The Torture of the Rack

The RackNot far from me, soar the unexpected battlements of a small castle. Standing in the neat pastoral greenery of the Australian countryside, it is fairly easy to spot that this is a modern replica. Sadly there are not many genuine medieval castles in the Australian countryside! No – this castle is purely for children and tourists and I have played the tourist there myself. It is good fun, well made and well presented. Entertainment takes many forms.

But one aspect I actually found rather sad, for there is a large replica rack set up in one of the courtyards – the most common form of early authoritarian torture. Below this there is a torture chamber complete with gory exaggeration, magnified screams and oozing artificial blood. The children love it!

But in the past, the rack was all too horrifyingly real. There is no record of who originally invented this vile instrument, but there is documentation of its use back in Roman times. The exact dimensions were probably altered over the centuries but the basic method of use remained the same. The medieval design we now recognise consisted of a rectangular wooden frame with a large roller at one or both ends. Chained by his ankles to the lower roller, and by his wrists to the higher, the victim was gradually stretched as the interrogator or his assistant would turn the levers, forcing the rollers to turn contrary to the victim’s body.

The pain would be utterly excruciating as the chains or ropes pulled taut and then wound away over the rollers, possibly (if the prisoner persistently refused to confess) to the point of dislocating and finally breaking his knee, ankle, elbow, wrist and eventually even his shoulder and hip joints. The muscles and tendons would be torn beyond mending, and the victim would be crippled for life. Eventually the bones, cartilage, ligaments, muscles and tendons could all be entirely destroyed. But since he (or sometimes she) would undoubtedly talk and confess at some point during this relentless torture, he would then be executed anyway. Many could no longer walk to the place of execution, bend their knees, nor raise their hands.

As if this terrible agony was not sufficient, other abuses could be applied at the same time. Castration, the brutal extraction of toe and finger nails, and burning with red hot branding irons were all sometimes applied. When the sufferer fainted, he was brought round and forced to face his fate again. Certainly this brutality confirms that those employed to inflict such horrors were undoubtedly sadistic by nature. However, this awful pain was not actually considered simply as a punishment.

At the time it was generally supposed that if a suspect of some serious crime refused to answer questions or acknowledge his sins, then he (or she) should be encouraged to do so by the use of torture. Fear and pain, it was believed, would enforce cooperation. No doubt this was frequently true. However, such agony as that produced by prolonged use of the rack would also force the victim to say anything and everything, whether true or not, in order to put a stop to the suffering. Clearly victims often implicated other innocent people in order to save themselves.

But it is only recently that we realise the obvious – which is that information obtained under torture is by no means reliable.

This form of torture was more commonly used in France during the medieval period, but the rack was brought to the Tower of London in the mid 1400s by the 2nd Duke of Exeter who was Constable of the Tower at the time, and thus gave the rack its nickname, i.e. The Duke of Exeter’s Daughter. However, any use of torture was illegal in England during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, but was then legally permitted during early Tudor times specifically for the crime of treason. Those suspected of treason could, in this way, be ‘persuaded’ to admit their own complicity, and name their co-conspirators.

Gradually this practise became more readily sanctioned and as the Tower turned from a royal palace and centre of diverse and busy occupation into a collection of dungeons with a reputation of dread and terror, the screams of the victims of torture grew more regular. As the Tudor reigns continued, so other methods of torture were also devised, and use of the rack became a frequent ‘deterrent’.

I researched the use of the rack and its terrible consequences for my recent novel3-the-rackSumerford’s Autumn’ and quickly realised the appalling possibilities of Tudor torture. What haunted me even more than the vile device itself, was the state of mind of someone who could invent such a device, the state of mind of someone who would willingly put it into practice – and finally the state of mind of the wretched victim, knowing what he was about to face. Indeed, sometimes victims were forced to watch the torture of some other accused prisoner first, with the expectation that what he saw would make him quickly confess rather than experience such agony himself. Yet the courage of some was phenomenal, and there were those who refused to talk even after hours of undergoing such cruelty.

The enforced dislocation of one joint after another must have been excruciating. I personally find it hard to imagine the sheer horror of both my knees being ripped apart at the same time. Nor can I easily visualise the methodical sadism of the torturer as he slowly rotated the lever, to further cripple the victim. I am haunted by those sounds echoing in the cold stone chamber – the creak of the cogs and wheels, the rumble as the rollers once again begin to turn, the jangle and snap as the chains pull suddenly taut, the murmured demands of the torturer and finally the agonised screams of the prisoner.

Perhaps pain was accepted as a little more inevitable in those days when few diseases were curable and everyday comfort was comparatively rare. Ordinary folk worked crushing hours at backbreaking toil, and there was no proper anaesthetic to help with the cut and slice of surgery and amputation, the pain of childbirth and the frequency of common accidents. Beyond all such average conditions, there was also battle, which was a matter of hand to hand violence involving intense brutality, enormous bloodshed and appalling suffering before death. Certainly the preaching of the church at the time was considered imperative, and devotion to God was an accepted principal of everyday life. Sadly however, the church itself was not beyond advocating violence. The earlier conflicts of the crusaders for instance, often shockingly cruel on both sides, were born from the beliefs of Pope Urban II in 1095, while the Vatican considered that heresy should be punishable by burning alive, and torture was authorised by the church itself during the Inquisitions.

But there was equally an understanding of love, empathy, kindness, care, generosity and loyalty just as strong as we have now. People in general were by no means stupid nor cruel by nature. So one cannot help wondering about the conscience of those who sanctioned and applied the use of torture themselves, while fully understanding its implications.

So use of the rack continued, and was accepted right up until the 17th century. Copies of the terrible device still stand in many places, reminding us of the horrors once inflicted. Yet now I have researched the truth, it is definitely not something I will ever be able to laugh at, nor treat as amusing entertainment. I can only wonder at the dread of living in the past, when even an innocent soul might sometimes be faced with torture. Writing of such an episode in my historical novel ‘Sumerford’s Autumn’, I found quite a harrowing experience.

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