Hello again Buzzkillers. In this week’s mini-myth, we take on the Iron Maiden! No, not the heavy metal band. I’m talking about the medieval torture device. It was a kind of a cabinet with spikes on the inside (and pointing inward). Allegedly, people were threatened with being put in the Iron Maiden and having the door closed on them. The spikes would impale the victim, and the blood would drain out the bottom. It was a slow death.
There were plenty of other torture devices, each with a clever name, and allegedly dating back to medieval times. There was the “Pear of Anguish,” a steel device that was supposed to be inserted into the body (I’ll let you guess where), and spread like a speculum in order to destroy a person from the inside out. There was also the “Spanish Chair,” made of spikes and used as a seat for hapless heretics while they had their feet boiled – kind of like a spa treatment, but not as relaxing.
These devices are all terrible, to be sure, but they also have one other thing in common. In essence, they are myths. In fact, Iron Maidens didn’t even exist in medieval times, and there is no evidence of an Iron Maiden ever being used for anything but scaring the pants off of museum patrons in more recent centuries. Ditto for the Pear of Anguish, the Spanish Chair, and many other alleged medieval torture devices.
So where did this myth come from? Well, the popularity of medieval torture devices had its heyday not during the medieval period, as you might expect, but during 19th century. “Medieval” torture devices were invented by carnival showmen and “house of horrors” promoters, and occasionally by museums. Why did they do this? The list of reasons includes the fact that “freak shows” and “horror shows” drew lots of patrons; that it was easy to depict medieval societies as backward and barbarous; and making “modern” people feel better about themselves was an excellent way to sell tickets and make money.
Torture was used in the middle ages, Buzzkillers, but scholars assure us that it was not as extensive as usually thought. They also assure us that the Iron Maiden, the Pear of Anguish, the Spanish Chair, and other “medieval torture devices” were product of much more recent times, and were built for entirely different purposes.