Torture Rack

During medieval times in Europe when the institution of the Inquisition and the practices of burning the people at stake were quite common, a variety of torture instruments were used.

While the torture instruments used in medieval times were not confined to the Inquisition, torture devices were nonetheless used by Inquisition authorities.

The Spanish Inquisition

Some of the most popular torture instruments that were used during medieval times included The Judas Cradle, Brazen Bull, Scold’s Bridle, Chair of Torture, and others.

One of the most popular torture devices was called Torture Rack. The Torture Rack was a sophisticated device that was used to dislocate the bones of a person and eventually tore the person’s limbs apart.

Torture Rack *Medieval Torture Devices

Torture Rack

Torture Rack Timeline

The Torture rack was not an invention of medieval times and was used in antiquity. For instance, it was used during the time of Emperor Nero to extract the names of conspirators who had hatched a plan to assassinate the emperor in 65AD.

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Tacitus mentions a freedwoman who was tortured on the rack but the authorities failed to extract any information from her. She eventually committed suicide by strangling herself on a loop of cord attached to the chair which was used to transport her since she could not walk because of fractured bones.

The Torture rack is also mentioned during early medieval times. However, its most widespread use began during the middle and high medieval times, when the institution of the Inquisition was in full force.

Components of a Torture Rack

An ordinary torture rack consisted of a rectangular frame slightly raised from the ground. Various materials could be used to make the frame, although wood was the most common one. Additionally, there was a roller at one or both ends. A handle was attached at the top of the roller and pulleys and levers were used to operate the roller.

Historical Torture Rack

Historical Torture Rack

A special type of torture rack resembled a horse in shape and was made of wood. It contained a beam on the top and pulleys below to tie the victim’s hands. Although various variations of the torture rack were used at one point or another, most Torture Racks were of a similar design.

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Mechanism of Torture on Torture Rack – Torture Device

The mechanism of torture on a torture rack was to fasten the ankles of the victim to one roller and chain the wrists to the other. The handle was then used to enhance the pressure on the attached chains. The roller could also be rotated on its axis using the pulleys and levers to strain the ropes and stretch the joints of the victim.


The joints would eventually be dislocated and even separated, with the muscles torn apart. It was also common to use various other tortures in conjunction with the torture rack. For instance, burning with hot torches or candles could also be applied for increased pain.

Medieval Torture Devices

Additionally, pincers were sometimes used to tear out the finger and toenails of the victim. Various phrases were used for someone who was tortured in this way, including being “broken on the rack”, “stretched on the rack”, or simply, “racked”.

Torture Rack in Medieval Britain

In medieval Britain, the torture rack was introduced by the second Duke of Exeter, John Holland, in 1447. It was used, not very frequently, over the subsequent centuries but various objections were raised against this brutal torture device.


Medieval Dungeons

An incident of the torture rack being used in Ireland occurred when Charles I authorized the courts to torture a Catholic priest in 1627. Following year, a proposal was presented before the Privy Council to use the rack to investigate the assassin of the Duke of Buckingham, but this was rejected by the authorities.

Since then the use of a torture rack device as a means of torture became almost extinct in Britain, although it continued to be used in various other parts of medieval Europe.

Torture Rack Devices in Medieval Europe

During the late medieval times, when the institution of the Inquisition was in full force, various kinds of torture racks were in vogue. Innovations were made in France, Russia, Spain, as well as other countries. For instance, in Russia, the torture rack was a gallows-like device that was used to suspend the victims with their hands tied.

Suspended victims were then whipped, burned with hot torches, or afflicted in various other ways. In France too, an addition to the torture rack was made in the form of spiked rollers that were inserted under the spine of the victim to increase pain and damage.

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Another method prevalent during the Inquisition was binding the wrists of the victim, suspending them, and dropping them multiple times which would eventually fracture the arms and shoulders.

Torture Rack and the Knights Templar

The Torture rack was one of the most common methods of torture used against the Knights Templar when they fell out of favour with the authorities. The famous trials of the Knights Templar were conducted during the early 1300s and some of them have been well documented.

Knights Templar

Knights Templar

The Torture Rack was just among the variety of other torture methods and devices that were used on knights to extract testimonies and other information. An innovative form of the rack was used to suspend the naked victim with his hands tied and passed over a pulley.

Before suspending him in the air, weights were tied with his feet to increase the suffering manifold.

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After being suspended for a while, the cord would suddenly be let loose but pulled again just before the victim’s feet could touch the ground. This resulted in a tremendous shock to his entire frame, dislocating the joints, and tearing the limbs apart. Various variations of this method were used with different parts of the body.

Crimes Justifying the use of the Torture Rack

Common charges that were used to send people to the torture racks were also the ones that were used to burn them at the stake. Among these, blasphemy and heresy were the most common ones. Eventually, witchcraft and other crimes against religion and morality were also included, although the crimes were not exclusively confined to religion.

Witchcraft *Medieval Torture


While in Britain, the use of the torture rack as an instrument to extract information creased after the first half of the 17th century, the practice continued in certain other countries of Europe such as Russia where it was also used during the 18th century.

The spread of enlightenment ideals and the age of reason eventually became the cause that overcame this fanaticism of the medieval times torture devices.