One of the ubiquitous instruments of medieval torture in movies and medieval depictions was the Iron Maiden. But the Iron Maiden is a curious item that begs the question - did it really exist? The issue with the Iron Maiden is that it fits the narrative that the Middle Ages were a period of barbarism, no education, lack of humanity, and dirtiness. However, this is a gross oversimplification.

The Iron Maiden is often used as one of the examples of torture devices used in the Middle Ages. There are a number of torture museums dotted around Europe that display Iron Maidens - these are without doubt some of the world's creepiest places that instantly give visitors the chills.

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What The Iron Maiden Was

The iron maiden is a torture device made up of a solid iron cabinet with a spike-covered interior. It was built tall enough to enclose a human and the door was shut impaling the unfortunate person inside.

While many take the stories of the iron maiden at face value, these stories didn't actually even appear until the 1800s. The first harrowing stories of people meeting their untimely ending in her spiking embrace only appeared in the 19th century.

  • First Stories: Appeared In the 1800s
  • Middle-Ages: Popular Perception They Were Uncivilized and Barbaric

Today the idea of the iron maiden as being a Medieval torture device is considered a myth. But it is one that many find appealing as it fits with the belief the Middle Ages were uncivilized. That being said, there is at least one account of some sort of similar torture device being used in ancient Sparta around 200 BC (but that is certainly not Medieval Europe).

  • Ancient Sparta: An Account of an Iron Maiden-like Torture Device

It has been argued by Wolfgang Schilds (a professor at Bielefeld University) that iron maidens were pieced together from artifacts in different museums to create eye-catching exhibitions for commercial exhibitions. Today several are on display in different museums (including several torture museums).

  • Current Belief: They Are Fabrications And Likely Did Not Exist In Medieval Times

Today one can see these harrowing instruments in museums knowing that they are likely fraudulent representations of the past.

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The Iron Maiden of Nuremberg

The Iron Maiden of Nuremberg is perhaps the most famous of the Iron Maidens around today. It was the first iron maiden to have a Gothic-style adornment and design as well as the face of the Virgin Mary. She is equipped with over twenty spikes inside. This iron maiden was first displayed as far back as 1802.

  • Spikes: The Iron Maiden of Nuremberg Has Over 20 Spikes

The Iron Maiden of Nuremberg was reportedly destroyed in WW2 during the Allied bombing of the German city in 1945. But fortunately, there was another. A copy had been made of the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg and had been sold off to the Earl of Shrewsbury in England in 1890.

This model survived the war and today is reported to be on display at the Medieval Crime Museum, Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

The Rothenburg’s Medieval Crime and Justice Museum is Europe's largest museum on legal rights and is a mixture of gruesome, scary, and informativeness.

At the museum, one will not only see the Iron Maiden, but also a collection, of shame masks, original racks, thumbscrews, and various other torture devices. Expect a few chills to go down one's spine.

Opening Hours:

  • April – October: 10 am – 6 pm
  • November – March: 1 pm – 4 pm

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The Museum of Torture Italy

Another place to see the Iron Maiden is the Museum of Torture in Italy (Museo della Tortura). Here one will learn the history of torture records and see many of the devices of the past.

The instruments exhibited here speak for themselves. The aim of the museum is to lay bare the worst side of human nature - that "every man hides and holds back a potential butcher." The hope is to fuel awareness to ensure the better Angels of our nature going forward.

  • Exhibits: 100 Torture Instruments

Their exhibits have around 100 torture devices - including some reconstructions. Some of their more notable instruments are the Iron Maiden, the Guillotine, the Rack, the Interrogation Chair, and the Chastity Belt.

The museum also works to show how it is wrong to think of torture as a historical fact. It is not an ancient or delimited custom. It is one that continues today in various manifestations - including social and political. Torture has long fascinated people, but it is important to remember that while the Middle Ages may not have been as bad as generally thought (and the Iron Maiden was never actually used), today may not be as saintly as one may wish it to be.

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