Types of punishments in the Middle Ages

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Types of punishments in the Middle Ages
Many medieval castles housed several instruments of torture. (Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

The Middle Ages was an extremely violent era, characterized by a wide range of horrific devices designed to torture criminals and those suspected of crimes. Many large castles even had their own torture chambers, which housed a range of torture devices. The kind of torture inflicted varied depending on the crime committed and the social status of the individual. Torture was widely viewed as an acceptable means to extract confessions or information that could aid the legal process.

The rack

The rack was a popular medieval torture device constructed using a rectangular wooden frame. A roller was fitted to each end to allow the frame to widen and contract. The unfortunate victim had their feet bound to one roller and their arms chained to the other. A ratchet and handle was also affixed to the top roller, allowing the tension of the chains to be increased. The victim was supported by a wooden board lying beneath their body. Once the rollers were turned, the victim would have their limbs pulled in opposite directions, causing horrendous pain to the joints. Limbs were regularly dislocated with this device and some victims even had their limbs torn off altogether.


The thumbscrew was a popular means of inflicting pain on Middle Ages prisoners as punishment for unruly behaviour. They were also used by interrogators as a means of extracting information. The device had toothed iron bars which were designed to completely crush the inserted thumbs of prisoners. Thumbscrews were powerful enough to crush both cartilage and bone. Despite its name, the thumbscrew also crushed both fingers and toes, depending on the whims of the prison guards. The crushing process was a gradual process, prolonging the pain and psychological fear of the victims.


The Brodequins was a Medieval torture which inflicted pain on the legs of its victims. The Brodequins device consisted of a huge bench, flanked by narrow wooden boards which were fitted to the outside and inside of each leg. The legs were tightly secured to the bench with thick, strong rope. To inflict the torture, wedges were then driven into the centre boards using a mallet. It was not uncommon for the major leg bones to be completely shattered during this torture. A milder version of the Brodequins torture involved stockings made from parchment which shrunk considerably when placed near fire, causing severe pain to the legs of the victims.

Branding and burning

The most commonly used burning torture involved the use of a brazier. The tip of the brazier was heated until it was red-hot and then passed across the eyes of the victim. The tip was held so near to the pupils, it would eventually destroy the eyes completely. The branding iron consisted of a wooden handle and a long bolt which had a letter brand at the tip. The branding iron was usually sunk into the hands of the victim, leaving a deep, permanent scar in the flesh.

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