A 19th-century representation of a medieval torture device in use, from World of Wonders, published by Cassell and Co, (London, 1894).
Print Collector/Getty Images
By History Today
February 23, 2015

This post is in partnership with History Today. The article below was originally published at HistoryToday.com.

The word medieval is often treated as synonymous with filth, lawlessness and brutality. In particular the recent actions of ISIS and their treatment of prisoners have been called ‘medieval’ by journalists, commentators and bloggers alike. But why do we do this, and is it fair?

The use of medieval in this way has been widely discussed, and is not dissimilar to Orientalism. That is, the creating of an ‘other’ to contrast with one’s own identity (the modern versus the medieval, or ‘West’ versus ‘East’), and, through that contrast, to celebrate our perceived progress or difference in a way that is often also exoticising. As Clare Monagle and Louise D’Arcens have said, “When commentators and politicians describe Islamic State as ‘medieval’ they are placing the organization opportunely outside of modernity, in a sphere of irrationality.” It is an act of distancing, a separation of ‘us’ from ‘them,’ that removes them from our current definition of humanity and society, and exculpates us from any kind of association with their actions.

The ‘othering’ of a group or a period is by no means a modern phenomenon: barbarian, regardless of whether or not its origin is a joke at the expense of foreign-language speakers (bar-bar-bar), has been used derogatively in Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and English to distance a community from its neighbors and, to the Anglo-Saxons, wealh meant both a foreigner (now ‘Welsh’) and ‘slave.’ Conversely, as Roberta Frank has said:

Medieval men of letters, like their modern counterparts, could sometimes be over-eager to recover the colorful rites and leafy folk beliefs of their pagan ancestors.

This phenomenon is encapsulated in the mythical rite of blood-eagling, the ritualistic killing of an enemy by splitting their ribs and spreading them to look like eagles’ wings. The English kings Ælla and Edmund were said to have been victims, among others. The myth has been around since the 12th century when an antiquarian revival in north-western Europe popularized the legend of the vicious Vikings. It was at this point that the berserker myth also took hold. Despite appearing in multiple sources such as Saxo’s Gesta Danorum and sagas of Ragnar Loðbrok, blood-eagling is most probably a misreading of poetic metaphor. Despite a lack of evidence to support it, the myth has persisted from the 12th century until today, in large part because it so perfectly emblemizes our perception of that time as violent, lawless and needlessly brutal.

While blood-eagling may have been a myth, torture was certainly a fact of the medieval period although its legality and application varied widely across Europe. For example, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes Stephen’s rebelling barons in the 12th century torturing people for money, but English common law in the later medieval period made it illegal to mistreat a prisoner before they had been found guilty.

Until the 13th century, torture had been used by the state and the church in the pursuit of justice: ordeals by fire or by water under supervision of a priest were used to determine guilt. This extraction of proof by ordeal was then replaced by trial by jury. Under this system, torture was made illegal because it was rendered unnecessary. The death penalty could be applied without the need for the confessional evidence torture might provide.

While illegal in England, it was still used on the Continent as a means of extracting proof. At times it aimed to follow the Classical model in practicalities as well as ideology: Aristotle believed that confessions withdrawn by torture were unreliable – understandably – and so very often the goal was to stop the torture before confessions were made, or if that were not possible, to allow the victim to recover before re-confessing. Due to its illegality in England, Edward II was very resistant to papal orders for the investigation of the Knights Templar for heresy and ultimately they were tortured according to ‘ecclesiastical law’ rather than English law. Once found guilty, they were burned alive as heretics.

Fire was used in various forms, in burning feet, or in heating iron boots or devices such as bars to be held. Other medieval torture methods included stress positions – a method approved of in 2003 by Donald Rumsfeld – and flaying, which was most commonly associated with martyrs such as St Bartholomew (the patron saint of parchment-makers, bookbinders and other trades reliant on the removal of skin from flesh). Public exhibitions of torture and punishment being exacted were also common, but were not just gruesome displays intended to titillate and horrify: Sean McGlynn has suggested that they acted as ‘reassurance that justice was being served to protect society’.

Torture was certainly widespread across the medieval world. Its use was regulated by church and state law as a means of demonstrating guilt, of determining guilt and of exacting punishment, but its legality and application changed depending on any number of factors including country, date, church, state, ideology and political context. There was no one unified system of medieval torture: to some it was abhorrent; to some against the Church and to others it was a tool to be used by the Church. It had legal, ecclesiastical, moral and mercenary applications.

Neither was torture restricted to the medieval period. The Greeks and Romans used torture, and the early-modern period was rife with ordeals: the rack, witch-hunts, keelhauling. But it is the medieval period which is most associated with it because it fits with our image of that time as rough and lawless.

Despite the reality of medieval torture, comparisons with ISIS are not intended to be meaningfully equivalent. Instead, they are conjuring up the one-dimensional myth of medievalism: of berserkers, barbarians and blood-eagling, a myth which leaves us, civilized and modern, wholly absolved of any connection with those actions.

Kate Wiles is a contributing editor at History Today.

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