Immurement, or the complete enclosure of a human being into a small space with no escape, was historically a common form of punishment across cultures throughout history. Indeed, history is full terrifying tales of people who were bricked up or buried alive. Enclosing a person into a tiny box was considered one of the slowest forms of torture. However, some immurements were a deliberate personal choice, particularly among the devout of several religions, such as priests, monks, and nuns.
Trapping someone in a tight space was also one of the forms of torture used on women in particular. These immurements might last weeks, months, years, or until death. Some among the immured were sacrificial; some were unwitting victims. Certainly, in horrific stories of historical immurement, anyone even slightly claustrophobic would have struggled immensely and, as time passed and food and energy diminished, immurement must have seemed like a particularly harsh hell. If you want to know what it was like to suffocate slowly in an enclosed space, read on to get a taste of what it was like to be immured and left for dead.
Many cases involving immurement were doled out to intentionally serve as very slow death penalties. However, immurement could also be a temporary condition which was used in one of two ways: as a form of punishment or by choice for a given length of time. The medieval Christian church used temporary immurement as a method to punish sinners, particularly those who committed sins of the flesh. Such individuals were locked away deep in a monastery or bricked up inside of rooms with a tiny opening for food and water for months or even years.
Centuries later, this type of immurement was still being used, but as a form of punishment. A good example comes from the unfortunate end of James Hepburn, third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was accused of treason and other high crimes. He fled Scotland, but was apprehended in Denmark where they imprisoned him beneath Dragsholm Castle, outside of Copenhagen. He was put in a hole that was not large enough for him to stand in, tossed scraps of food, chained, and in complete darkness.
The Danish considered his case for a time, but eventually, as politics changed, Hepburn was forgotten. Five years later, they remembered Hepburn and observed that he was more like a wild animal than a human. Snarling, crawling, and pacing back and forth on his chain, Hepburn died shortly after the observation.
Some cases of immurement had willing participants. Christian monks and anchoresses (a type of nun) participated in immurement as a spiritual experience. They would choose the method, location, and length of time involved. Some remained silent, others wrote music (such as Hildegaard of Bingen), and a few wrote religious texts and testaments.
Ancient Roman religion was taken seriously by its leaders, practitioners, and even the secular government. As with most societies, there was also an ongoing concern over the chastity of women and how a woman's natural lust was overwhelming and thus, had to be controlled. Vestal Virgins, or female temple priestesses of the goddess Vesta (goddess of hearth and home), were held to a particularly high standard of conduct. All took a solemn vow of chastity.
However, the priestesses were human, and sometimes faltered. This was not a problem unless their "lustful" activities were discovered. On such occasions, a guilty priestess received capital punishment. This most often took the form of permanent immurement.
The Vestal Virgin would be stripped, beaten, dressed in the clothing of a corpse, and then placed in a catacomb or cave. Typically, she would be locked or bricked away with a small supply of food, water, and candles or lamps. She might share her immurement with skeletons of previous residents.
These immurements were pitched as a type of religious ritual, but they were more a case of "misery loves company." An adult holy woman, such as Julian of Norwich, would sometimes request to be bricked in for a time (decades were not unusual) with a young child under the age of ten. Such children could be orphans, but often were "gifts" from their parents to the Church. The idea was that the child would serve as a symbol of innocence and purity, as well as a companion to the willingly immured. What an awful way to grow up.
The nun and her "companion" would receive food through a small slit in the bricked up wall, but they would never, ever go outside the enclosed chamber. There is no known record of any child surviving such an experience. Probably not something the Church would want the public to know either way.
In 1409, four Christian clerics in Augsburg, Bavaria, were found guilty of pederasty, or sexual conduct with young boys. Pederasty was not only considered immoral, but also illegal. The traditional method of punishment for the offense was immolation (death by burning).
The church in Augsburg decided that immolation was too merciful - instead, they locked the guilty men into wooden coffins, suspended them with ropes from high inside a tower, and left them to starve.