Because Aureus is planted in the middle of twelfth century England, the reader likely expects to encounter certain practices associated with medieval times. One of those practices was torture. I did not wish to disappoint anyone, so Chapter Four begins with this disturbing sentence: “The screams are from the innermost part of the forest, but those huddled over their fires in the settlement can still hear the agony.”
The specific instrument being used was the rack, an instrument dating back to ancient Greece. At first, the Greeks, being a civilized society, limited its use to slaves and non-citizens. As time passed, certain citizens, known as special cases, were also permitted to experience the rack’s special qualities. In 356 BC, it was used to extract a confession from an arsonist later executed for burning down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, still one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Over four centuries later, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote of the rack’s use in trying to identify the names of conspirators in a plot (unsuccessful) to assassinate Emperor Nero. The woman being tortured (yes, the rack was gender neutral) managed to strangle herself to death, thereby rendering the rack unnecessary, or possibly counterproductive, in this case.
Well what, you ask, does a rack look like? What does it actually do? Answer: a rack is a rectangular wooden frame slightly raised from the ground. It has rollers at one or both ends. A body is fastened by the ankles at one end with wrists chained to other. The rollers are pulled away from the center, and … that’s how it works.
The rack was introduced to England around 1420 by the Duke of Exeter. Placed in the Tower of London, this instrument was known colloquially as “The Duke of Exeter’s Daughter” and was used routinely to extract confessions and evidence from traitors, heretics and conspirators. By the mid-17th century, it was no longer used. But wait! Aureus takes place from 1157 to 1171. How can that be? Well, I confess: I fudged the timing a little. In my research, I had developed an affinity for the rack, and I simply justified my tweaking of the facts as an essential part of the fictional side of my historical fiction novel.
Speaking of inventiveness, much creativity has been used, over time, to describe methods of torture. The list is long. Here are a few: Barrel of Shame, Brazen Bull, Crown of Fire, Iron Spider, Judas Chair, Pear of Anguish and Spanish Donkey. Wikipedia offers an encyclopedia of instruments of suffering. If that’s not enough for you, check out Prague’s Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments. You can take a virtual tour on your computer. Or not.