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Questions about Renaissance torture and consummation of a marriage
Millais Ophelia
supercrook wrote in little_details
The setting is a somewhat fictionalized Renaissance Italy, within the general time frame of the last decade of the 15th century. My MC is an aristocratic man in his early 20s, previously able-bodied, though he has some hereditary emotional instability.



This character's been subjected to unspecified torture by a political rival, and I'm trying to work out some specifics. Torture took place in a fully functional well-stocked chamber designated for this purpose, under "professional" supervision -- the aim was to cause this character pain, and possibly leave disabling after-effects, but not to specifically kill him, nor to extract a confession. I'm looking specifically for things which would have long-term effects and difficult healing, as well as being psychologically traumatic without leaving him, for example, entirely without the use of multiple limbs.

There's an abundance of information out there about historical implements of torture, but few of them seem appropriate to the time period and some seem entirely fanciful. (The ones actually shown are of the extremely unpleasant "large and/or sharp objects inserted into bodily orifices" variety.)

I've been thinking broken fingers to start with-- which can be achieved with a specialized implement or with more basic methods, and which don't heal easily. More general beatings are also likely, along with pre-existing starvation. There's also branding and cutting as an option, but I'm having a hard time thinking of things that would remain survivable, even with physicians attending to make sure he remains alive and as conscious as possible. The torture wasn't prolonged -- a few days rather than a few weeks -- but it was intense.


Second question partially related, but not entirely -- about two or three years later, this character is pressed into a marriage for allegiance purposes. The marriage is somewhat rushed, and he hasn't had the opportunity to physically recover completely, though lasting discomfort is now livable-but-chronic, rather than acute pain requiring constant medical attention. He's sexually disinterested in general, and might be impotent (for psychological reasons rather than physical).

His wife has already had one marriage annulled, supposedly due to impotence on her first husband's part. Since it's strictly a power-brokering union, the bride is privately understood to not be a virgin, and it's in her father's interests to have affairs remain manipulable in his favor, how intense is the pressure going to be that they do consummate their marriage, and how soon? I remember reading a few sources with letters approvingly discussing a groom's performance on his wedding night, as if to assure the recipient that everything was in order with the new union. But by what means would this information be gathered? Would there be witnesses to the actual consummation, either present or nearby, material evidence (the traditional image of blood-stained sheets), or the groom and other interested parties' word that yes, intercourse had occurred? I could probably fudge this for my own purposes, but this is an area I know next to nothing about. If it makes any difference, where this is actually taking place will be supervised by the bride's family, not the groom's.


Terms Googled: "broken fingers healing", "broken fingers + swelling", "finger fracture recovery", "finger fracture recovery time", "renaissance torture", "renaissance torture methods", and similar variations.

I've also checked out Whumper's Guide and the "torture" tag here on little_details. (The only sites I could find regarding implements of torture, including OccasionalHell, didn't seem conclusive. Many of them were also mostly concerned with the Middle Ages/Inquisition.

For the latter question: various permutations of "marriage annulment infirmity renaissance", "marriage consummation renaissance", and so on. I've only read about the matter of consummation in passing in other works, and Googling got me a lot of results about modern Roman Catholicism and annulment.

Call it obvious, but when you mentioned torture in Renaissance Italy my first thought was strappado.

I can't believe I didn't think of that! The joint damage/dislocation of that would be really good for my purposes, and it's fairly classic. Thank you!

Blood-stained sheets would be expected to show she's a virgin. If she's known not to be, a chicken or something to provide the blood.

As for afterwards -- how much do they want the couple to blessed with children? And how likely is the bride to complain of the problem?

Children aren't an immediate priority -- offspring may eventually result, but heirs aren't the first thing on anyone's mind.

After her first husband, who was particularly unpleasant, she won't be complaining too much. Apart from the lack of sexual interest and some visible mood issues, he's a pleasant and agreeable spouse, but she'll probably bring it up to her father with fears about what this means for her, whether it's a side effect of his infirmity and whether it affects the marriage being binding. Regardless of the official status of the marriage, she'll probably have female relatives/friends checking in to make sure everything's gone smoothly in their first few weeks together -- she might allude to some trouble to them, but not outright state that they haven't had sex yet. (From what I can tell about sexual mores inside of marriage, it sounds like there were basically troubleshooting manuals for reproductive issues. It sounds like they mostly have to do with fertility and the right times to have sex or abstain, but she might get some advice on that front anyway.) So if the bride is neither complaining directly nor spreading it around, would it work to have her just figure she's obliged to pretend everything's going smoothly?

The official process for annuling a union based on non-consummation would be for her to complain, so as long as she keeps her mouth shut (and no one is moved, for political reasons, to pretend that she didn't) nothing would happen.

Indeed, there was one major nobleman in Rennaissance who was widely known to be impotent, and his wife refused to leave him, and it was valid. (Technically, such a marriage would be "ratified" even though not consummated.)

From what I can recall, the rack, strappado, and water torture were all fairly popular c. 15th century Italy. (I believe that water torture started becoming popular later on, though. There was also garroting, which also seemed a bit later.) Most were deliberately non-lethal, although come become so, if...um, over used.

I know very little about marriage in Italy during that period. But in Spain during the same period, the consummation of marriages was actually observed. (There were curtains on the bed but still...can you say discomfort?) And then afterwards, the sheets were checked for "evidence" of the consummation. Make of that what you will. In fact, the whole consummation was so important that notaries took records of it and recorded things like when it happened and how long it took. (Admittedly, the Spanish were pretty freaking bureaucratic.)

Needless to say, the stress of having witnesses while you got it on with a total stranger was sufficient that an awful lot of marriages seemed to not be consummated right away. (And, again, I'm not sure that things were done the same in Italy.)

I'm not sure whether the blood stains on the sheets actually happened/were checked for, or whether this was from another country and/or a myth. But, yeah, the sheets were checked and the consummation was observed...at least in nearby Spain. (Which had a lot of ties to Italy during that period.)

(There were curtains on the bed but still...can you say discomfort?)

I'm not sure that you can; at least, in nothing like the sense that we would feel. Virtually all Renaissance people, whatever their class, always shared rooms, if not actual beds, with other people - relations, guests, servants - and liked it that way; it was considered at least eccentric, and at worst suspect, to want to sleep alone.

In upper-class households the master and mistress of the house would have a bed with curtains, yes, but other people would be sleeping in the room; truckle beds would be kept under the big bed during the day and would be wheeled out for their servants or children to sleep on. So married couples would be quite accustomed to having conjugal relations in the hearing of several other people, and the unmarried would be used to hearing married people getting it on. so it just wasn't an issue. It wasn't something that anybody expected to be able to do privately.


Joints are pretty fragile in general. Shoulders and knees are awfully easy to screw up even with normal activities and can cause severe lasting pain for years, often permanently (esp. in an era without orthopedic surgery!). Wrenching someone's arm enough to tear the rotater cuff or ligaments will do it...

Occurs to me that once they injured his shoulder, a way to continue the torture would simply be to force the arm upwards again, make him lift something over his head, etc.

A joint injury (or two) seems like it'd work out, both physically as a result of likely forms of torture and for storytelling purposes.

About your second question: you might get some interesting material from the case of Vincenzo II Gonzaga of Mantua (1562-1612), who was subjected to a whole battery of examinations and tests of his potency when he tried to have his marriage to Margherita Farnese annulled due to non-consummation. The bride's family blamed Vincenzo, who they claimed had been rendered impotent by previous debaucheries; the Gonzaga preferred the more flattering explanation that Vincenzo was just too big for his very young bride. The controversy and the tests of Vincenzo's ability to consummate his marriage (including having sex in the presence of physicians) are described in the chapter "The Prince's Person" from Kate Simon's A Renaissance Tapestry: The Gonzaga of Mantua, and in more detail in Roger Peyrefitte's The Prince's Person.