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What is an Iron Maiden?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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Allegedly, the iron maiden, or Eiserne Jungfrau, was used as a medieval torture device in Germany. It consists of a large, roughly human shaped cabinet with viciously sharp internal spikes. The victim would be placed inside, and the doors slowly closed, so that the spikes impaled him or her, leading to intense discomfort. If fully closed in the iron maiden long enough, the victim probably would have bled to death, assuming that the spikes did not pierce a lung or another vital organ. However, the iron maiden's history is under dispute, with numerous historians now believing that it is a hoax.

Physical examples of iron maidens only date back to the late 1800s, and some historians have suggested that the device was never actually used during the medieval period, although a myriad of other unsavory methods of torture were certainly employed. The best example of an iron maiden was the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg, which was first displayed in 1892, shortly after is was built, and later destroyed during Allied bombing of Germany in the 1940s. Several historians suspect that the lurid history of the iron maiden was actually an invention of Johann Philipp Siebenkees, an eighteenth century German philsopher. Accounts of the iron maiden cannot be found from any period older than the 1700s, although most other medieval torture devices were extensively cataloged.

The iron maiden could also be viewed as a misinterpretation of several different medieval torture techniques, including the “cloak of shame,” a wooden construction worn by minor lawbreakers in public. The coat of shame was often weighted, to increase the physical discomfort caused by wearing the device, and members of the public were invited to hurl insults and objects at the criminal as punishment. After the criminal had been sufficiently humiliated, the cloak of shame was removed, but it undoubtedly left livid marks behind. Siebenkees may have decided to take the idea a few steps further to illustrate the brutality of the medieval era, and it is possible that sensationalists constructed exaggerated iron maidens for exhibition with the cloak of shame as an inspiration, although the devices were never actually used.

Several nineteenth century iron maidens are on display in museums around the world, but it is unlikely that they were ever employed. Ironically, the iron maiden probably was not used until the twentieth century. In 2003, an iron maiden was discovered in an abandoned soccer field in Iraq by invading American forces, and former athletes stated that it had been used to punish athletes who were not performing up to standard. The device was likely used under the direction of Uday Hussein when he was in charge of the Iraqi Olympic Committee.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon963230 — On Jul 28, 2014

@ anon260858: From what I have read, no account has been found earlier than 1793.

@ SilentBlue: You need to read something other than the Bible and history as Christians would like everyone to perceive it. Christianity used torture devices like the iron maiden (the Catholics used a mechanical effigy of the Virgin Mary) as well as many other horrific torture devices to dissuade heretics.

A 'heretic' could be anyone that maintained religious opinions contrary to those accepted by his or her church or rejects doctrines prescribed by that church. Since my parents had me join the Catholic church long before I had any choice in the matter and I do not consider myself a Catholic I would be considered a heretic. I am very thankful they no longer employ these methods.

There were many other horrifying devices used on heretics in medieval times as well as during the Spanish inquisition such as Breaking on the Wheel, the Pope's Pears, the Judas Cradle, the Iron Spider, the Strapado, the Cat's Paw, the Slow Burn, the Quick Burn, the Rack, the Holy Trinity. If you think that Christians were any less brutal than anyone else during that time, look those up and think again.

By anon260858 — On Apr 12, 2012

Does anyone actually know if the iron maiden was employed during the late 15th and early 16th century?

By SilentBlue — On Feb 05, 2011

@Leonidas226

These torturous practices of the church are often used to say that Christianity is bad. The fact of the matter is that things were much worse before the church. People would be tortured and killed for fun, and sadism ran rampant. The practices of the Roman empire and the brutality of the gladiatorial shows were only brought to a halt by Christianity. In dismissing religion and Judeo-Christian influence, the Third Reich made a conscious choice to embrace social darwinism and return to the brutal and racist Iron Maiden culture of their past.

By Leonidas226 — On Feb 03, 2011

@SilentBlue

Do you really think that it was Christianity which saved Europe from trouble? It seems more like Christianity was the fuel which caused a lot of bloodshed and further torture. The Church tortured and burned people at the stake for "heresy" as defined by strict dogma.

By SilentBlue — On Feb 02, 2011

I don't think this device is a hoax. It would be nice to dismiss it from social consciousness, but before the advent of Christianity, Europe was a place of extremely harsh brutality. Crucifixion in Rome was only the tip of the iceberg, Germanic peoples in the north were extremely inventive in their methods of torture. The Bloody Eagle was another important device, in which someone would have their lungs ripped out and spread like the wings of an eagle, while they were still alive. How such a culture came to look on other cultures as "inferior" is beyond me to comprehend.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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