The iron maiden device is an invention that fuels nightmares. Forced inside its coffin-like shape, victims were greeted with sharpened spikes that, once the doors were closed, would penetrate flesh and puncture major organs. The torture device has reached mythical status, but was it real? Linked to the Middle Ages, was it truly used to torture victims in the medieval era?
The questionable history of the iron maiden device makes answering these queries rather difficult.
What is the iron maiden device?
The iron maiden device is largely attributed to the medieval period. A torturous tool, it’s slightly larger than an average human, with double doors; some sort of head or face; and large nails or spikes driven through the exterior, so they point inside. Early versions of the device were built from iron, but wooden maidens have been used, as well.
The point of the iron maiden was to slowly torture its victims. The spikes would be placed in particular spots to pierce the flesh of the person who was forced inside, but not enter the body and cause them to instantly die. Instead, the spikes would be just long enough to reach and puncture major organs and cause the victim to bleed out.
It’s unclear whether the device was inspired by the mythological stories that contain similar devices or if it inspired the stories themselves.
Getting spiked in Sparta
Dating the iron maiden device has been tricky; many historians argue as to its true origins. One of the earliest mentions of a similar device comes from Greek historian Polybius, who lived from around 200-118 BCE and wrote of how the bloodthirsty king of independent Sparta, Nabis, had his own version.
Polybius wrote, “Both her arms and hands as well as her breasts were covered with iron nails … so that when Nabis rested his hands on her back and then by means of certain springs drew his victim towards her … he made the man thus embraced say anything and everything. Indeed by this means he killed a considerable number of those who denied him money.”
Nabis had a torture device constructed in the likeness of his wife, Apega. It was a large statue, but with what could be described as bear traps along the arms and spikes on the insides of the hands. Some say the device represented how Nabis perceived his wife, someone who, once she had you ensnared, wouldn’t allow you to escape.
Regardless of the inspiration behind the device itself, Nabis used it to torture anyone he chose. He may have used it for his own political gain or to cure boredom. His most likely reason, however, was to punish Spartans who wouldn’t (or couldn’t) pay his exorbitant taxes.
Johann Philipp Siebenkees turned the iron maiden device into a hoax
Evidence of iron maiden devices being used during the medieval period is virtually non-existent, which is ironic, considering how it’s the era most associate them with. There are no written accounts of iron maiden-like devices having been used. That’s not to say, however, that they weren’t – there just haven’t been any records located thus far to prove they were.
What likely caused the iron maiden device to be so closely associated with the Middle Ages was the account of 18th-century German philosopher, Johann Philipp Siebenkees. Siebenkees recounted a 1515 execution of a coin-forger in the city of Nuremberg that used the torture device as the execution weapon.
At the time, iron maidens were becoming increasingly popular, and many were placed on display in museums across Europe and the US. Although Siebenkees was later denounced as a fraud and his account of the execution considered fake, the iron maiden of Nuremberg became arguably the most famous of them all.
The iron maiden of Nuremberg was a wooden device that featured the head of the Virgin Mary and was said to have been used to “cleanse the pagans.” In reality, the device was made long after Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation and the era of paganism, so that claim simply wasn’t true. It was destroyed during an Allied bombing in 1944.
Were the Middle Ages really an era of savagery?
Many historians believe the reason the iron maiden device is so closely linked to the medieval period is that, during the late 18th and 19th centuries, people were focused on distancing themselves from the “brutes” of the past. A desire to prove they were more civilized, society equated the Middle Ages with the excessive use of torture devices, including the iron maiden.
Peter Konieczny, editor of Medieval Warfare, explained how “you get that idea that people were much more savage in the Middle Ages, because they want to see themselves as less savage.” He went on to say that it was a simple tactic to elevate their own status, as “it’s so much easier to pick on people who have been dead for 500 years.”
Modern use of the iron maiden device
Use of the iron maiden device has not ceased; old accounts of the torture it inflicted haven’t deterred its use. One confirmed account was its use by the eldest son of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Uday Hussein was once the head of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee and the Iraq Football Association, and was the owner of his own iron maiden device. In 2003, Time Magazine reported the discovery of his device. Its spikes were visibly worn down from continued use, and there were blood stains on the floor.
Athletes confirmed that Uday would use his iron maiden device to humiliate, beat and torture those who underperformed. However, there are no eye witnesses to confirm its use on Iraqi athletes.