Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 22nd November 2017 | Manchester, UK

Terrifying Torture

In our modern world we are, to an extent, still scarily familiar with the barbarism and ingenuity that brought many to ‘justice’, over previous centuries. The latter half of the 20th century has seen the international community come to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, along with the United Nations convening against torture and, ‘inhuman degrading treatment’ in the late 1980s.

Adversely the tail end of the last millennia also presents us with a disturbing reminder that instances of cruelty, abuse and human degradation are still ever-present – from the camps of Auschwitz to the Civil War pillaged streets of Guatemala, the Baath’ist torture throughout the Hussein years in Iraq, to the ongoing mistreatment in Saudi Arabia.

 

Comparisons with medieval torture are telling. States’ and smaller power groups’ methodology with regard to technique has evolved to complement the rise of new technologies – becoming more sophisticated and nuanced. However, the morality attached to instances of human mutilation and humiliation, archaic and new, is as vague as ever.

 

Here are some examples of the most appalling medieval torture techniques and devices applied:

Chair of Torture – Used in various parts of the world and appearing in various guises, the ‘torture chair’ is most easily recognizable by its spikes, which would often pierce the skin of the victim to the extent that they bled slightly, but did not usually sustain any real life threatening injury. Death by the chair could often take up to a couple of days and usually a confession could be yielded just by presenting the concept of the device to any prospective victim.

 

Breaking Wheel – Used in Germany as late as the 19th century, the ‘Breaking Wheel’ was a popular medieval torture device across Europe that lent itself to public exhibitions of brutality. The victim, whose limbs would be tied to a large wheel, would then be spun around slowly and battered until his/her bones were broken, before being left out in front of the crowds and open sky to die.

 

Pear of Anguish – Mainly applied to homosexuals, those accused of thought crime, and women who had the misfortune of miscarrying, the bulbous end of the ‘Pear of Anguish’ would be inserted into the relevant orifice before expanding, causing immeasurable pain often genital disfigurement.

 

Heretics Fork – Used both during and after the Inquisitions to determine heretics, one end would be rested underneath the chin and the other at the lower neck/upper chest area. The victim would have to ensure he/she kept their head held high or they would inflict pain on themselves.

 

Pillory Stocks – Although designed for public humiliation, often physical crowd participation could result in the death of victims. The Victim’s head would be placed in hand and head stocks and they would be paraded in front of the local community.

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