The Iron Maiden: This Medieval Torture Device Was Used as Recently as 2003!
The iron maiden is a torture device widely believed to have been used in Europe during the Middle Ages. This notorious contraption is known by other names, such as the Virgin (a reference to the Virgin Mary), and Jungfer (German for spinster). The iron maiden is described as being a human-sized box laden with spikes on the inside. A victim would be forced inside the iron maiden and would be impaled by the spikes when the torture device was shut.
Was the Iron Maiden Used in the Middle Ages?
Although the iron maiden is commonly associated with the Middle Ages, there is no account of it being used during that period, thus calling into question the claim that it was actually used as a torture device back then. Torture devices similar to the iron maiden, however, have been described in texts written prior to this period. As an example, in Saint Augustine of Hippo’s City of God , there is an account of Marcus Atilius Regulus, a Roman general who was tortured to death by the Carthaginians. In his work, Saint Augustine wrote that Regulus was locked in a box with nails in it. The nails, however, did not pierce the general unless he fell asleep. Therefore, Regulus kept himself awake and finally died of sleep deprivation.
The death of Marcus Atilius Regulus, showing being nailed into a tub by the Carthaginians. (Rijksmuseum / Public Domain )
The earliest account that we have of the iron maiden dates to the 18th century and was written by the historian Johann Philipp Siebenkees. In a guide book to the German city of Nuremberg, the historian claimed that a criminal was executed using an iron maiden in 1515. Siebenkees also noted that the spikes inside the device were deliberately made in such a way that they were not long enough to kill him. Therefore, he continued suffering for two days before dying.
The Iron Maiden of Nuremberg, vintage engraving . ( Morphart / Adobe)
How is the Schandmantel Different from the Iron Maiden?
The credibility of Siebenkees’ story has been doubted and it is commonly believed that it was invented by the historian himself. Alternatively, it is possible that Siebenkees had misinterpreted a medieval punishment device known as the Schandmantel (German for ‘coat of shame’), which was worn by German prostitutes and poachers for public humiliation. Although similar to the iron maiden, the Schandmantel did not have any spikes inside it.
‘Coat of Shame’ torture device. (Flominator / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Nevertheless, Siebenkees’ account of this gruesome device inspired his readers and iron maidens began to be created based on what he wrote. Additionally, the iron maiden became closely associated with the city of Nuremberg, being called variously as the Nuremberg Virgin (an iron maiden topped with the head of the Virgin Mary) and the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg.
By the early 19th century, iron maidens were being created and displayed not only in Nuremberg but also in other European cities. Moreover, towards the end of that century, in 1893, an iron maiden was exhibited at the World’s Fair in Chicago. The iron maidens created during this time were in fact pieced together from various medieval artifacts and spare parts and were displayed to the public for a fee.
Iron Maiden, medieval torture device. ( StarJumper / Adobe)
More Stories of the Use of the Iron Maiden Circulate
At the same time as these supposedly medieval torture devices were being created, more horror stories began to be attached to the iron maiden. One of these, for instance, states that the contraption was used during the Inquisition and that the Virgin’s head was meant to symbolize the triumph of the Catholic Church over heresy. Another story claims that the iron maiden was used as early as the 12th century.
Virgin’s head at the top of the Iron Maiden was said to symbolize the triumph of the Catholic Church over heresy. (Grafenschreck / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Today, iron maidens are displayed in various museums around the world, though these specimens are likely to have been made during the 19th century. Lastly, it was reported in 2003 that an iron maiden was discovered at the Iraqi National Olympic committee compound in Baghdad. At one point of time, the head of this committee as well as the country’s football federation was Uday Hussein, the son of Saddam Hussein . The story goes that the iron maiden belonged to him and that it was used to punish athletes who underperformed.
Top image: Iron Maiden, medieval torture device. Source: StarJumper / Adobe
By Wu Mingren
Updated on December 29, 2020.
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