In my novel Witch Hunter, Ulrich uses the devices in his torture chamber for pleasure, not destruction. A couple of readers have written to me, asking why I never included an iron maiden – one of the most well-recognised and iconic devices of the torturer’s grisly art – in Ulrich’s little room. I thought rather than respond privately, I’d write something about the iron maiden here, because the answer is actually quite interesting.
What is an Iron Maiden?
For many people, this brutal device captures the dark spirit of criminal justic in the Middle Ages. The maiden looks like a large steel coffin, shaped roughly like a man. Inside the casket, sharpened spikes protruded from the walls. When the unfortunate accused was shoved inside and the door to the maiden shut, the spikes would impale his/her skin, killing the victim slowly and with excruciating pain.
Often, the head section will be rendered as a real human head, with eyes and nose and features. The maiden might have a single or double door, and they are usually 6-7 feet tall, in order to accommodate the full height of a man.
There are several iron maidens on display throughout the world, although the most famous one – a copy of the Iron Maiden of Nuremburg – sits in the reception area of das Kriminalmuseum) (Museum of Crime) in Rothenburg. I was lucky enough to actually see this Maiden on our last German adventure, and I can attest that it’s a pretty terrifying sight. I find it poetic that the maiden still has the same use today that it did in history – to entertain and frighten tourists.
The iron maiden at Rothenburg
Did the Iron Maiden really exist?
Yes, but not in the capacity you might assume.
The truth is, the iron maiden is not a medieval torture device at all. It was actually invented in the 19th century. The first recorded description of an iron maiden was from Johann Philipp Siebenkees – a philosopher and archaeologist – in 1793. Siebenkees describes an iron maiden being used to execute a coin forger, on August 14, 1515.
“… the very sharp points penetrated his arms, and his legs in several places, and his belly and chest, and his bladder and the root of his member, and his eyes, and his shoulders, and his buttocks, but not enough to kill him; and so he remained making great cry and lament for two days, after which he died.”
How cruel people of the past were!
It turns out, Siebenkees made up the story of the iron maiden. He likely got the idea from old European fairy tales, where evil stepmothers were often punished by being sealed in a coffin that then had nails driven through it.
Another man, Matthew Peacock, spent his lifetime collecting plates and imagery of torture devices (I know, he sounds like a real charmer). Peacock created an iron maiden as a way to demonstrate, in his own words, “the dark spirit of the Middle Ages in contrast to the progress of humanity.” Peacock gifted his maiden to a museum.
Soon, people all over Europe were cobbling together Iron Maidens out of any old scrap to put on show to delight and terrify. Historians suggest the Iron Maiden of Nuremburg likely used a cast-iron head of the Virgin Mary to create the maiden’s face. It’s impossible to know, since the Nuremburg Maiden was destroyed during World War II when Allied Forces bombed the city. The one that remains in Rothenburg ob der Tauber today is a 19th century copy.
Tourists visiting Nuremburg castle during the 19th century could also walk away with their own souvenir maiden – a 4-inch tall replica complete with swinging door and spikes. Perfect for the mantelpiece! (Although, in all seriousness, I’d probably buy one).
This little guy was recently auctioned off. Source
Although the iron maiden is most likely fake, a similar device – although with a very different purpose – did exist during the medieval period. The “coat of shame” (Schandmantel) was a barrel constructed of wood with holes for the head and legs. It was not lined with spikes. The accused would be forced to wear the Schandmantel in public, while other people from the village would yell insults and hurl stones and rotten vegetables at them. This was usually a punishment for poachers and prostitutes.
So no one was ever actually tortured with an iron maiden?
Journalist Bobby Ghosh standing with the iron maiden he discovered in Baghdad. Source.
Sadly, this isn’t true. Although iron maidens weren’t de rigour in medieval dungeons, an iron maiden was discovered in the Iraqi National Olympic Committee compound in Baghdad. Reportedly, Uday Hussein (the elder son of Iraq’s deposed dictator) watched Iraqi athletes tortured in the device because they had not performed to expectations. He also had the feet of soccer players scalded and their tonails ripped out if they had a bad day on the field.
It is a sobering thought that a device such as this is in use today. It is hard for many of us to imagine a world where torture is a part of life, and used not to extract information, but to instil fear and legitimise power.
And on that cheery note, I’ll leave you with an Iron Maiden that we can all agree is pretty awesome. Who else has got their tickets for the 2016 world tour?
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