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Crime, punishment and apparent entertainment
Torture was a very popular form of punishment in the Middle Ages, but it also served as a social deterrent and as entertainment for the masses. Find out the devices that were used in an effort to wow the crowds.
The period known as the Middle Ages stands out as one of the most violent eras in history. This epoch, lasting roughly 1,000 years, from the 5th century to the 15th, was a time of great inequality and brutality in much of Europe. What really sets this time apart is the ghoulish inventiveness that gave rise to a plethora of torture methods. There were many grounds for torture during the Middle Ages - religious fervour and criminal punishment come to mind - but why would a person take the time to invent a device designed to maim?
What strikes us most in considering the mediaeval tortures, is not so much their diabolical barbarity - as the extraordinary variety, and what may be termed the artistic skill, they displayed. They represent a condition of thought in which men had pondered long and carefully on all the forms of suffering, had compared and combined the different kinds of torture, till they had become the most consummate masters of their art, had expended on the subject all the resources of the utmost ingenuity, and had pursued it with the ardour of a passion.
The Brazen Bull
The Brazen Bull was a hollow brass statue crafted to resemble a real bull. Victims were placed inside, usually with their tongues cut out first. The door was shut, sealing them in. Fires would then be lit around the bull. As the victim succumbed to the searing heat inside, he would thrash about and scream in agony. The movements and sounds, muted by the bull's mass, made the apparatus appear alive, the sounds inside like those of a real bull. This effect created additional amusement for the audience, and served the added benefit of distancing them from the brutality of the torture, since they couldn't directly see the victim. Legend has it that this device was invented by a Greek named Perillus for a tyrant named Phalaris of Agrigentum. Expecting a handsome reward for his creativity, Perillus instead became the first person placed inside the Brazen Bull. By some reports, Phalaris himself became an eventual victim of the bull when his subjects grew tired of his mistreatment.
Thumbscrews represent a very insidious form of torture. You weren't likely to die from their use, but they created unendurable agony. The device consisted of three upright metal bars, between which the thumbs were placed. A wooden bar slid down along the metal bars, pressing the thumbs against the bottom. A screw pressed the wood bar downward, crushing the thumbs painfully. The thumbscrews were an elaboration of an earlier device known as the pilliwinks, which could crush all 10 fingers and resembled a nutcracker. Thumbscrews supposedly originated with the Russian army as a punishment for misbehaving soldiers. A Scottish man brought a set home with him and introduced them to the United Kingdom.
The rack was used throughout Europe for centuries. It came in many forms, but here's the basic idea: The victim is tied down while some mechanical device, usually a crank or turning wheel, tightens the ropes, stretching the victim's body until the joints are dislocated. Continued pressure could cause the limbs to be torn right off. Such torture was known as being "broken on the rack," "racked," or "stretched on the rack." It could be combined with other forms of torture to make things even more painful. In one story, a Christian youth was tied to a wheel and his joints destroyed by the stretching. A fire was lit beneath the wheel, adding to the torture. Eventually, the fire was extinguished by the downpour of blood as the victim's limbs were torn free. One type of rack was known as the Horse. It was a wooden device that vaguely resembled an actual horse in shape. The victim was tied to a beam on the top (the horse's "back"), facing up. Pulleys below tightened ropes affixed to the victim's hands and feet. He or she was stretched until his or her joints dislocated, then left there or slackened and allowed to hang underneath the horse while an inquisitor or judge questioned the victim and tried to get a confession. Torquemada, the infamous torturer of the Spanish Inquisition, was known to favour a stretching rack known as a potoro.
Wheels were adapted to many torturous uses. They could be part of a stretching rack, but medieval torturers were far too creative to leave it at that. Early torturers were fond of tying someone to a large wooden wheel, then pushing it down a rocky hillside. A more elaborate method involved a wheel mounted to an A-frame that allowed it to swing freely. The victim would be tied to the wheel, and then swung across some undesirable thing below - fire was always a good choice, but dragging the victim's flesh across metal spikes also worked well. The wheel itself could also have spikes mounted on it, so the pain came from all directions. Instead of swinging, the wheel might turn on an axle. The difference was likely immaterial to the victims. One of the most horrible wheel tortures was akin to crucifixion. The victim would have the bones in all four limbs broken in two places by strikes from an iron bar. Then, the shattered limbs were threaded through the spokes of a large wheel. Finally, the wheel would be attached to the top of a tall wooden pole and left out in the sun for days. The victim might be alive for hours, enduring the agony of his or her mangled arms and legs and the relentless sun, not to mention the attentions of crows.
The Iron Maiden
The Iron Maiden is a device so fiendish it was once thought to be fictional. It's an upright sarcophagus with spikes on the inner surfaces. Double doors open on the front, allowing entrance for the victim. In one example, eight spikes protruded from one door, 13 from the other. Once the victim was inside, the doors were closed. There, the strategically placed spikes would pierce several vital organs. However, they were relatively short spikes, so the wounds wouldn't be instantly fatal. Instead, the victim would linger and bleed to death over several hours. To add to the abject horror of it all, two spikes were positioned specifically to penetrate the eyes. In the 1800s, researchers found one in a castle in Nuremberg, Germany, and documented proof of its use later surfaced. For this reason, this device is sometimes known as the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg. A variation found in Spain was made to look like the Virgin Mary, and had machinery that, when manipulated, caused her to "hug" the victim close to her spikes
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