Some instruments of torture, like the rack, were real. Others were likely made up to help perpetuate the myth of the medieval ‘Dark Ages.’
Throughout history, people have used torture devices to punish their enemies and those accused of crimes. They’ve also used torture as a means to elicit confessions or convince a victim to give up other people’s names, despite the fact that torture doesn’t produce reliable information. (This is not a new finding; it’s something even Napoleon Bonaparte observed.)
Yet sometimes, people looking toward the past have let their imaginations run away with them when it comes to torture. Ancient Greek historians have passed down some fantastic tales that they may not have intended readers to take literally. In addition, people in the modern era have accused medieval Europeans of using gruesome torture devices that probably didn’t exist at the time, perpetuating the myth of a less-than-civilized so-called “Dark Ages.” Here are some famous torture devices from history, both real and legendary.
The brazen bull is an ancient mythical torture device supposedly used by Phalaris, a tyrant who ruled a part of Sicily in the 6th century BCE. It consisted of a life-size bronze bull that was hollow on the inside and had a door on the outside. The torturer would place a victim inside and light a fire under the bull. The fire would roast the victim to death, while an acoustic system on the bull made the victim’s screams sound like bull noises to those on the outside.
The story of Phalaris and the brazen bull comes from the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who lived about 500 years after these events had supposedly taken place. The story, which Italian poet and philosopher Dante referenced in the Inferno, is likely a myth or at least highly embellished.
One of the more fantastical tales of a torture device is the Iron Apega, also known as the Apega of Nabis. The ancient Greek historian Polybius wrote that the Spartan king Nabis, who ruled from 207 to 192 BCE, built a sort of torture robot that resembled his wife, Apega.
Polybius wrote that whenever Nabis was trying to collect taxes from someone who refused to pay, the king would invite the person to hug his wife, and point the person toward the robot. When the person embraced the robot, it would draw in its arms, crushing the victim with iron hooks hidden under its clothes. However, scholars have suggested that Polybius’ story of the tax-collecting torture robot was allegorical, and that the Iron Apega did not really exist.
The rack was a torture device used at the Tower of London, a royal palace that also served as a prison. Starting in the 15th century, the yeoman warders who worked at the tower used the rack to pull on ropes tied to a victim’s wrists and ankles. This stretched the body and dislocated the victim’s joints.
Yeoman warders used the rack on people suspected of treason and religious heresy to try to get them to confess and give up the names of other “conspirators.” One famous victim was the English writer and Protestant preacher Anne Askew. In 1546, yeoman warders tortured her on the rack and asked her to name Protestant sympathizers. After she refused, officials burned her at the stake. Because the torture made her unable to walk, they had to carry her to her execution.
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Swords and lances weren’t the only weapons of choice during bloody battles of the Middle Ages.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, yeoman warders at the Tower of London also used the scavenger’s daughter as a torture device. The scavenger’s daughter was a metal frame that compressed the victim’s body in on itself.
Compression from the scavenger’s daughter was so intense it could apparently cause the victim to start bleeding from the nose, mouth and other parts of the body. This gruesome form of torture could result in death.
SSPL VIA GETTY IMAGESTHUMBSCREWS, OR THUMBKINS, ARE AN EARLY INSTRUMENT OF TORTURE USED BY INSERTING THE THUMBS INTO THE CONTRAPTION AND COMPRESSING THEM WITH A SCREW.
Torturers used the thumbscrew, another pain-inflicting device from Europe’s early modern period (c.1450 to 1750), to crush a person’s fingers or thumbs.
Similarly to the rack, torturers employed the thumbscrew as a means of punishment and an attempt to elicit a confession. The thumbscrew was also known as a “thumbikin,” with many spelling variations.
The pear of anguish is a device that early modern Europeans labeled as a medieval torture device. Supposedly, a torturer would insert the device into a person’s mouth, vagina or anus in order to widen the orifice, causing extreme pain. However, scholars have questioned whether these devices originated in the Middle Ages, a period that ended around 1450.
Existing examples of the so-called pear of anguish contain coiled springs, which suggests the people who crafted them lived during the early modern period that followed the Middle Ages. These examples have an unclear provenance, and there are questions about how functional they actually would have been as orifice-widening torture devices.
Another device with a sketchy provenance is the iron maiden, a mythical instrument of torture that 19th-century Europeans falsely attributed to medieval Europeans. That’s because there’s no evidence of an iron maiden—an upright iron casket with spikes on the inside—existing before the 1800s.
The myth that iron maidens existed during the Middle Ages was likely spread by German philosopher Johann Philipp Siebenkees in the late 18th century, who wrote about how a coin forger in Nuremberg was executed with one in 1515. The first known iron maidens were constructed in the 19th century, and passed off in museums as medieval torture devices.