Torture chambers, iron maidens and elaborate devices for inflicting agony. A lot of the BDSM aesthetic draw on the influences of the middle ages. We even sometimes call the places where the magic happens “dungeons,” from a medieval French word for a castle's keep. Although that may just be because it sounds cooler than “spare room with some sex furniture.” But does any of this whips-and-spikes business actually have anything to do with the middle ages? Well … sort of.
Torture was certainly a fact of life in the medieval period, although perhaps not as much as people sometimes assume. But elaborate medieval torture devices – iron maidens, choke-pears, “Judas' seats” and so on – don't have a lot of evidence to suggest actual use, at least in the middle ages.
Some forms of device bondage did exist: the pillory was a genuine medieval punishment, for instance. The branks or scolds' bridles are widely known from the post-medieval period, but real large-scale industrialisation of restraint doesn't come along until later.
Apart from the rack, which is a genuine late medieval torture device, medieval torturers probably mostly relied on the old standbys of water, fire, stress positions and hitting people with sticks. You can do some quite a lot of damage by hitting someone with a stick, as I'm sure you know. But somehow it isn't as shocking as some spike-covered gadget that a leering tour guide tells you went up someone's ass.
So if all this horrifying dungeon hardware isn't genuinely medieval torture, where does modern BDSM find its love of medieval-themed props and gadgets? As with many things, the answers lie in early modern popular fiction. From the Reformation onward, European writers loved to paint their religious opponents as torture-crazy. For example, we have Catholics denouncing Puritan witch-hunters or Protestant writers shudderingly describing the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition.
These sensational tales frequently wound up incorporated into popular novels. Many Gothic stories include a dungeon, crypt or medieval torture chamber as a setting. Moreover, these tales went hand-in-hand with anticlerical stories. These stories famously depicted monasteries, and especially convents full of sexual misbehaviour. This allowed readers the chance to imagine sexy nuns spanking each other while simultaneously pretending that they thought this was a bad thing.
Now, you might think that you'd have to be a little odd to find being manacled to a damp stone wall sexy – although you are reading this website, so there's that. In fact, this kind of medieval-tinged horror fiction was associated with sex right from the very beginning.
One of the things that upset respectable opinion so much about Gothic novels was the idea that impressionable young women were reading them and having those kinds of feelings. This is also, non-coincidentally, the period in which actual torture was disappearing from the laws of most European nations. Often viewed as a shiversome fantasy rather than a thing that might actually happen to the kind of educated Westerner who read Gothic novels.
In the end, actual medieval torture was (mostly) simpler and (generally) rarer than we tend to think. The modern imagination, fueled by propaganda and sensational reports of the torture-happy 16th and 17th centuries, turned the sordid reality of violence and oppression into something tantalisingly scary and ultimately playful and fun. That may not be very good history, but the sex is definitely better.
One of our kinktastic guest writers contributed this article.
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