Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fe Lady

The Iron Maiden. Usually this brings up one of two mental images for most people. One's a band.

That's not the one this post is talking about. 

This is about this one:

This is one you'll hear a lot. Medieval Torture Instrument # 1. The Iron Maiden. 

There's only one problem. It's not medieval. 

If you're unfamiliar with this particular contraption, first of all, I commend you on managing to avoid pretty much every film that covered any time period from about 500 BCE to the 1800s. But if you're unaware of the common reputation of the Iron Maiden, it's a contraption that's tall enough for someone to stand it, that has spikes inside it that (depending on who's telling the story) either are designed so you have to stand perfectly still, or you get stabbed, or are designed to stab you, but miss any vital organs, so you bleed to death slowly.

I just have to take a moment here and comment how much I love the fact that the second one assumes that unlike today, humans of the past came in standard sizes with regular organ placement contained therein. 

But sadly for this particular myth, Iron Maiden's didn't actually exist. 

To be sure, there are Iron Maidens you can see in museums, but most of them were made during the 1800s (the earliest record of one is from 1793), for sensationalist travelling shows (just a half-penny to see the horrors of the Witch Hunts/Inquisition/French Revolution! What a bargain!). 

They were in all sorts of dramatic "historical" stories in the 19th century and continuing into today, where instruments such as the Iron Maiden are used to terrify and horrify countless readers. But when it comes to finding a place that actually used something even remotely similar, suddenly details become non-existent. Somewhere "over there" used them. An area's traditional enemy is often named for a place that used them in the Middle Ages, in an elusive ever changing secret place that  doesn't actually ever exist on the map ("It was used in France, in a secret torture dungeon  No, Spain, under a certain cathedral during the Inquisition. No, actually it was Russia. Except that no, it was really China during the Ming Dynasty, except it was actually only used in the Qin Dynasty"... and I think you can see where this is going). 

Even the recent history of the most famous Iron Maiden, the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg  is elaborated and often wrongly stated. Above is a picture of the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg before World War II. It's often said to have been destroyed during the bombing of Nuremberg -- when in fact it was merely damaged, and now sits in the Medieval Crime Museum in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany. This is what the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg looks like today. A little worse for wear, but perfectly intact.

Many people who see it today are disiponted to discover that the museum removed the spikes inside. The museum removed them because of their historical inaccuracy. It is the museum's opinion (and I think they're probably right on this) that the Iron Maiden was simply a misunderstanding of the "Cloak of Shame" -- a punishment where the guilty party was punished by being locked into a (not spikey) device and then publicly mocked for a set period of time. Humiliating, yes. But not exactly a slow, torturous, death by impalement. 

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