Dispelling Errors, Defending the Church: How Lies About the Middle Ages Ultimately Target the Church

Dispelling Errors, Defending the Church: How Lies About the Middle Ages Ultimately Target the Church
Dispelling Errors, Defending the Church: How Lies About the Middle Ages Ultimately Target the Church

History is Written by the Victors

An old adage states: “History is written by the victors.”1 This holds true concerning modern descriptions of the Middle Ages. For centuries, Revolutionary writers have striven to misrepresent every aspect of medieval Christendom. They have been so successful that accurate descriptions of those times are nearly unrecognizable from what is commonly taught.

Thus, the Middle Ages have become synonymous with torture, ignorance, cruelty and closemindedness. Fortunately, modern scholars have been chipping away at these misrepresentations one by one. Along these lines, Australian historian Dr. Chris Bishop published two noteworthy essays in recent years.

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The first is titled: “The Pear of Anguish: Truth, Torture and Dark Medievalism.”2 It demonstrates that the so-called pear of anguish, supposedly a medieval torture device, not only could not have been produced during the Middle Ages but is entirely unsuitable for inflicting pain of any sort. Historians are ignorant concerning the purpose of the implement, which, at the earliest, dates to the late sixteenth century. Additionally, Dr. Bishop shows that the Iron Maiden cited as a medieval invention, was an apocryphal creation of the mid-nineteenth century.

The other essay aptly titled: “Our Own Dark Hearts: Re-Evaluating the Medieval Dungeon”3 shows that these dark underground prisons where people were sent to starve, die and rot almost certainly did not exist during the Middle Ages.

The “Pear of Anguish” and Other Myths

As Dr. Bishop describes it, the implement dubbed the “pear of anguish” consists of “three or four metal lobes connected at one end by a hinge. In the earliest examples, a spring-loaded internal mechanism forces the lobes apart, and a retraction of the lobes is only possible by manipulating the spring by means of a secondary pin.” Some versions lack the spring and are both opened and closed by twisting a screw.

Dispelling Errors, Defending the Church: How Lies About the Middle Ages Ultimately Target the Church
Photo:  ©  Klaus D. Peter, Wiehl, Germany, CC BY 3.0

As mentioned above, no one knows the purpose of this device. Yet, macabre historians were quick to imagine that it was forced into body orifices and then expanded, causing pain to its victims. Museums around the world and books present it in this way. Some claim it was a popular instrument of the Inquisition, and one was even displayed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

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Additionally, pop culture has spread the notion of its use as a torture device far and wide. Dr. Bishop shows how, between 2007 and 2012, the pear was presented in this light in no less than three popular television shows. The problem is that no existing medieval record even mentions its existence.

Furthermore, medieval metallurgy was incapable of creating the kind of spring needed for the device to function and the trigger to release the spring is on the end of the device that would supposedly be inserted into the victim. In other words, the only easy way the device could be activated would be to do so before its insertion into the sufferer.

This and more evidence lead Dr. Bishop to conclude: “Certainly [the pears] were not used for torture. They are far too elegant and made with too much care for that. One could imagine them as surgical instruments—some sort of speculum perhaps, or a device for levering open the mouth in order that a dentist might operate. But then they could just as easily be shoe-extenders, or sock-stretchers, or glove-wideners.”

While torture undoubtedly did exist during the Middle Ages (as it did in earlier and later epochs), men of that era were not fixated on it enough to devise creative, novel or uniquely dark means to carry it out. Nevertheless, medieval detractors are tireless in suggesting the contrary.

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However, their forgeries and lies have oft been uncovered. For example, a device called the Iron Maiden has long been associated with medieval torture. It was a man-sized sarcophagus-shaped cabinet with two hinged doors on the front. The inside of the cabinet was covered with iron spikes. Supposedly, the victim would be placed inside the cabinet and the doors shut. The spikes on the inside were long enough to pierce him but not long enough to provoke immediate death. Thus, he would be left inside for days of bleeding and agony until his brutal end.

As with the pear of anguish, there is no medieval record of such a device. Its first mention dates back to 1790. Furthermore, the infamous Iron Maiden of Nuremberg that was paraded around the globe in historic exhibitions (even making an appearance at the same 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in which the pear was displayed) is a fake that is believed to have been constructed only in 1867.

Others wishing to detract from the Middle Ages claim that ancient torture devices used in medieval times were invented during that era. The rack is one such example. However, history records its use as early as the sixth century B.C.!

Mythical Medieval Dungeons

Just as lies about medieval torture devices are widespread, harrowing tales of dungeons from the Middle Ages also proliferate. Everyone has heard how prisoners were chained to the wall in dingy, dark and underground rooms only accessible to the outside world through a small hole in the ceiling. Detainees were supposedly left in these subterranean hellholes to starve in the presence of the rotting corpses of former inmates.

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Like this period’s supposed torture devices, there is sparse evidence that these rooms existed during the Middle Ages. That is not to say that there were no prisons. However, even these were rare as confinement was not yet popular as a means of punishment. As Dr. Bishop states: “For the most part, though, the decentralized, largely tribal societies of post-imperial Europe had no capacity for prisons and little need for them. Laws were typically argued before an elite council or before a congregation of peers. Culpability was decided quickly and punishments set in place immediately.”

Most prisons that did exist were in convents and monasteries and used primarily for ecclesiastical purposes. Those temporal prisons that did exist were often in castle towers where primarily nobles were kept in conditions befitting their stations in life. Although its etymology is disputed, Dr. Bishop shows that the word “dungeon” is certainly related to the French word “donjon,” meaning the keep or most secure tower of a castle.

None of this has deterred modern tour guides from claiming that any underground cellar they can find must have been a medieval dungeon. Dr. Bishop recounts a laughable experience he had along these lines:

“I have a particularly vivid memory of being shown one such gruesome cellar, replete with some stocks, the walls adorned with the hopeless scratchings of the poor devils who once huddled there awaiting mortification and slow death. Except that I recognized the ‘stocks’ as a gauge set for cannonballs—certainly stock-like, except the holes were used for ensuring the uniform size of projectiles, rather than restraining people. The markings on the walls seemed far too adroitly executed as well, and a closer inspection revealed the ‘names’ to be canon-types—saker, culverin, and the like. Either the prisoners confined to this hellhole had gone utterly mad and spent their last few moments compulsively cataloging artillery pieces or the room was, in reality, a gun magazine.”

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Truth be told, when the famous Viollet-le-Duc made an in-depth study of medieval architecture in France, of all the castles he studied, only three had rooms that could have been underground detention facilities. Of these, one was almost certainly a latrine, the second probably an ice room and the last possessed a well in its center, making its use as a prison unlikely.

Innumerable findings like this are easily accessible to the detractors of the Middle Ages. Yet, this does nothing to dissuade them from propagating their lies.

Summing up his conclusions about the existence of medieval dungeons, Dr. Bishop states: “…the modern concept of the medieval dungeon…would seem to have very little substance in reality. We find no reference to them in medieval texts and we find scant evidence of them in the architecture of the prisons and the castles that survive. For the most part, they would seem to be the products of the modern imagination.”

This begs the question: why have tales of their existence become so widespread?

Why Attack the Middle Ages?

Bishop argues that the medieval revival in Victorian England coincided with that period’s fascination with the macabre. This led to a growing appetite for what he calls “dark tourism.” Thus, unscrupulous entrepreneurs who had invested in medieval tourist locations had reason to exaggerate and even fabricate stories of bloody tortures and inhumane confinement that took place on their properties. The more sinister the tales they told, the more popular their attractions became and the more money they made.

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He also argues that nowadays, man feels the need to justify modern society. Therefore, he is driven to calumniate the medieval period because it is so opposed to these times. He states: “That we would want to project onto our past a multiplication and intensification of such suffering speaks more to our needs for the reassurance of progress than it does to any historical reality.”

These are astute observations. However, they are incomplete. Indeed, something more sinister is at play.

To understand what this is, one must consider what the Middle Ages truly represents. It is history’s greatest example of a society that, imbued with the Catholic religion, gave rise to true Christian Civilization. Both the Church and Christian Civilization are diametrically opposed to modern society. Thus, the architects and promoters of the present days must besmirch the times in which they flourished. While Dr. Bishop does not emphasize this reality, he recognizes it as a factor. He calls it the “politics of anti-catholicism.”

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Yes, hatred of the Church and the role that She played in forging medieval Christendom is certainly the main motivation modern man has in calumniating this period. This role should not be underestimated. Highlighting it, the great ultramontane Donoso Cortés wrote:

“But amidst this [medieval] chaos, something stands; it is the immaculate Spouse of Our Lord; and one great success never before seen by mankind prevails: it is a second creation, worked by the Church. In the Middle Ages, only one thing seems astounding to me and that is this second creation, and only one thing seems adorable to me and that is the Church…

Then that Immaculate Virgin, His Church, sharing the solicitude of her Divine Spouse to do good, lifted the spirits of the fallen and moderated the impetus of the violent, giving to some a taste of the bread of the strong and to others the bread of the meek. Those fierce children of the North, who had humiliated and mocked Roman majesty, fell conquered by love at the feet of this defenseless Virgin…

After having lovingly soothed those great wraths and after having calmed those furious tempests with her gaze alone, the Church raised a monument from a ruin, an institution from a custom, a principle from an event, a law from an experience; to say it in a word, order from chaos, harmony from confusion.”4

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Pope Leo XIII expressed a similar sentiment in the encyclical Immortale Dei. Concerning the Middle Ages, His Holiness wrote:

“There was once a time when States were governed by the philosophy of the Gospel. Then it was that the power and divine virtue of Christian wisdom had diffused itself throughout the laws, institutions, and morals of the people, permeating all ranks and relations of civil society. Then, too, the religion instituted by Jesus Christ, established firmly in befitting dignity, flourished everywhere, by the favor of princes and the legitimate protection of magistrates; and Church and State were happily united in concord and friendly interchange of good offices. The State, constituted in this wise, bore fruits important beyond all expectation, whose remembrance is still, and always will be, in renown, witnessed to as they are by countless proofs which can never be blotted out or ever obscured by any craft of any enemies. Christian Europe has subdued barbarous nations, and changed them from a savage to a civilized condition, from superstition to true worship. It victoriously rolled back the tide of Mohammedan conquest; retained the headship of civilization; stood forth in the front rank as the leader and teacher of all, in every branch of national culture; bestowed on the world the gift of true and many-sided liberty; and most wisely founded very numerous institutions for the solace of human suffering. And if we inquire how it was able to bring about so altered a condition of things, the answer is beyond all question, in large measure, through religion, under whose auspices so many great undertakings were set on foot, through whose aid they were brought to completion.”5

This is why the Middle Ages is so hated and calumniated today. It is also why faithful Catholics should love it.

The Truth Will Be Told

Indeed, “history is written by the victors,” and it can be difficult to wade through the lies that today’s seeming victors have told. This makes gaining a true understanding of how medieval times really were nearly impossible.

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Nevertheless, there are those aspects of that society, those “fruits important beyond all expectation, whose remembrance is still, and always will be, in renown, witnessed to as they are by countless proofs which can never be blotted out or ever obscured by any craft of any enemies” of which the Holy Father spoke.

In other words, remnants of Christendom still exist. A mere comparison between the cathedrals that graced medieval towns and the glass skyscrapers that litter the centers of modern cities should suffice to demonstrate the marvels of that society and the impoverishment of this one.

Furthermore, those enemies of Christendom who seem to have “blotted out” and “obscured” the “fruits” of the Middle Ages are working on borrowed time. Their days are numbered. When the Reign of Mary foreseen by Saint Louis de Montfort and so many saints comes, the victors shall be others, and a true knowledge of history is sure to follow.

Photo Credit:  © Production Perig – stock.adobe.com


1. While often attributed to Winston Churchill, the origin of the saying predates his public life. C.f. https://slate.com/culture/2019/11/history-is-written-by-the-victors-quote-origin.html.
2. Dr. Chris Bishop, “The Pear of Anguish: Truth, Torture and Dark Medievalism” first published in International Journal of Cultural Studies, May 8, 2014, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1367877914528531?journalCode=icsa.
3. Dr. Chris Bishop, “Our Own Dark Hearts: Re-Evaluating the Medieval Dungeon” first published in Journal of the Australian Early Medieval Association, November 1, 2019, https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA680117570&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=abs&issn=14499320&p=AONE&sw=w&userGroupName=anon%7E55f2539b.
4. As quoted by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in “A Monument Raised from a Ruin, an institution from a Custom.” https://www.tfp.org/a-monument-raised-from-a-ruin-an-institution-from-a-custom/.
5. Pope Leo XIII, Immortale Dei, #21, https://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_01111885_immortale-dei.html, November 1, 1885.