The 11 Most Painful Torture Devices Of The Middle Ages

Published September 30, 2011
Updated June 21, 2024

Medieval Torture Devices: The Spanish Donkey

Medieval Torture Devices Spanish Donkey

Public DomainA depiction of the Spanish donkey, one of the most agonizing medieval torture devices.

The Spanish Donkey, also called “chevalet” or simply “wooden horse,” was one of the cruelest and most excruciating of all medieval torture devices.

Thought to have emerged during the Holy Inquisition in 12th-century France, the Spanish Donkey was typically made out of wood and shaped like a triangular prism on stilts, with the triangle’s point facing upward. The victim was made to sit atop the triangle, causing severe discomfort to their genital area.

Sometimes, their torturer would add weights to their ankles to slowly weigh them down. Other times, the torturer would tickle or hold a flame to their feet to cause them to squirm, which also increased the agony. Perhaps most horrifying, spikes could be added to the triangle’s point, increasing the likelihood of severe injuries to the genitalia.

Spanish Donkey With Spikes

Wikimedia CommonsA version of the Spanish Donkey with spikes.

If someone were lucky, the Spanish Donkey might simply cause intense discomfort. If they weren’t, it could cause agonizing pain, disfigurement, and even death. And it was used far beyond the Middle Ages.

In 17th-century Canada, it was ascribed as punishment for anything from blasphemy to gluttony. In one horrifying case, a man punished for being a glutton “ruptured” after he was placed atop the Spanish Donkey.

The torture device was even used during the American Revolutionary War and the Civil War in the United States. In 1775, George Washington condoned the use of the Spanish Donkey against a man for “threatening and abusing a number of persons, when prisoner in the Quarter Guard,” though he only had to sit atop the torture device for 15 minutes. In the 1860s, it was also used by Union troops against Confederate prisoners of war.

Cruel, painful, and humiliating, the Spanish Donkey was an effective torture device during the Middle Ages. But there were many more.

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Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.