Iron maiden

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

The iron maiden is a torture device, consisting of a solid iron cabinet with a hinged front and spike-covered interior, sufficiently tall to enclose a human being. The first stories citing the iron maiden were composed in the 18th century. The function of iron maidens closing by themselves is considered to be a myth, heightened by the belief that people of the Middle Ages were uncivilized; evidence of their actual use is difficult to find. They have become a very popular image in media involving the Middle Ages.


An open iron maiden

Despite its reputation as a medieval instrument of torture, there is no evidence of the existence of iron maidens before the 18th century.[1] There are, however, ancient reports of the Spartan tyrant Nabis using a similar device around 200 B.C. for extortion and murder. The Abbasid vizier Ibn al-Zayyat is said to have created a "wooden oven-like chest that had iron spikes" for torture, which would ironically be used during his own imprisonment and execution in 847.[2]

Wolfgang Schild, a professor of criminal law, criminal law history, and philosophy of law at the Bielefeld University, has argued that putative iron maidens were pieced together from artifacts found in museums to create spectacular objects intended for (commercial) exhibition.[3] Several 19th-century iron maidens are on display in museums around the world, including the San Diego Museum of Man,[4] the Meiji University Museum,[5] and several torture museums[6][7][8] in Europe.

Possible inspirations[edit]

The 19th-century iron maidens may have been constructed as probable misinterpretation of a medieval Schandmantel, which was made of wood and metal but without spikes.[9] Inspiration for the iron maiden may also have come from the Carthaginian execution of Marcus Atilius Regulus as recorded in Tertullian's "To the Martyrs" (Chapter 4) and Augustine of Hippo's The City of God (I.15), in which the Carthaginians "shut him into a tight wooden box, where he was forced to stand, spiked with the sharpest nails on all sides so that he could not lean in any direction without being pierced,"[10] or from Polybius' account of Nabis of Sparta's deadly statue of his wife, the Iron Apega (earliest form of the device).[11][12]

The iron maiden of Nuremberg[edit]

Copy of the iron maiden of Nuremberg on display in Rothenburg ob der Tauber

The most famous iron maiden that popularized the design was that of Nuremberg, first displayed possibly as far back as 1802. The original was lost in the Allied bombing of Nuremberg in 1945. A copy "from the Royal Castle of Nuremberg", crafted for public display, was sold through J. Ichenhauser of London to the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1890 along with other torture devices, and, after being displayed at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, was taken on an American tour.[13] This copy was auctioned in the early 1960s and is now on display at the Medieval Crime Museum, Rothenburg ob der Tauber.[14]


Some historians have argued that Johann Philipp Siebenkees made up the history of the device.[15] According to Siebenkees' colportage, it was first used on August 14, 1515, to execute a coin forger.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Graf, Klaus (June 21, 2001), Mordgeschichten und Hexenerinnerungen – das boshafte Gedächtnis auf dem Dorf, archived from the original on August 28, 2004, retrieved July 11, 2007, Das Hinrichtungswerkzeug "Eiserne Jungfrau" ist eine Fiktion des 19. Jahrhunderts, denn erst in der ersten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts hat man frühneuzeitliche Schandmäntel, die als Straf- und Folterwerkzeuge dienten und gelegentlich als "Jungfrau" bezeichnet wurden, innen mit eisernen Spitzen versehen und somit die Objekte den schaurigen Phantasien in Literatur und Sage angepaßt." ("The execution tool "Iron Maiden" is a fiction of the 19th century, because only since the first half of the 19th Century the early-modern-times' "rishard cloaks", which sometimes were called "maidens", were provided with iron spikes; and thus the objects were adapted to the dreadful fantasies in literature and legend."{{citation}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link).
  2. ^ Al-Tabari (1989). The Incipient Decline: The Caliphates of Al-Wathiq, Al-Mutawakkil, and Al-Muntasir, A.D. 841–863/A.H. 227–248. Translated by Kraemer, Joel. State University of New York Press. p. 70.
  3. ^ Schild, Wolfgang (2000). Die eiserne Jungfrau. Dichtung und Wahrheit (Schriftenreihe des Mittelalterlichen Kriminalmuseums Rothenburg o. d. Tauber Nr. 3). Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
  4. ^ San Diego Museum of Man, Medieval Imposter: the Iron Maiden, archived from the original on 2015-02-18, retrieved 2015-01-17
  5. ^ Meiji University Museum, The Mission of the Meiji University Museum
  6. ^ Museum Kyburg Castle, The Iron Maiden, archived from the original on 2008-05-10, retrieved 2015-01-17
  7. ^ Český Krumlov Castle Museum of Torture, Museum of Torture, archived from the original on 2016-02-16, retrieved 2015-01-17
  8. ^ Seth Robson, "Prague: Torture Museum Offers a Blood-Curdling Collection", Stars and Stripes
  9. ^ Museum Digital, Schandmantel
  10. ^ Translation by Gerald G. Walsh, S.J., Demetrius B. Zema, S.J., Grace Monahan, O.S.U., and Daniel J. Honan.
  11. ^ Polybius (2013-11-08), The Histories of Polybius, vol. II, translated by Evelyn Shirley Shuckburgh, Book XIII, Chapter 7
  12. ^ Pomeroy, Sarah B. (2002p), "Elite Women, The Last Reformers: Apega and Nabis and Chaeron", Spartan Women, Oxford University Press US, pp. 89–90, ISBN 978-0-19-513067-6 – via
  13. ^ "Famous torture instruments: the Earl of Shrewsbury's collection soon to be exhibited here", The New York Times, 26 November 1893 accessed 20 June 2009, refers particularly only to the "justly-celebrated iron maiden".
  14. ^ It was notably absent from the remainder of the collection, auctioned at Guernsey's, New York, in May 2009 (Richard Pyle, Associated Press, "For sale in NYC: torture devices").
  15. ^ Bishop, Chris (2014). "The 'pear of anguish': Truth, torture and dark medievalism" (PDF). International Journal of Of Cultural Studies. 17 (6): 591–602. doi:10.1177/1367877914528531. hdl:1885/17580. S2CID 146124132. Retrieved 2022-12-25.
  16. ^ Wolfgang Schild, Die Eiserne Jungfrau, 2002

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]