A lot of people, when they think of the middle ages, think of torture chambers and so on. Castles tend to have displays of torture devices, including things like iron maidens, choke pears and so on.

Iron Maiden

Now, while people got tortured all the damn time in the middle ages (and indeed in the post-medieval period, which is when most of your really famous torturing happens), there is not really any evidence to suggest that the iron maiden and the choke pear were real — instead, they seem to reflect a salacious, sensational 19th-century fascination with medieval torture. Torture chambers were a staple scene of Gothic literature, but it’s hard to imagine that most castles had one — a dedicated room just for torturing people? You would have to be torturing a lot of people for that to be worthwhile.

I wonder if it’s not to do with the fact that most historical tortures sound a little prosaic? I mean, take this image of the bastinado, a characteristic torture or form of punishment used in many parts of the world during many periods: basically, they hit your feet with a stick a lot.



That doesn’t sound as scary or salacious or sadistic as some kind of purpose-built device for inflicting gradual horrible death on someone, but I bet the experience of going through it would be absolutely horrifying. And I suspect that’s it: if honest-to-god tortures are simple and prosaic and horrifying to experience, they aren’t always horrifying to hear about. “And then, as the spikes slowly entered his body, he could feel his own blood and vitreous humours seeping slowly out, and with the certain knowledge that he was beginning a slow, agonising death, his sanity fled…”. That’s some chilling stuff right there. “And then they hit him a bunch of times with a stick” doesn’t have the same terrifying oomph, even if the experience would be absolutely horrible.

If you wanted to wonder whether modern torture is intentionally prosaic and blah in order to minimise its apparent impact, I would wonder along with you.