ByEmily Browne, writer at
Twitter: @emrbrowne
Emily Browne

If there's one thing in that makes my stomach tie in knots, it's the visceral portrayal of medieval torture in and film. Despite this, it seems that modern audiences cannot get enough of the brutal, repugnant and macabre ways actual human beings dreamed up to inflict pain on other actual human beings. While most horror movies tackle a whole host of brutal, disgusting torture methods, it's the medieval stuff that is the most eye-watering — because that shit actually happened. Here are 7 inventive and downright disgusting torture methods that were popular in days of yore.


Gibbeting, also known as “hanging in chains,” was a way to torture victims even after they had likely been mutilated to death. Used in England during the 17th century, it was mainly used for traitors as a way of keeping others in line. Drawing huge crowds, the poor soul in question was hoisted up in what can only be described as an iron skeleton, or a small cage, and left to rot for everyone to see.

The Hanging of William the Kidd. Image: Wikipedia
The Hanging of William the Kidd. Image: Wikipedia

The gibbet would twist and creek in the wind to inflict maximum terror, and would be left for years, even decades. The smell of rotting flesh was so vile that people would have to close their windows if the wind blew in a certain direction.

The Judas Cradle

Nothing screams utter blinding pain more than the Judas Cradle. A deeply traumatic death awaits anyone who had to face this nightmare. The victim would be placed on a pyramid-shaped seat and tied so that they cannot escape. The torturer would then place weights onto the victim as the point of the pyramid slowly worked its way inside of them, stretching a certain orifice until they either passed out or died of blood loss.

The Iron Maiden

Medieval Torture devices. Image: Wikipedia
Medieval Torture devices. Image: Wikipedia

Seen in: Sleepy Hollow

This classic torture method saw the poor victim trapped inside a large iron tomb in the shape of a maiden. The inside is riddled with spikes, which impale the victim upon the closing of the door. It's a bloody, slow and painful way to die — especially if you're a little claustrophobic.

More terror?

Rat Cage

Seen in: Game of Thrones / '1984' by George Orwell

Another well-known form of medieval torture involves live rats. Made famous by the climax of George Orwell's 1948 classic 1984, the rats are starved for days to make them as ravenous as possible. They are then placed over a victim — sometimes over the head, but more commonly the chest or stomach — where they effectively drill a hole through the victim, tearing and eating the flesh, guts, and muscle.

This was made worse in medieval times as the metal cage holding the rats would be heated up (as seen in the Game of Thrones clip above), so that their instinct would be to escape the heat through the softest tissue they can find.

The Tub (Scaphism/The Boats)

This is where things start to get really disgusting. The tub was just that — a big tub — where the victim would be placed with their head above the rim. Sometimes a stagnant pond was also used. Used in Persia, the victim's body would be bathed in honey and sugar to attract insects and flies to crawl all over them and encourage them to feed. The victim was also force fed a concoction of honey and condensed milk, which they would then poop out, attracting even more creepy crawlys.

Eventually the victim would be swimming in their own faeces, slowly decomposing alive. Grim.

Hanged, Drawn and Quartered

Seen in: Braveheart

Another popular and pretty horrendous death was one where the victim endured three kinds of horror. The worst thing about this death is that thousands of poor souls had to endure it. Used in England as punishment for high treason, this torture had three stages:

  • The victim was first hanged by the neck until almost dead.
  • The victim was tied behind a horse and dragged to their execution location and/or was sliced open (while still alive), having their stomach and sex organs removed.
  • The head is then cut off, and the body is hacked into four pieces.

The Saw


Seen in: Bone Tomahawk

This fatal form of torture is one of the most simple, and most gut-churning. While many forms of saw torture have been recorded throughout history, this one remains the most horrendous. Held upside down by the ankles, the victim is sawn in half — from groin to head — using a two-man saw.

While several of these torture methods have been tackled on TV and film, a few have not. Perhaps it's because screenwriters think they can come up with some fresh new forms of torture for their movies, just as vile as those that came before. But truth is, nothing beats the classics!


If you HAD to pick one...

Source: Atlasobscura, List 25


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