was just hitting with (sometimes thorny) sticks, thumbscrews, rack, whatever you could do with a piece of rope (said tying, pulling the arms over the had backwards and lifting the victim, constriction of body parts and wipping of course) and fire.

  3. I just read a book about the subject and I have to say that medieval torture was much less “colorful” as it is described most of the time – inlcuding here. In Germany for example the only devices used were thumb- and legscrews, the rack, whips or canes and fire – usually in that order.
    The reason for torture was, that you couldn’t sentence someone to death without his confession, even if you had very strong evidence. So every death candidate had to be tortured in order to send him to the gallows/stake/breaking wheel/sword. If the evidence wasn’t too good, the accused got the “first degree” torture, usually just thumbscrews. If he didn’t confess in about 15 minutes, he was free. Second and third degree where used if the evidence where better and took 30 minutes to an hour. Second degree usually made use of the rack, third degree used everything and added fire (candles, burning sulfur, liquor).
    If the accused confessed, he had to repeat the confession without torture later – if he didn’t he was usually tortured again.
    The only difference between every regular murder trial and witch trials was that everything was seen as a strong evidence. And of course, those general rules were broken all the time.
    But what is clear, is that most mechanisms you see in a lot of torture museums are inventions of the 19th century to show how cruel the medieval times where – a bit hypocrytic since torture was still used in many “civilized” coutries at that time.

  4. And to think that the great Catholic Church was the main user of torture “to save the souls.” Has she changed? Knowing what is going on in Chiapas, Mexico and other parts of the world, I think it is waiting for the right time to make a comeback.

    • The church itself never tortured as such, they always had to work together with the mundane jurisdiction, even during the inquisition. If a local lord or town magistrate decided that torture wasn’t a good way to find witches and heretics, they could do nothing about it. That happend from time to time.
      In addition to that, it surely wasn’t the main user. The Inquisition only lasted some time, while torture was used in regular jurisdiction over the whole medieval age and the early modern times, up to the 19th century. Well and after that too, in some countries.

      • “Well and after that, too, in some countries.”
        Like, for example, the USA. (Waterboarding, etc.)

  5. Well, in all due respect, leave it to Mel Brooks to add his humorous parody of The Spanish Inquisition in his movie “History Of The World, Part 1”. Only the comedic genius of Mel Brooks can make torturing look funny.

  6. this is straight out of a quentin tarentino movie.

    i could not imagine being one of the victims. this actually happened to people. its sick.

    • What, David? Have you ever seen a Tarantino movie? FYI: there are zero torture devices in them. Violence, yes. Torture devices, no. Maybe you confuse Tarantino movies with Saw movies?

    • Ohhhhhheemmmmmgeeeeezzzzzzz liiiiike seeeerrrrrrssssssllllyyyyy guuuuuuuuuurrrrllllllll!!!

  7. This whole list is mixing up “torture” and “execution”, which where completely different things in medieval times. Impaling, Brazen Bull, the saw and breaking wheel are matters of execution, while the rest can count as torture or, as the “breast rippers” (you didn’t just rip breast with those but any fleshy part of the body) a torturous part of the actual execution.
    The difference is, that you should die from execution. You could die during torture, too but then the torturer probably lost his job or worse. You wanted to know something from someone you tortured, or torture him as a part of the punishment before the actual execution. In both cases, it was a great shame if the deliquent died during torture.
    I also heard that the head crusher is either fake or a much younger method (17th century or something) but I’m not sure with that. The existance of the bull is also questionable, but this is only because there are only written accounts left. Metal things that big don’t survive that long without being scavanged.

  8. this is some seriously sick stuff, but i have to say, Number 1 is fantastic, very sick twisted mind to create this but none the less a very good way of torturing someone, i know these aren’t any where near as good but what do people think about thumb screws?

    • Thumb screws, probably very effective as a torture device: not lethal, but very painful. After all, torture was most often used as a means to get a confession. Otherwise they could have simply executed the victim. Spanish boot was another one.

  9. Oh, btw, Dan. It’s spelled “medieVAL”. Although, after reading this list, I don’t blame you for mispelling it “mediEVIL”.

  10. I must recommend the book “The Executioner in Late Medieval French Culture” (Annales Universitatis Turkuensis, 2003) by Hannele Klemettilä. If you’re interested in this kind of stuff.

  11. Thanks for the comments. Yeah Tim, we don’t want to cause death too quickly! That would hurt the score:). You may be right on your comment Dan. But I thought I read that they still used the bull in medieval times.

    Never heard of the goat torture Tim!

  12. no doubt that most of these were also used at an inquisition by the clergy…good list lol think i actually felt some pain reading these haha

  13. Stop me if I’m wrong… but for #1, wouldn’t it not be considered Medievil torture… the ancient greeks created the brazen bull in 92 A.D… the Medievil Period started sometime in the 3rd 4th or even 5th century.

  14. I heard about a torture that wasn’t the most gruesome and it usually wasn’t fatal which is probably why it didn’t make the list but supposedly it was by far the most painful. so here goes: They would tie you to a chair and then pour molasses or honey on your feet and then let a few goats go at you. the goats would continue to lick your feet down to the bone and the abrasive nature of their tongue meant that your blood loss would be slow and minimal. In case someone doesn’t know what a goat’s tongue is like…it is more abrasive than sandpaper.

    • There’s a good description of that in the German 17th century novel “Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch” which takes place in the 30 Years War. An old farmer is tortured in that way, using salt and his own goats because a band of marauders wants to know where his money is hidden.
      This method can be fatal – but a torture was never intended to be fatal, at least in medieval times. After some time the tortured would either get a heart attack, or suffocate due to the constant cramps the tickeling sensation causes. I doubt that the blood loss would play a major role because the feets’ soles are surely harder than a goat’s tounge.
      The peasant in the novel survives too, but not before revieling where is money is hidden and where his wife and daughter took shelter. You can imagine the rest. So it might acutally have been a very effective way of torturing, given that it doesn’t kill that easily.

  15. @Terry: There’s no actual proof that the Iron Maiden was actually used as a torture (or execution) device. Wasn’t public enough. Medieval folks believed in public torture so that everyone would learn from the gruesome experience – and so that the one being tortured would be able to publicly repent of their ways. They believed pain was good for the soul – which is why there were so many creative ways of distributing pain.

    Still… it beats having to listen to Lady Gaga.

  16. You forgot the Iron Maiden, a coffin-like receptacle lined inside with thousands of spikes. Bram Stoker (who immortalized vampire impaling in his classic “Dracula”) gave an unforgettable demonstration of the Maiden in action at the climax of his grisly story “The Squaw”. And George Orwell took the rat torture into modern times in his “1984”.