Many medieval forms of torture continue to hold a certain fascination today. Methods such as the rack, thumbscrews and the ducking stool are still widely known. Perhaps the most famous European torture device is the iron maiden, an intimidating, coffin-like cabinet lined with spikes. The truth, however, is very different. There is no historical record of iron maidens ever being used in medieval Europe, or even existing until the early 19th Century. Put simply, the medieval iron maiden is little more than a myth.
While the medieval iron maiden almost certainly never existed in the form presented in either modern museums or 19th Century commercial exhibitions, there is some evidence that similar devices were used during ancient times. However, they were far from widespread, with just two recorded examples. Nabis, the ruler of Sparta during the First and Second Macedonian Wars, is recorded as using a device similar in description to an iron maiden. Known as the Iron Apega, the device is said to have been a metal construction resembling Nabis’s wife, after whom the contraption was named.
Spartan citizens that failed to pay their debts to the king were sent to visit his ‘iron wife’, dressed in expensive clothing with arms outstretched. They would be encouraged to embrace his ‘wife’, at which point the arms would snap shut and begin to crush them against the body, which was covered in spikes hidden beneath the clothing. If they agreed to pay the sum demanded Nabis would release them. Otherwise, they would be killed by the device.
The second device similar to an iron maiden belonged to Muhammad ibn al-Zayyat, a merchant who served as vizier to the Abbasid caliphs. A large iron chest lined with spikes known at the tannur, the device contributed to al-Zayyat’s notorious reputation for cruelty to prisoners. After Caliph al-Wathiq died suddenly his successor, who held a grudge against al-Zayyat, luring him to the palace and locking him inside his own tannur until he died.
Early modern examples of iron maidens first appeared in the 19th Century, drawing heavily on the appearance of Egyptian sarcophagus. It has been theorised that they were a misinterpretation of the earlier schandmantel or Spanish coat, a wooden, barrel-like device that criminals would be locked into, not dissimilar to the stocks. While ostensibly similar to an iron maiden, the schandmantel typically left the head exposed and did not incorporate spikes into the design. It was used to humiliate, not to torture or kill.
More likely, iron maiden reconstructions were inventions used for commercial gain, playing on a popular perception that the Middle Ages in Europe had been barbaric and uncivilised. The most well-known example was one displayed in Nuremberg, which even had a lengthy history recorded dating back to 1515 where it was first used to execute a coin forger. This history was eventually found to be a complete fabrication by the German philosopher Johann Philipp Siebenkees.