Rats, Racks, and Rippers: Torture Devices of the Middle Ages

Torture is a word we hear a lot lately.  How do we define it? Who deserves it? Where is the line drawn?

I personally do not advocate any type of cruelty during interrogation or punishment… not only because it is primitive but also because it is generally ineffective.   That said, today’s oft mentioned “water-boarding” is NOTHING compared to what the accused endured during medieval times.  Here are just a few of the nasty nasties that will hopefully remain as a dark stain on humanity’s uncivilized past… never to regain their former “glory” days.

Rat Torture

When I hear “rat torture” I think of being locked in a cell or confined space surrounded by creepy crawly rats that gnaw and my toes.  This is enough to send chills down my spine.  However, while that scenario may be torturous in its own way, it is nothing compared to THE Rat torture of the middle ages.  This was a very specific method of pain.

rat tortureThis terrifying image of Rat Torture comes from the York Dungeon, a tourist attraction in England that graphically displays all manner of torture, death, and disease.

Here is how Rat Torture works.  The victim is completely restrained. A cage is placed on the victim’s gut. The cage contains a rat. The cage is heated. The rat looks for a way to escape. The rat begins to dig. The flesh begins to tear. Hours later, the rat has managed to burrow its way into the victim’s abdomen. The victim invariably dies.  Rat Torture. Not nice.

The Virgin of Nuremberg (The Iron Maiden)

Perhaps the most well known device of terror and pain is the Virgin of Nuremberg, more commonly known as the Iron Maiden. This lovely lady stands 7 feet tall and accommodates exactly 1 unlucky man.  She could be used to cruelly torture someone into submission, or as a terrible means of execution, depending on how she was used.

Virgin of NurembergTo deliver a long and awful death sentence, a man would be tied up inside the Maiden, and a door covered with spikes would be closed. The spikes were strategically placed so that they missed all vital organs.  Because the spikes themselves blocked the wounds they inflicted, death would often take days to occur. In the meantime, the unfortunate soul would be in complete darkness, unable to hear anything but his own screams. And no one on the outside could hear his anguished cries.

To merely torment the victim, the door would be intermittently opened and closed, causing the spikes to repeatedly enter the exact same spot over and over again, presumably in an effort to extract a confession of guilt for whatever crime the man had been accused.

The Spanish Tickler

spanish ticklerAlso known by the equally deceptively cute name “The Cat’s Paw”, this instrument of gruesome design is pretty cut and dry.  A series of metal “claws” are attached to a pole, acting as an extension of the torturer’s own hand.  The victim is stripped naked and tied upright.  The spikes are then dragged across the victim’s skin, usually beginning with the limbs and then moving to the back, chest, neck, and finally…. the face.

Because of the design of the Spanish Tickler, it could rip through anything… skin, muscle, and bone. It was often used as a means of excruciating execution, although sometimes people were sentenced to a shorter session, and then released.

The Heretic’s Fork

This little darling of the Spanish Inquisition consisted of two forks that were attached to the neck. They were placed so that one fork pressed against the chest while the other was just under the chin.  It did not hit any vital parts and therefore was not fatal, although those attached to the nasty thing probably wished that it was.

heretics fork

The Heretic’s Fork was generally used to silence the victim once a confession had been achieved, therefore it is likely that it isn’t the first torture device said victim had encountered.  Because of the placement of the forks, speaking and swallowing were nearly impossible.  This instrument is also said to have been responsible for spreading a considerable amount of disease.

The Crocodile Tube

Referred to by many as the worst of the medieval torture gallery, the Crocodile Tube was actually fairly uncommon.  However, it was occasionally brought out for the most heinous of criminals.

The victim is placed inside a tube just large enough to accommodate the body.  The inside of the tube is covered with razor sharp spikes.  The tube is slowly compressed, pushing the spikes into the victim’s flesh.  The head and feet of the victim hang outside the tube on either end.

Beneath the tube a fire would be burning, slowly heating up the device and cooking the person inside until he either confessed or died.  To add insult to injury, facial mutilation and toe ripping were also common side dishes to the main course of being spiked and burned alive.

The Pear of Anguish

With a name like that, you just know this sucker is going to be bad. And it was.  Oh yes it was. It was most commonly used on women, liars, blasphemers, and homosexuals.  Take a look at the image and see if you can guess how it was used….

pear of anguishIf you guessed that this pear shaped darling was used to punish the most intimate of orifices… DING DING! You’re right.  Let’s see… for women it would be inserted into the vagina, for men the anus, and the mouth for those accused of lying and blaspheming.  It consisted of 4 leaves and a screw.  As the screw was turned the leaves would separate and expand, and you get the idea.  The torturer could choose whether they merely wanted to tear the delicate skin of the victim, or open the pear all of the way and mutilate them utterly.  Damn.  I think I’d prefer the crocodile tube.

The Judas Cradle

The Judas Cradle makes the Pear of Anguish look like a carnival ride.  A person is placed above a pyramid shaped seat, hands bound, and legs tied so that they were apart.  Well, sitting on a pyramid shaped chair would be no picnic on it’s own, but things get worse.


The “sitting duck” (ok that wasn’t nice) would be gradually lowered, allowing the sharp and often oiled point of the pyramid to pierce the anus or the vagina.  If a swift albeit excruciating death was the desired result, weight would be added to the legs, causing the body to drop rapidly, impaling the victim.  If the chair was meant to be used as a means of extracting information or confession, the person would be raised and lowered repeatedly, and sometimes left hovering over the device over night, only to be subjected to further impaling the next day.

The Judas Cradle was never washed, so even if the victim escaped death by pyramid, they would likely succumb to infection after the traumatic event.

The Rack

rack_tortureThe Rack is often looked upon as the most commonly used and most painful method of torture in the Middle Ages.  The victim would be tied to a frame that expanded as a handle was turned.  This would result in the body being stretched the more the crank was tightened.

Usually used as a means to extract confessions, the Rack was famously used on many of the Knight’s Templar.  It was not uncommon for limbs to be completely torn from the body.  Some variations of the rack included special modifications that stretched and mangled the spinal chord, rendering an uncooperative person handicapped, at best.



Crocodile Shears

This instrument was reserved for a very specific crime.  Regicide – attempting to assassinate the King.

crocodile shears

Basically it was a set of shears with a tube like interior and razor sharp teeth for blades.  It’s purpose was to tear apart arteries and fingers…. and most likely the penis.  So if you’re going to try to kill the King, be prepared to sacrifice your family jewels.  Enough said.

The Scold’s Bridle

Finally! A torture device just for the ladies! Made exclusively for women, the Scold’s Bridle, also known as The Brank, was used on those accused of  “brawling and wrangling amongst her neighbours, breaks the public peace, increases discord and becomes a public nuisance to the neighbourhood.”  In other words, this nasty little puppy would be slapped on your head if you were a bit of a gossip.

scold's bridle

It was a metal cage or mask placed over a woman’s head, often adorned with fancy ornaments and outrageous decorations to further the victim’s humiliation.    Often there was a piece of metal that extended into the mouth, prohibiting speech.  Sometimes a bell was attached to alert people that the wearer was nearby, thus saving them from being dragged into her web of gossipy badness.  More likely, they would simply ridicule her.  The Bridle was usually a temporary sentence of weeks or months, but it was at times set in place for life.

The Breast Ripper

Women subjected to the Scold’s Bridle were lucky compared to those forced to endure the Breast Ripper. The Breast Ripper does just what it says.  It was an instrument used to mutilate the breasts of women.

the breast ripperThis terrible instrument was most commonly used on women accused of conducting a miscarriage (performing abortions) or adultery.  Her breasts would literally be torn apart by this ugly sucker.  A common variant of the Breast Ripper was the Spider.  This was used to attach a woman’s breasts to a wall, and the torturer would pull her away, thus effectively removing her breasts from her body.

Saw Torture

I’ll just let the picture do the talking on this one.

saw torture

The Knee Splitter

Don’t let the name fool you.  This Inquisition era instrument was not only used to render the knees useless.


It was just as effective on elbows, ankles, and wrists.  With spikes on either side, the victim’s flesh would be slowly penetrated, then pierced, then bones would be crushed.  Rather unpleasant, I should think.

While it rarely was used to execute, it would obviously leave the victim permanently maimed, and was commonly used as a precursor to a future torture device should it fail to extract the necessary information.


The Brazen Bull

You gotta hand it to them.  The Greeks were imaginative and innovative people.  The Brazen Bull is their little beauty, and ranks as perhaps the most unique of the ways to sadistically kill an accused criminal.

The story goes that Perillos of Athens proposed to the tyrant Phalaris that there needed to be a far more painful way to kill criminals.  The end result of his search for the most torturous death chamber was The Brazen Bull, but Phalaris needed some convincing. He requested (read: commanded) that Perillos try out the Bull himself.  He ordered that Perillos be sealed inside and a fire was lit underneath.  Needless to say Phalaris was impressed.  Sadly, Perillos was unable to personally receive the accolades for his instrument of doom.

brazen bull

The Bull was exciting for two reasons.  1.  The victim was subjected to extraordinary pain prior to demise and 2.  It was a crowd pleaser.  The victim would be locked inside and the fire would serve to boil them to death.  To make things even more interesting, the Greeks invented a series of tubes that led from the inside out, allowing revelers to hear the cries of the person inside.  Central Europeans were impressed by the Greek innovation, and used the Brazen Bull during the Middle Ages.




  1. Excellent post! I shall make a link to it from Horrorphile!
    These kinds of contraptions and devices make Water Boarding and Chinese Water Torture look positively affectionate!
    The Iron Maiden is still one of my “favourites” … The Pear of Anguish (sounds like a thrash metal band!) is a doozy indeed! And I remember first hearing about a version of the Rat Torture and grimacing most violently.
    Although not an execution, but more just nasty punishment, and possibly used to extract information: The Thumb Screw. Used on that most sensitive area of flesh directly below the thumb nail at the base of the nail. Have you ever had someone press down on that bit just slightly?? OMG you KNOW how excruciating the Thumb Screw would be ….
    My favourite is and execution called Scaphism Legend (not sure of its origins). Desert soldiers found guilty of treason or the like would be buried up to their necks in the sand in the extreme heat of the day, then honey would be poured over their head. They were left to the mercy (or none to be precise) of the desert insects.

  2. natalina

    Wow thanks Bryn! I’ve been working on this one for a while. I had to pick my “favorites” from quite an impressive gallery of devious devices!

    The very concept of the Thumb Screw makes me shiver. No no no no thank you! I’ve never heard of the Scaphism Legend until now, but sir.. I do not like the sound of it! I’m surprised there weren’t more methods of torture involving insects.

    I am well aware that I am such a weenie, that regardless of the nature of the information I was attempting to withhold, I would buckle under the pressure of the mere sight of these nasty things. LOL I would tell them anything they wanted to know, even if it wasn’t true! Which I guess is why I feel that torture is so ineffective in the first place.

    Thanks again dear. Your praise has saved you from an encounter with the Pear of Anguish! I keep one in my back pocket :)

  3. Hi Natalina, Excellent post. It kind of made me sick how extreme these forms of torture are. Perhaps the times we are living in know are much better than what I sometimes beleve. When I learn about things like this, it amazes me how human minds can come up with such devices. But then again if you come from a perspective of love in life, then this would be a normal response.

  4. Wesley .H

    wow, despite being so… primitive, i guess, these torture methods are pretty well thought up. good job people of the dark ages, good job. I’m still not an advocate of torture, but there are some people i would like to see have their knees crushed.

    • JohnPerson

      So True

  5. Lily

    Goes to show just how bad us humans were back in those days. It’s pretty much disgraceful but somewhat interesting… And I thought guns were bad…

  6. Anonymous

    i really like how you put your words, very well in detail my friend and the photos also, and i really enjoy the articles you write about and i enjoy them very much, and teach me somethings i never knew, keep up the great work, and thanks for sharing

  7. wow!! thats crazy!!!!!!

    Dismembering could be worse though

  8. Don’t forget crucifixion! The Romans of course “perfected” this method of painful, humiliating execution. Already stripped naked, scourged and bound to the crossbeam with ropes round his biceps, the condemned was led to a public execution spot in a busy place, thrown down, nailed by his wrists to the crossbeam and lifted into position. Then his feet were nailed to the upright in a manner that spread his legs wide. Finally they added a seat they called the crucem subdas (nicknamed sedile, cornu or skolops). It wasn’t just a horizontal timber or plank; it projected out and up like a horn. When the condemned couldn’t stand on the nails in his feet, he hanged from the beam by the nails and ropes. The ropes would work their way out to his wrists and he would soon be penetrated by the seat. Once the ropes were all the way, the condemned would hang with his arms, shoulders, spine, buttocks and even his thighs stretched, all at the same time he is penetrated for the full height of the seat and his anus dilated, possibly to the point of bursting. The most humiliating aspect of this, even for men who enjoyed receiving anal sex, was the way the condemned’s body involuntarily responded to this by becoming aroused, sometimes to the point of having nonstop full-body orgasms for hours until total exhaustion.

    • natalina

      Ed, that is literally one of the CRAZIEST things I’ve ever heard! Damn. Crucifixion. Not nice… not nice at all.

  9. … Once the ropes were all the way out to his wrists…

  10. Natalina, I hope I didn’t offend you… you are right: crucifixion was not nice at all, it was HORRIBLE. And though my description sounds crazy, I found it out by doing research, even translating Latin and Greek. Reality can be a LOT crazier than fiction!

    • natalina

      No no Ed. It takes a LOT to offend me, trust me. I was just floored by the description of crucifixion as you described it. Yowza!

  11. Natalina, it floored me when I first realised it too. Even my bowels protested at the prospect of being penetrated by a point (I hope they shaped it like a penis!). And that’s the standard way the Romans did it. The traditional Christian conception of Jesus’ crucifixion is tame by comparison: he’s just nailed to a cross and lifted up with his legs together, like a god. I’m already telling Christians, it didn’t happen the way you think; like everybody else who was crucified, he was utterly humiliated and terrorised.

  12. Jedakk

    Ed-M, you can’t possibly make definitive statements like that about crucifixion. Even Seneca wrote in his “Consolation ad Marcium” about how he saw victims crucified in many different ways. Josephus wrote about how the Romans crucified thousands of Jews in a multitude of ways at the seige of Jerusalem, just to amuse themselves. Although there is certainly a possibility that there might have been a case such as you describe, there was no standard practice. And I’ve been researching this too for close to fifty years now.

  13. Jedakk, I didn’t say everyone who was crucified was crucified the standard way. In wartime, hardly anybody was crucified in the standard manner. And there were concessions to local custom (at least in Egypt and Judea). I’ve read Consolatium Ad Marcium – translating from the original Latin – and Seneca mentions what he considered three valid methods of crucifixion: suspending upside-down [from an overhead beam or a stake], impaling through the rear end, and the well-known method of combined racking and suspending from an overhead beam. There were probably other ways as well. But if you read Seneca Epistulae Morales ad Lucullum 101:10-14 he talks about at length the combination of the second and third method and called the whole sorry business a “carminis effeminati turpitudo:” ritual of effeminizing turpitude, or ritual of enervating hideousness and repulsiveness, indicating to me that that was the ‘standard’, i.e., the executioners’ most popular method.

  14. Briian Recluse

    would this world be like it is if the bull was still a part of the correctional protocol or if the saw was a deterrent .i think strappado needs to be done at the county correctional facility

  15. John

    Wow, white people were and still are ruthless.

    Now I see why they call you The Devil. These are the type of things a devil would do. Interesting

  16. Elsa

    this is so gross…i started looking at it for a project and i got hooked. i couldn’t stop reading. I am so glad i didn’t live in the middle ages.

  17. Ouch

    If someone was a faint of heart, the saw torture would be punishment for them too…

  18. Christine

    Lets not forget about Vlad the Impaler ….talk about demented !

  19. Painful stuff.

  20. 12 & below wanderer

    I Tried the rack already… It fixed my stiff back… And was imminsley painful!!!

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