Torture Narratives: The Imposition of Medieval Method upon Early Christian Texts

Journal of the Early Book Society 7 (2004): 33–50

By Larissa Tracy

Torture, according to the ecclesiastical writers of the Middle Ages, was the truest test of a saint’s faith and sanctity. According to Caroline Walker Bynum: “Death for the faith was a necessary and palpable concern in writing and behaviour during the late second century…”1 It is from the medieval descriptions of these deaths that we take our knowledge of Christian persecution, forming a clear picture of violent acts of torture and pain that martyrs suffered at the hands of their tormentors. The rack, the wheel, the tongs, the fire, the boiling oil – these are all well known instruments of torture described in hagiography, wielded with a feverent devotion to a pagan god whose sole desire is to see the blasphemous Christians put to death and their religion wiped from the face of the earth.

But how much can we trust these narratives, penned largely in the 12th and 13 centuries, as accurate representations of what these early martyrs endured and suffered? “A martyr text tells us about a specific kind of violent death, death by torture. In a martyr text it is described how a certain person, in an extreme hostile situation, has preferred a violent death to compliance with a decree or demand of the (usually) pagan authorities.”2 We read the legends of these violent deaths and believe the scribe who copied them to be faithful to the original text, making some modifications along the way. However, many of the methods of torture employed in the accounts of early Christian saints are not those of early Christian Rome, but in fact, are examples of the medieval devices used to extract confessions from the heretics of the medieval church. Therefore, the scribes who have preserved these legends appear to impose their own knowledge of medieval torture upon the, perhaps incomplete, legends of the first martyrs, thus making them more appealing to a medieval audience. In this way, the transcribers become authors, restructuring a text to fit the ideas and accepted practices of their own time.

If we look at the historical record, the evidence is incomplete, convoluted and often coloured by the political agenda of the time and place. In this way, the history of torture is shaded by sensationalism and speculation. The legends of the saints, particularly those that comprise the corpus of the 15th century Gilte Legende, provide a more accurate view of the time in which they were written rather than the period in which they are set.

  1. Walker Bynum, Caroline. The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995, p.46
  2. Van Henten, Jan Willem, The Maccabean Martyrs p.7. Quoted in Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism by Daniel Boyarin. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, p.94.