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2012 News Releases

Middle Ages hold lessons on use of torture for those making foreign policy today

August 7, 2012

Hooded man

Though water-boarding and sleep deprivation have replaced the rack and hot irons, a Longwood University professor who is an expert on the Middle Ages doesn't think much has changed when it comes to the use of torture by people in power.      

Centuries before the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the controversial use of torture in the war on terror, the same debate on the morality and effectiveness of torture was taking place, said Dr. Larissa "Kat" Tracy, a specialist in medieval literature who has studied, lectured and written about torture and brutality in the Middle Ages. She is the author of Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature: Negotiations of National Identity and one of two co-editors of Heads Will Roll: Decapitation in the Medieval and Early Modern Imagination, both published recently.

"We're having the same debates today as people had in the 13th and 14th centuries," said Tracy, associate professor of medieval literature. "Our debates about who we Americans are as a people who use torture in foreign policy are nothing new. Human beings haven't changed an awful lot."

Tracy said many authorities in the Middle Ages stopped using torture because they realized it was unreliable and ineffective.

"They didn't want their national identity wrapped up in torture," she said. "It didn't work for them, and it won't work for us. Thanks to the luxury of history, we don't need to make the same mistakes."

The use of torture isn't the only mistake that Tracy discusses with passion. She also delights in setting the record straight on the medieval period.

Dr. Larissa "Kat" Tracy
Dr. Larissa "Kat" Tracy

"A lot of my work is debunking or challenging modern misconceptions about the Middle Ages," she said. "Many people have bought into the misconception that there was a lot of torture and that it was endemically violent. The word 'medieval' has come to be associated with violence."

In truth, torture was not practiced as widely in the Middle Ages as is thought, Tracy said.

"It was used by tyrants and by people who abused their position. What is often called torture wasn't torture but punishment-like being hanged, drawn and quartered. Torture wasn't common in the Middle Ages and was illegal in England."

Using torture as an aid in interrogation began in the 12th century and continued into the Middle Ages, she said. "It was usually done to extract a confession, most commonly by an ecclesiastical court to ferret out heresy. Torture had to be presided over by judges and if the accused died, the judge was liable for murder. It was not designed to kill people," Tracy said.

Two common forms of torture were the medieval rack and the strappado. The medieval rack (unlike the better-known version, which dates from the 16th century and later) was shaped like a teepee and consisted of three poles and a rope tied to a winch. With the strappado, which was similar, the victim's hands were tied behind his back and then he was suspended in the air with a rope attached to the wrists.

"Both devices stretched the person-usually off the ground-and dislocated bones," said Tracy, adding that other forms of torture included hot irons to burn the soles of the feet and the denial of food and water. "Clerics were forbidden to shed blood, so usually they had to turn suspects over to the secular authorities for them to do to the torture, but the rack and the strappado didn't shed blood, so it was a way for the clerics to do the torture themselves."

None of this was happening in torture chambers or dungeons, however.

"A lot of what some people think of as medieval torture was really early modern torture-the 16th and 17th centuries. The dark dungeon is completely anachronistic, a modern idea," Tracy said.

Sticking with the gorier side of history, Tracy recently submitted a manuscript on the history of castration that should be published in a collected volume of essays by the end of the year.

"Castration was not used as punishment. When it was used, it was outside the law-vigilante justice," she said. "The most famous case involved Peter Abelard [1079-1142], a prominent priest and theologian who was castrated by henchmen hired by his wife's uncle. He was castrated for refusing to publicly acknowledge his marriage-priests then could marry-which he thought would hurt his career."

Tracy is quick to dispel any inferences that may be drawn from the gruesome nature of her subject matter.

"People assume you must be twisted to revel in torture. I don't revel in it," she said with a laugh. "I'm a complete pacifist, the biggest peacenik you'll ever meet."

Tracy is busy with papers and presentations on torture. She spoke at Virginia Tech's humanities lecture series in April, gave a paper at the International Congress of Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in May, and will give a paper in July at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, England. She will give another paper at a Duke University symposium in October and will speak at Catholic University in November. She co-founded and co-directs Longwood's Undergraduate Research Conference in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, held every spring since 2007.

"People in the Middle Ages were horrified by spectacles of violence," said Tracy. "The Middle Ages weren't a justice utopia, but the period wasn't as brutal as most people assume. People see violence on TV and say 'Oh, that's so medieval,' but that's inaccurate. It was a diverse, complex and rich period that spans centuries and to which we owe almost all our literature, law and government."