Medieval Torture. Impaling. Illumination. Illuminated manuscript.
Long Reads

How to Torture People in the Middle Ages?

What Asinus Teaches

Medieval illuminated manuscript. illumination. Torture. Strappado. hanging from the arms.
Medieval torture: The Strappado – Avignon, BM, 659, f. 189v

Wild Reddit Question Appeared!

>>> Link to original post!

What did you have to do to get tortured in the medieval days?

Would they do it to any criminal or did they only use torture for more serious crimes? Would they often torture innocent people for entertainment as well?

My Answer

Ça alors! I was just reading my notes on that very topic earlier today. I hope you don’t mind if I share and translate them 😉

The Introduction of Torture in the 13th century

Torture came into fashion in the 13th century for very specific reasons. Namely, the (re)discovery of Roman law and its implementation by the Church. The 1215 Latran council recognised that trials by ordeals were a thing from the past and that since they were rational and modern beings, it was time to move on.

I was brave enough to conclude that “hard evidence is hard” in a former contribution but what is–you may ask–a proper piece of evidence?

When trials by ordeals where the norm, you were deemed innocent if you won a duel or if you had forty men to swear on a bible that you didn’t do what you had been accused of doing. Things like that. Depending on the case and the local customs.

Roman law, however, doesn’t work that way. You don’t have to prove your innocence. You’re innocent until proven guilty. The law doesn’t wait on someone to blame you for something. State officials have to record a crime to start an investigation. It is their job to find all the evidence that work for you or against you. In that regard, the Common law is a hybrid system.

Since you’re not guilty from the get-go according to the principles of Roman law, how do anyone prove you’re guilty of anything? What could be considered as a proper piece of evidence?

Case number one: you’ve been caught doing the crime you’re being charged with by sworn officials. Your crime is notorious and known to everybody. You head straight to sentencing.

Case number two: state officials find witnesses that can testify you did what you’re being charged with. There needs to be two of them and they must be male adults. This is sometimes quite difficult to find… Therefore medieval legists came with a work-around. A single male adult witness can be replaced by two women or two minors–because women are litterally viewed as minors in regard to the law and they will remain as such in most Western countries until… the 20th century.

Case number three: you CONFESS!

Medieval illumination. Torture. Waterboarding.
Medieval torture: Waterboarding – London, BL, Harley MS 4375-1, f. 70v

Confession, according to Roman law, is the queen of all evidence. However, what can you do when someone refuses to confess? That’s when torture comes into play. Back then, it was called “to put someone to the question.” The first mention of such practices date back from the 13th century. We’re not talking here about sentencing people to a horrible fate, but well about intimidating people with threats of pain or actual suffering in order to get confessions.

In the 16th century, Joos de Damhouder wrote a book about criminal practices (which quickly became a best-seller) and defined the use of torture. Some people couldn’t be put to the question: doctors (of laws, not physicians), knights, officials, children under the age of 14, pregnant women and old people (with exceptions in cases of regicide or witchcraft). Torture had to be done on people who were heavily suspected to be guilty of the crime they were being charged with and common gossip don’t make up for such practices. You must have at least half a proof that the person as commited the crime (which translate into one male adult witness or two minor witnesses).

However, a confession said under torture ALWAYS had to be repeated out of torture. It litterally got Joan of Arc out of it since she maintained to her judges, at Rouen, that “Should you tear my limbs apart or split my soul from my body, I wouldn’t tell you otherwise. Should I tell you otherwise, then I would always argue that you forced me to.” She must have known what the deal was and how torture worked as a judicial procedure. Moreover, if you didn’t confess during the act of torture, the evidence collected against you were exponged and the proceedings had to start from scratch all over again. Meaning you just couldn’t torture someone on and on again just for the kick of it.

Many people had to attend the act of torture for it to be valid too, among whom a physician.

It is not to say that some didn’t play fast and loose with torture or that some tortured souls didn’t enjoyed it. There must have been some cases. However, torture was a heavily codified judicial procedure and the judges who ordered it were well-educated men who dreaded the concept of appeal more than they cared for human lives. Especially by the 16th century, torture to be applied had to be approved by superior courts largely made of intellectuals who didn’t care much for brutality and violence.

Torture was ultimately challenged in the 18th century and deemed as an uneffective procedure. Voltaire led the charge during the “Affaire Calas”. The judicial authorities were already questioning the usefulness of torture. Only 5% of tortured people confessed in France, 30% in the Low Countries and, well, 50% in the Holy Roman Empire. It mostly depended on the legal conditions of torture. In France, by the mid-17th century, someone could only be put to the question two times for an hour and then the torture had to stop. In the Low Countries, someone could be put to the question up to seven times for a total time of 30 hours! In general, protestant countries were more prone to torture than catholic countries. Witchhunts in the protestant principalities of the Holy Roman Empire killed far more people than the infamous Spanish Inquisition.

Furthermore, I will note that the numbers I gave do include two types of torture. Someone can be put to the question to make him confess, that is one thing, but once he’s recognised as guilty, he can be put back again to the question! On that second “torture run”–which was generally far more brutal–he’d be asked to denounce his associates. This was, of course, the perfect occasion to blame someone you wanted to bring with you to the grave and it sometimes led to entire villages being accused of witchcraft and heresy when torture was implemented too quickly and neighbours didn’t like each others.

Medieval illumination. Torture. Bench. Ropes.
Medieval torture: The Bench – Paris, Arsenal, 5080, f. 392r

The 6 Most “Promising” Ways of Torture People in the Middle Ages

#1. The Strappado

Hanging someone by his arms as he is bound behind his back. Weights can also be attached to his feet for good measure.

#2. The Bench

Burning someone’s flesh with the help of ropes.

#3. The Waterboarding

Did you even think we only came up with it? Water was sometimes replaced with oil or vinager.

#4. The Waffle Iron

This was not a Belgian delicacy (for Belgian didn’t exist yet that torture had already been banned in the Low Countries), it involved pincers.

#5. The Spanish Boot

(Widely used in France.) You strap wooden planks tightly to someone’s leg then you hammer wooden wedges between the planks and the leg.

#6. The Collar

(Quite “popular” in Brabant and in the principality of Liege.) Someone stands up with his neck strapped in a piked collar. The pikes, of course, are facing inward. The collard is held up by ropes attached to walls. If you fall asleep… your neck will pay the price.

One Random Fun Fact

People who were put to torture often tried to assuage the pain that was inflicted to them. My “favourite” drug they used was–you can believe me or not, I’ve actually tracked down the source a long time ago (but it took me several days so I won’t do it again)–Marseille soap.

I was so shocked when I heard it from my university professor’s mouth that I stopped everything and said, out loud: “Did they farted soap bubbles?” He looked at me. His face was blank. I honestly don’t remember what he answered–I think he said yes (!?)–but he carried on like a pro.

True story.

One Solid Reference

Henry Ansgar Kelly, “Judicial Torture in Canon Law and Church Tribunals: From Gratian to Galileo”, in Catholic Historical Review. 2015, Vol. 101, Issue 4, p. 754-793.

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