Gruesome medieval torture and execution methods

When it comes to inflicting pain to other people, the human mind is surprisingly inventive. Throughout history several execution methods were invented with only one purpose: to let a victim suffer as much pain as possible before he died. This article will give an overview how different regions and cultures handled dead penalties in the middle ages (not for people with a weak stomach). These any many other torture devices and techniques can be seen at the Medieval torture museum in Amsterdam.

torture chamber
Torture Chamber at the Castello di Amorosa, Italy

Eastern Europe: impalement

Impalement was performed by penetrating a sharp stake through the central body mass. The victim was laid down on his belly and slit up at the rectum. A paste was applied to stop the bleeding before a stake was hammered into the body. The stake with the victim on it was then planted straight in the ground. If the impaled person moved because of the pain, it would only drive the stake deeper into his body. The survival time on the stake varied from a few minutes (if vital organs were hit) to several days (if the stake followed the spine).

A true fan of this torture method was Vlad Dracula from Wallachia, better known as Vlad the Impaler. The name of the vampire in Bram Stoker's novel Dracula was inspired by his personality. Vlad once impaled 2000 prisoners of war and planted them along the road to his castle.

impalement
Impalement

China: slow slicing

Slow slicing, or death by a thousand cuts was mostly performed in China. The process started when the torturer, wielding an extremely sharp knife, stabbed out the eyes of the condemned, which rendered him incapable of seeing the remainder of the torture and added more psychological terror of the procedure. Successive rather minor cuts then chopped off ears, nose, tongue, fingers, toes and genitals before proceeding large cuts that removed portions of flesh from thighs and shoulders. The entire process could last up to three days and cases are known where up to 3,600 cuts were made. The heavily carved bodies of the deceased were then put on a parade for a show in the public. This execution method was in use until the ealy 20th century (see photo below)

slow slicing
Slow slicing, 1905, Bejing

India: execution by elephant

Elephants were widely used across the Indian subcontinent as a method of execution. The elephants had their tusks fitted with sharp iron blades. After impaling the victim's body with its tusks, the elephant would then tear it in pieces, and throw it limb from limb.

On other occasions, the elephant could only use his feet to crush the limbs of the victim, before dealing a death blow on the chest or the head.

elephant execution
Execution by elephant

Persia: Scaphism

For this method, the victim was stripped naked locked within two narrow rowing boats joined together one on top of the other with the head, hands and feet protruding. The condemned was forced to drink a mixture of milk and honey to the point of developing a severe diarrhea, and more honey would be poured on him to attract insects. He would then be left to float on a stagnant pond. The victims feces accumulated within the boats, attracting insects which would eat and breed within his exposed flesh, which would start rotting away. The feeding could be repeated to prolong the torture. This technique later came to Europe, where the victims would be locked in a wooden barrel, instead of two boats.

scaphism
The European scaphism barrel

Central Europe: the breaking wheel

The breaking wheel was typically a large wooden wagon wheel. The condemned was lashed to the wheel and beaten with a club or iron cudgel, with the gaps in the wheel allowing the bones to break. This process was repeated several times per limb. Sometimes it was 'mercifully' ordered that the executioner should strike the criminal on the chest and stomach, which caused fatal injuries. Without those, the broken man could last hours and even days, before shock or dehydration caused death. Afterwards, the victims shattered limbs were woven through the spokes of the wheel, which was then hoisted onto a tall pole so that birds could eat the sometimes still-living individual.

breaking wheel
Public breaking wheel execution

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