Tracy (2007 Congress)

Larissa Tracy
(Longwood University, Farmville, Virginia)
“‘Rending the Flesh’:  Modern Misconceptions about Medieval Torture”

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 42nd International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, 2007)
Session on “Getting Medieval:  Medieval Monstrosities and Their Ill Repute”
Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Jeff Massey and Larissa Tracy
2009 Congress

[Published on our first website on 9 May 2012]

The body in pain and its representation in art, literature, and historical record have created a modern impression of the Middle Ages as barbaric, bloodthirsty, and consumed with cruel desire.  Torture has evolved into a dominant mythology, one that suggests that the Middle Ages were a period during which sadistic torment was inflicted on citizens with impunity and without provocation.  Museums of medieval torture can be found in most modern European cities displaying barbarous implements like the rack, the strappado, the gridiron, and the Iron Maiden.  Many people, scholars and students alike, have formed their image of the medieval period based on a foundational belief that violence was a common and enjoyable spectacle and that torture was a pervasive part of medieval life.  A prescient modern example is American Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s assertion, upon the death of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on June 8, 2006 (as reported in The Washington Post), that Zarqawi “personified the dark, sadistic and medieval vision of the future of beheadings and suicide bombings and indiscriminate killings.”  Secretary Rumsfeld’s comment typifies modern assumptions about the medieval period imbedded in the popular imagination.

Torture, to many modern minds, is believed to be inseparable from the Middle Ages, and many discussions about medieval history or literature assume its presence and proliferation.  The Middle Dutch Roman van Walewein challenges that notion by making torture the tool of barbarians, and its application the practice of the unjust, contradicting modern misconceptions about medieval brutality.

Torture is noticeably absent from a large portion of popular, secular literature.  Its development in literature through the medieval period, in small, specific instances, suggests that torture was not a common threat hanging over the heads of the civilian population, that torture remained in the realm of judicial punishment, and was not wielded with careless savagery.  When authorities attempted to expand their powers, the populace responded and resisted.

Modern American society attempts to disassociate itself from the atrocities of its government by defining these actions as “medieval” — distancing itself from the accountability that comes from enacting these policies and engaging in such brutality.  The recent debate over torture legislation in the United States has again raised questions about the history and reality of torture in the Middle Ages. John H. Langbein, in the preface to his 2006 edition of Torture and the Law of Proof, clarifies the difference between medieval torture and current American policy:  “A book about how the Western legal tradition rid itself of its centuries’ long dependence on tortured confessions is again in demand, because questions about the legality of torture have surfaced anew in contemporary affairs.”  But while torture was part of legal proceedings in the Middle Ages, its use was restricted and often never needed because the threat was enough to produce a confession.  What is perceived by modern audiences as a medieval monstrosity was neither fully practiced by the authorities, nor fully embraced by the populace.


Website Editor’s Note:  Another Abstract by Dr. Tracy for Paper in one of our sponsored Session appears here: Tracy (2009 Congress). We thank her for her contributions.