Torture: Everyone’s Least Favorite Medieval Trope

I blame the Victorians. Once they got all hyped up on Nationalism and how darn modern they were, they started making up lies about the Middle Ages. Or at least, they exaggerated strenuously.

Torture was one of their favorite things to exaggerate. Let’s drill down to the real facts.

The Concept

Using torture as part of the judicial process goes back to Roman times, and it continued in Europe because the folks who set up the courts were Rome fanboys. It was not common, though, in the early Middle Ages.

If you remember from the last post on crime detection in the Middle Ages, people were often tried through an ordeal such as sticking their hand in boiling water to grab a rock. This was called the Accusito system. Someone accused you of something, and then you had to prove you were innocent. Under certain circumstances (bad rep, lots of evidence against you,) you might have to call on God to prove your innocence through the ordeal.

By the mid-1200’s, these methods were losing favor to the Inquisitio system. This meant that courts had to inquire into the truth, and one way they tried to do this is by torturing someone into confessing or giving evidence.

It wasn’t an overnight change. There had been torture under certain circumstances, and even then, people weren’t necessarily fans. There were complaints and much discussion of its correctness even in the 1100s.

However, courts were now relying more on evidence and testimony, and many saw physical pain as a way to get people to tell the truth.

Types of Torture

Medieval folks liked to keep it simple. Whatever judicial authority figure happened to be available would tie the victim’s hands over their head and their feet to the ground, and then pull the hands up by a rope. They could use a tree with a high branch to pull the hands up.

If you were accused of heresy, church authorities could torture you into a confession by applying hot pincers to your skin. They weren’t allowed to draw blood but burning was fine. Priests could absolve each other if they accidentally drew blood.

Most other types of torture were similarly simple in design. The Iron Maiden, torture chambers, and complicated racks were largely the work of Victorian-era museum owners looking to titillate their audience.

Who Got Tortured?

You had to be accused of something major such as murder or treason to warrant torture, and if you confessed right away, there wouldn’t be any. (That’s something that is part of the Erzbet Bathory case. Her servants confessed to murder immediately, but a lot of people argue that having the torture implements in front of them may have scared them into false confessions.)

You were more likely to be tortured if you had lost your reputation through prior convictions. It was an honor-based society, and if you had a bad reputation, you were deemed untrustworthy, and thus had to be tortured in order to get at the truth.

Nobles were rarely tortured.

And most importantly of all, there had to be evidence against you. The point was almost exclusively to get a confession, and there had reason to believe you were lying when you proclaimed you were innocent. Written evidence, such as letters or heretical documents, could do it. Respectable witnesses snitching on you could lead to torture, though courts could be a bit picky when it came to witnesses.

Torture became more common after the 1500s, which is considered the Early Modern period. It hit its peak in the 1700s, and it is rare in most places now. Legal scholars more learned than I could explain why that is, but it is enough in this blog post to say that we need more courtroom dramas set in the 1200s where judges argue the legalities of torturing someone.


The Medieval Podcast, aired April 16, 2019, interview with Larissa Tracy



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