Medieval Torture Device: an 18th-Century Hoax

Iron Maiden. Torture museum in Lubuska Land Museum in Zielona Góra. Poland
Iron Maiden. Torture museum in Lubuska Land Museum in Zielona Góra. Poland

The Legend

The Iron Maiden was a torture device believed to have originated in Germany during the Middle Ages. It was said to have been invented by a German executioner named Johannes Eckhardt. The Iron Maiden, also referred to as the “Virgin of Nuremberg,” was a large wooden cabinet with a spiked interior. It was supposedly designed to cause pain and suffering without killing the victim. The spikes were said to be arranged in such a way that they pierced the victim’s body without actually penetrating any vital organs, to ensure the victims remain alive and upright.

The device could be opened and closed without allowing the victim, stabbed in the front as well as in the back, to escape. The device consisted of two doors in front, an upright sarcophagus, and studs in its interior. It was also said to have spikes in the inner arm, to prevent anyone from getting out from under his wife’s grip.

The first person executed by this means would have been a counterfeiter, on August 14, 1515.

Copy of the 'Virgin of Nuremberg' on display in Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Copy of the ‘Virgin of Nuremberg’ on display in Rothenburg ob der Tauber

The Virgin of Nuremberg was widely used during the 16th and 17th centuries and was seen as a particularly cruel and unusual form of torture. It was used as a punishment for treason, heresy, witchcraft, and other serious crimes. Victims were placed inside the sound-proof sarcophagus and the door was then closed, trapping them inside. The torture typically lasted for hours, with the spikes causing extreme pain but no permanent damage.

The medieval torture device was eventually outlawed and fell out of use by the late 18th century. It is now mostly seen as a curiosity or a symbol of the brutality of the Middle Ages.

18th-Century Hoax

The Iron Maiden is known by other names, such as The Holy Virgin (a reference to The Holy Mary) and the Jungfer (German for Spinster). The Iron Maiden became strongly associated with the German town of Nuremberg, being called variously as the Nuremberg Virgin (an iron maiden with a head resembling that of the Virgin Mary) and the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg. The best-known popularizing of this design is that of Nuremberg, which was first displayed perhaps as early as 1802.

The extensive use of iron maidens during the medieval period is a myth from the 18th Century, reinforced by a view of the medieval period as a time of uncivilization. The function of the closed iron maidens is considered to be a myth, reinforced by a perception of Middle Ages humans as uncivilized; evidence for their actual use is hard to come by.

The creation of Iron Maidens comes from a likely misinterpretation of the medieval Schandmantel, sometimes also known as the Spanish coat, a torture device which came into use in the 13th century. Schandmantels were fashioned from wood and sometimes lined with sheet metal but had no spikes.

A man wearing a schandmantel
A man wearing a schandmantel

The victims were made to wear this device in public where they would be insulted, humiliated and have rotten vegetables thrown at them. The Schandmantel was mostly used as punishment for poachers and prostitutes.

It is a function many people find attractive since it fits the belief of the uncivilised Middle Ages. The problem with The Virgin of Nuremberg is that it fits into a narrative of the Middle Ages being a time of barbarism, no education, no humanity, and filth. The best-known legend about the Iron Maiden is the one about the iconic Iron Maiden in Nuremberg, which claims to have been built in the early 19th century, only to have been destroyed in a bombing attack late in the Second World War.

By the turn of the 19th century, these ‘medieval torture devices’ were being created and displayed, not just in the German town of Nuremberg, but also in other European cities. Iron maidens created in this period were actually assembled from different medieval artifacts and spare parts and were displayed for the public at a cost. There is no historical record that the iron maiden was ever used in Medieval Europe, and it did not even exist until the beginning of the 19th century.

Various neo-medieval torture instruments. An iron maiden stands at the right.
Various neo-medieval torture instruments. An iron maiden stands at the right.

At the same time that these purported medieval torture devices were being created, multiple horror stories began being attached to the iron maiden. All sorts of purported medieval torture devices and tools were displayed, and just like the notorious iron maiden, several others were also total fabrications. There is no historical record that an iron maiden was used as a torture device in any subsequent age.

Most myths of medieval torture emerged during the 1700s and 1800s, as people were motivated to view the men of the past as being even more violent than the men of today. Overtime, exaggeration tended to reinforce itself, leading to the myths from the 18th century, which still hold up today,

The Real History

While medieval iron maidens almost certainly never existed in the form represented by either contemporary museums or nineteenth-century trade shows, there is some evidence of the use of similar devices during antiquity.

That is, there is at least one report of some kind of torture device being used at an early Spartan site circa 200 BCE (but this was hardly medieval Europe). Many of the medieval forms of torture still have some appeal to this day.

Known as Iron Apega, or the Apega of Nabis this device is said to be made of a metallic construct that looks like Nabiss’s wife, for which this contraption was named.

An ancient Greek coin with a portrait of Nabis, king of Sparta and inventor of the Iron Apega.
An ancient Greek coin with a portrait of Nabis, king of Sparta and inventor of the Iron Apega.

The historian Polybius tells that the cruel tyrant of Sparta Nabis (205-192 BC) built a machine with the appearance of his wife and whose expensive dress hid iron spikes. He forced all citizens reluctant to pay taxes to be embraced by that statue, whose arms were capable of crushing the body of its victim. Nabis would control the machine through a hidden mechanism until the victims agreed to pay tribute or be crushed to death.

Leave a Reply