• Weird History

Things People Believe About Historical Torture That Are Just Not True

The iron maiden. The rack. The pear of anguish. Torture museums gleefully display these horrific devices, claiming they were used on thousands during the medieval era. But it turns out most of our beliefs about historical torture simply aren't true.

Nearly every article about gruesome torture devices includes forms of torture that never existed. Take the iron maiden, for example. It was invented in the 18th century to make the medieval era look more barbaric. Stories about bamboo torture pop up in literature, but there's no proof it ever took place. And the pear of anguish wasn't used to rip open orifices. In fact, it might have been a sock stretcher. 

As historian Helen Mary Carrel explains, "The common view of the medieval justice system as cruel and based around torture and execution is often unfair and inaccurate." So why is there so much misinformation about torture? First, because we're horrified and fascinated by it (there's a reason torture appears in so many movies, books, and TV shows). And second, because stories about torture reinforce what we already believe about the past.

We think of the medieval era as a brutal time, so it's easier to believe devices like the iron maiden were real. Yet when we hold the myths about torture up to historical scrutiny, many of them prove false. 

  • MYTH: Sexual Deviants Were Punished With The Pear Of Anguish

    Photo: La Science Illustrée / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Myth: After being inserted into one of a victim's various orifices, the pear of anguish was screwed open until the skin was stretched beyond endurance. 

    Where You've Seen It: Torture museums.

    The Reality: The first mention of the pear of anguish comes from the 19th century, with no evidence that the device was used for torture. A recent examination of devices in torture museums shows it was too weak to open inside a bodily orifice. On top of that, the latch device could never be opened while the pear was inside someone's body.

    As for the objects themselves, historian Chris Bishop says they were possibly sock stretchers or glove wideners.

  • MYTH: Criminals Experienced A Slow, Piercing Punishment In The Iron Maiden

    The Myth: Victims were forced into a dark chamber studded with spikes. When the doors closed, the spikes pierced their bodies. 

    Where You've Seen It: Movies, the internet, torture museums, you name it.

    The Reality: The iron maiden was a phony invention from the 18th century. Writer Johann Philipp Siebenkees claimed that, centuries earlier, a Nuremberg criminal perished inside an Egyptian mummy case lined with spikes. By the 19th century, fake iron maidens were on display across Europe, particularly in torture museums.

    Multiple sources repeated the false stories, turning the iron maiden into a legendary medieval torture device.

  • MYTH: The Catholic Church Brutally Tortured Witches

    The Myth: The Catholic Church brutally tortured women to force them to confess to witchcraft. 

    Where You've Seen It: Across popular culture.

    The Reality: Accused witches were indeed tortured across Europe, largely in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, the Catholic Church rarely tortured accused witches. During the 1609-11 Basque witch hunt overseen by the Inquisition, only two suspects out of thousands were tortured - and both received a reduced sentence of banishment rather than execution.

    Secular authorities were much more likely to torture accused witches, especially to force victims to accuse others. This is what spurred the largest witch hunts. The Inquisition, by contrast, was comparatively less brutal to the accused.

  • MYTH: Medieval People Punished Criminals In The Brazen Bull

    Photo: Pierre Woeiriot / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Myth: Medieval Europeans stuffed people into metal bulls, then lit fires underneath to roast them alive. Their anguished cries escaped the bull's hollow mouth. 

    Where You've Seen It: Movies, and stories about the martyrdom of Saint Eustace.

    The Reality: The brazen bull was never used in medieval Europe. In fact, it may have never existed at all.

    Reportedly created in the 6th century BCE by Sicilian tyrant Phalaris, no archaeologist has found physical evidence of a brazen bull. It's possible the story was invented just to make Phalaris look like a cruel ruler. As for Saint Eustace, reportedly martyred in a brazen bull, the Catholic Church says the stories are false.