Although the most common use of torture throughout history has been as an interrogation technique of law enforcement, the practice has been used in many different ways over the years, with other purposes of torture found in inducing public terror, a means of reform, and most uncommonly, as satisfying sadistic pleasure.
During the period of antiquity, interrogation was seen to be the most popular form of torture, especially in ancient Greece and Rome, and until the 2nd century AD, torture was only used on slaves, as it was the general consensus that a slave couldn’t be trusted to voluntarily reveal the truth, and were thought to be incapable of lying under torture. It was in this period that the ‘breaking wheel’ was invented, whereby the victim would be stretched out onto a wooden wheel and an iron bar would be used to break each of their limbs until they succumbed and admitted to whatever they were accused of.
In medieval and early modern Europe, torture was permitted by law only if there was already half-proof against the accused, however such ‘proof’ was subjective, and so it was common practice for evidence to be planted in order to allow for torture and to achieve a confession, be the individuals guilty or not. In this period torture was usually conducted in secret, in underground dungeons, yet contradictorily torturous executions such as the grizzly act of ‘hanging, drawing and quartering’, by which a victim would be dragged through the streets by a horse, hung until just before the point of death and then disembowelled and beheaded before their body was cut into quarters, were carried out publically to insight fear into others who dared to cross the establishment.
One of the most infamous torture devices that many associate with this period is the rack, a rectangular wooden frame fit with ropes and wheels which would stretch the victim, breaking bones and dislocating joints, sometimes adding inches to an individual’s height from the sheer pressure it exerted on their bodies. The most infamous confession stretched out of an individual via this means is Guy Fawkes’ role in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, however this was more used to prove his guilt rather than as an initial confession, and it was 35 years later in around 1640 that torture was to be abolished in England.
Unfortunately, even though the de-jure outlawing of torture has long since passed in most of the western world, the practice continues to occur in secret even to this day, with the waterboarding of suspected terrorists held in Guantanamo Bay by the CIA being a source of many human rights protests in the recent years, showing that torture is not just a facet of a long-gone medieval society.