The 11 Most Painful Torture Devices Of The Middle Ages

Published September 30, 2011
Updated June 7, 2024

From the dreaded rack to the head crusher, take a look at the most grueling and painful torture devices of the Middle Ages.

Picture a dark, dank cell. The dripping of water. The skittering of rats. And the tortured moans of the people imprisoned there. During the Middle Ages, medieval torture devices made life for anyone accused of a crime — regardless of guilt — especially agonizing.

These torture devices came in different shapes and sizes and served different purposes. Devices like the rack or the breaking wheel, for example, were made for crushing bones and dislocating joints. Places like oubliettes or practices like immurement were designed to make people lose their minds in isolation. And medieval torture devices like the Spanish Donkey or the Judas Cradle were designed to cause maximum agony.

In the list below, learn about 11 of the most excruciating torture devices from the Middle Ages. Though some thankfully stayed put in medieval times, several on the list below were actually used for centuries afterward.

Torture Devices Of The Middle Ages: The Rack

Medieval Torture Devices The Rack

Wellcome ImagesA depiction of a man being tortured on the rack.

Of all the medieval torture devices, the rack is perhaps the most well-known — and the simplest.

Though made famous during the Middle Ages, historians believe that the rack actually originated in ancient Greece. Herostratus, an arsonist who destroyed the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) was tortured to death on the rack in the fourth century B.C.E.

So what exactly is it?

Tower Of London Rack

Steve Collis/Wikimedia CommonsAn example of the rack at the Tower of London.

Comprised of a simple wooden frame, the rack’s design was very simple. The victim would be tied to rollers on either end, which would then be cranked by their torturer, stretching out their body. This was often done quite slowly to put increasingly painful pressure on the victims’ entire body.

Perhaps the most famous victim of rack-like torture is Scottish martyr William Wallace. In 1305, Wallace was captured by the English and subjected to a number of gruesome tortures, including stretching.

Use of the rack continued for centuries. In fact, it wasn’t banned in Britain until 1708 — and not worldwide until 1984 by the United Nations. Cruel but simple, the rack was a terrifying medieval torture device. But it’s far from the only thing that interrogators used on their victims.

All That's Interesting
Established in 2010, All That's Interesting brings together a dedicated staff of digital publishing veterans and subject-level experts in history, true crime, and science. From the lesser-known byways of human history to the uncharted corners of the world, we seek out stories that bring our past, present, and future to life. Privately-owned since its founding, All That's Interesting maintains a commitment to unbiased reporting while taking great care in fact-checking and research to ensure that we meet the highest standards of accuracy.
Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.