WTF Fun Fact 12955 – The Iron Maiden Myth

You may have heard of Iron Maiden the band, but they named themselves after what many have long considered a popular-yet-gruesome medieval torture device. But the iron maiden is part myth.

The Myths of the Middle Ages

People tend to think of the Middles Ages as a dark time in history (which is why they’re sometimes called The Dark Ages). In reality, people of the Renaissance era and the writers who came after them needed to distinguish it from a less glorious time, so they ended up casting the medieval period as one of stagnation and backwardness.

Now, that’s not to say things like medieval torture didn’t happen. It was just nowhere near as common as people think. And many of the devices that we find from that period weren’t used all that often.

So what is the iron maiden? It’s a coffin-like box with spikes on the inside. The idea is that you’d put a person in there, close the door, and they would be stabbed. The real cruelty supposedly came in the form of relatively short spikes. These short spikes would stab but not immediately kill, leaving the tortured person to slowly bleed to death in agony.

That does indeed sound like torture!

The Iron Maiden Myth

If you’re already predisposed to think of the Middle Ages as a time of cruelty, you might think the iron maiden device sounds like something the Church, or courts, or someone else in power might have used. But there’s just no evidence of that.

Despite its popular portrayal as a torture device of choice, according to Live Science (cited below): “The first historical reference to the iron maiden came long after the Middle Ages, in the late 1700s. German philosopher Johann Philipp Siebenkees wrote about the alleged execution of a coin-forger in 1515 by an iron maiden in the city of Nuremberg. Around that time, iron maidens started popping up in museums around Europe and the United States. These included the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg, probably the most famous, which was built in the early 1800s and destroyed in an Allied bombing in 1944.”

It’s hard to believe there would be no earlier direct reference to the iron maiden if it really existed.

Anything but an iron-clad history

To be fair, there are earlier references to devices that sound like the iron maiden. For example, a 5th-century book called The City of God which “tells a tale of torture of the Roman general Marcus Atilius Regulus, who was locked in a nail-studded box. Marcus didn’t die of being impaled, though; he was forced to stay awake lest the nails pierce his skin, and eventually died of sleep deprivation.”

The Greek historian Polybius, writing around 100 B.C., told a similar story of “the Spartan tyrant Nabis constructed a mechanical likeness of his wife Apega. When a citizen refused to pay his taxes, Nabis would have the faux wife wheeled out.” The device was covered in nails.

If these devices did exist (and we haven’t found any physical remnants), they predate the Middle Ages. In fact, a lot of so-called medieval torture devices (or at least descriptions of them) do.

It’s unlikely that torture was truly that elaborate on a widespread scale, but trying to extract information or punish people through pain has existed for millennia. So why is this how we remember the Middle Ages?

“…myths about over-engineered pain and punishment still resonate. In 2013, for example, local journalism site Patch reported that a history of torture exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man had sent attendance at the museum up 60 percent over the previous year, helping pull the institution out of a financial hole.”  WTF fun facts

Source: “Are Iron Maidens Really Torture Devices?” — LiveScience

WTF Fun Fact 12913 – St. Hildegard of Bingen

Being a medieval nun didn’t come with many perks – and it certainly didn’t come with much power. Well, unless you’re the (now St.) Hildegard of Bingen.

Who is Hildegard of Bingen?

The 12th-century abbess was given to the church by her noble family at age 8 and took her vows at age 15. She was an enclosed “anchorite,” which, according to Atlas Obscura (cited below) “were metaphorically “buried” in a small cell or structure attached to a monastery or church. They were often given food through grilles, and were allowed little or no communication with the outside world.”

She spent the next three decades learning about music, botany, health, and healing. It wasn’t until she was in her 40s that she was called by God to start writing things down, after which she became a prolific writer and composer.

Hildegard could have easily been seen as a heretic because she was an openly vocal critic of Church abuses of wealth and power who unapologetically insisted she had visions and received prophecies sent by God. But the Church believed her and needed her intellect.

Why is St. Hildegarde famous?

After Hildegard began writing, a monk friend of hers began translating her words into proper Latin, and in 1147 her work Scivas was given to Pope Eugenius III. He declared her work important to the church and later called on her to start preaching.

While the word “feminist” didn’t exist at the time, she did use her visions to empower herself and carve out a place for herself in the Church. And she could be highly critical of the institution as well, calling out their desire for power and prestige over piety. She believe Church corruption was destroying the faith.

Atlas Obscura notes that “Hildegard became an advisor and honest critic of Kings, Queens, Emperors, Popes and priests. Over 400 of her letters survive, and according to biographer Fiona Maddocks, they offer fascinating insight into the different ways she portrayed herself. To men, she was but a poor, frail woman, who was speaking what God had told her. In her correspondence with women, she was much more straightforward and honest, often dispensing practical advice from one of her many areas of expertise.”  WTF fun facts

Source: “The Medieval Prophetess Who Used Her Visions to Criticize the Church” — Atlas Obscura

WTF Fun Fact 12562 – Dunce Caps for Intelligence

The 13th-century Scottish philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus was a highly educated man. But that didn’t stop him from believing that a pointy hat could make him smarter.

What we now see as a mark of stupidity today, the dunce cap originated with the philosopher-priest and his followers, the Dunsemen.

While some say John Duns Scotus was inspired by the image of wizards, others claim it was the other way around – the dunce caps inspired people to depict wizards in pointy hats.

In any case, the idea is that the cap acts as a reverse funnel, drawing in knowledge and letting it melt down into the brain.

The highly analytical writings of the medieval scholar fell out of favor in the more humanistic Renaissance, so it is perhaps the case that his followers were seen as…well, remedial, as time went on. As the Dunsemen came to be seen as foolish, their hats became a marker of that, signifying someone who is a lot less intelligent than Scotus once was.

However, the word “dunce” as we use it today originated in a play in the 17th century, which referred to a “dunce table” where children and dull guests were made to sit. In 1840, Charles Dickens mentioned the dunce cap in The Old Curiosity Shop, in which he described it as a leftover relic in a classroom made of newspaper. However, his mention and lack of further explanation mean it was probably something people would have already known about.

After that, the dunce cap served as a warning to children that when they misbehaved in class, they would be forced to sit in the corner wearing it. – WTF fun facts

Source: “The Dunce Cap Wasn’t Always So Stupid” — Atlas Obscura

WTF Fun Fact 12431 – The Disappearing Tuscan Village

Lake Vagli in Tuscany is a man-made reservoir created in 1946 when a dam was built nearby. At the time, the hydroelectric dam forced the 150 residents of the 12th-century medieval village to abandon it entirely and be relocated to the nearby town of Vagli Sotto.

However, when maintenance is done on the dam, the lake drains, and the village reemerges and becomes a popular tourist attraction. People have only seen the village four times since the dam was built – in 1958, 1974, 1983 and 1994. However, there will be another opportunity in 2023 when 34 million cubic meters of water are removed yet again.

In 1994, the last time the village was visible, nearly 1 million people came to see it, providing a significant tourism boon to the area. Visitors can see medieval homes, bridges, a cemetery, and a church.

If you’re planning a trip to Italy next year, plan to stop in Tuscany’s Lucca province for a look. But you may want to check on its progress first. The lake was supposed to be drained in 2021, and presumably, the pandemic stopped that. It takes an amazing amount of effort to reveal the village though, so the Italians are likely to make a big deal out of it. – WTF fun facts 

Source: “Italian village underwater since 1994 could resurface” — CNN

WTF Fun Fact – Medieval Dentistry

WTF Fun Fact - medieval dentists

Medieval dentists had many of the same skill-sets as modern dentists. They could fill cavities, treat facial fractures, spot oral cancer, and whiten teeth. Additionally, they could make dentures out of cow bone and human teeth. WTF Fun Facts