The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle

Rocking the modern perceptions of the Middle Ages, the Iron Maiden found at Fagaras Castle, Romania, is a medieval torture device that is real, and yet not.

The stone castle of Făgăraş was first mentioned (that we know of) in 1455, but the initial fortification, built with sturdy fir trees from the nearby forests, goes back to 12th – beginning of the 13th century.

The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle, Engraving of the Făgăraș Citadel by Ludwig Rohbock (1883)
Engraving of the Făgăraș Citadel by Ludwig Rohbock (~1883)

We also know that, traditionally, the duchies of Almas and Fagaras were fiefs of Wallachian prince. Yet John Hunyadi, appointed Voievode of Transylvania at that time (as Transylvania, although a Romanian county today, was part of the Kingdom of Hungary during he Middle Ages to say the least) seized them. Hunyadi gave Almas to the citizens of Sibiu and kept Faragras for himself.

But before being seized, the duchies of Almas and Fagaras belonged to the Voievode of Wallachia, and he would have been Vlad Dracul, Vlad II (Vlad Țepeș‘ father) and Mircea cel Batran, Mircea the Elder before him (Vlad Țepeș‘ grandfather).

We know further that Vlad Dracula, Vlad Țepeș, was finally able to title himself “Lord and ruler over all of Wallachia, and the duchies of Amlaș and Făgăraș” on 20 September 1459, thus showing that he had regained possession of both these traditional Transylvanian fiefs of the Wallachian rulers.

Făgăraş Castle, also know as Mihai Viteazul Fortress, in an inter-war postcard
Făgăraş Castle, also know as Mihai Viteazul Fortress, in an inter-war postcard

Now, back to the Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle.

Documents mentioning Fagaras Castle dated more than a century ago do mention the existence of a mechanism of death, known as the “Iron Virgin” or “Iron Maiden”.

It seems that the device was brought into the fortress during the 18th century and used as an instrument of torture. The person sentenced to death was told on the day of his execution that he would be allowed one last kiss, that of the Mother of God, whose image hanged inside this coffin-like device. But the devices was thus created that when the convict stepped to kiss the image, the coffin would close with lightning speed and the knives and spikes that protruded on the inside would pierce his body. The spikes were short and positioned so that the victim wouldn’t die immediately.

The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle
The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle

Also, thanks to another device, a hole would opened at the feet of the Iron Maiden so the body of the convict would free fall from a height of 8-10 meters in a dungeon where horizontal swords with very sharp edges would chop the falling cadaver into several pieces.

Through another device water from the fortress’ moat was channeled through this dungeon, thus washing away any traces of blood or flesh, taking them out through the northwestern part and directing them to Olt river, flowing only 800 meters away.

Sounds far-fetched?

The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle

The Iron Maiden as an image for Medieval violence

Truth is that the Iron Maidens were a myth brought to life during the 18th century because they fitted so well with the idea of Medieval violence, especially the physical maltreatment of another being, with the weapons being so readily available during those times, and with the fact that violence was seen as an understandable response to most acts.

Let’s face it, during the Middle Ages violence was a common response. If one wanted to share an idea, to share a meaning – symbolic vengeance was expected.

But crime and violence did bothered the commoners during the Middle Ages. It frightened them too. Life had a value, certainly was valued less than we value it today.

The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle

The true history of the Iron Maiden

Johann Philipp Siebenkees was an 18th century German Professor of philosophy. He was a keen archeologist too. He was the first to describe the execution of a 1515 coin-forger by the use of an iron maiden in the city of Nuremberg. But the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg, and one of the the most famous such devices, was only built in the early 1800s and destroyed in an Allied bombing in 1944.

Siebenkees might have read about a 5th century A.D. Latin book of Christian philosophy that describes the torture of the Roman general Marcus Atilius Regulus, who was locked in a nail-studded box. Or he might have read the works of the Greek historian Polybius (100 B.C.) who told the story of the Spartan tyrant Nabis who constructed a mechanical likeness of his wife Apega. When a citizen refused to pay his taxes, Nabis would have the mechanical wife wheeled out and made to hug the wrong doer – only that the nails were on the outside of her body.

We all know stories about torture during the Middle Ages, and some of the devices used by the Ottoman Empire or those used to obtain false declarations during the Witch Hunts come to mind… but torture is very much present during our times too.

Perhaps it just makes us feel safer to look only at those times long gone.

doors towards the Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle

This, the Iron Maiden, is one door I do not wish to open – for Norm’s Thursday Doors blog weekly meme.

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23 Replies to “The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle”

  1. This is very interesting, Patricia. Life had very little value at this time, which is probably not very different from now, it was just done openly then and its done behind closed doors now.

    1. Thank you, Roberta.

      I think that the lack of an etiquette during the Middle Ages is one of the main factors that makes modern society wince when thinking about medieval times.

      But then, back then you would be robbed and left alive; think of the crime level here in South Africa…

    1. Kind thanks, Michael.

      Really glad to discover it wasn’t used 🙂 I already had some questions forming in my mind, with regards to friction and gravity. 😉

    1. I think it puts the Middle Ages in a better light. Especially since it didn’t existed 🙂
      All things considered, it also puts rulers we labeled as cruel (and I think of Vlad the Impaler) in a more humane light.

      ‘The Evil That Men Do’ when they show ‘Fear of the Dark’ 😉

    1. Oh, me too, Cathy!
      I do wonder if Diana Gabaldon ever considered the Middle Ages for Claire’s time travel adventure or the 18th century was her first choice 🙂

  2. You must see The Old Guard, a Netflix Movie. If you have patience you may be rewarded with a surprise somewhere in the middle. 🙂

      1. You’ll see something related to your article in the movie. After Blacklist you should give The Old Guard a try just for that. 🙂 I think…

  3. If only the ingenuity ascribed to the business of the barbaric killing of one another would have been, or could now, be turned into help for the poor and helpless of this world, then it could be a far better place for us all.

  4. Excellent post…though it is also horrifying to see the lengths to which the human imagination can go to invent ways to bring pain and harm upon others.

    1. Hard to believe, I agree. Perhaps such individuals should have rather taken up writing fiction 🙂
      Thank you for visiting, Norm. Have a great holiday.

    1. Unthinkable. If only they would have put their imagination to work for a good cause – it would have snowballed into something positively amazing. 🙂

    1. Indeed they are, Toni.
      Preying upon human’s nature fascination with the macabre. Much like modern horror stories, isn’t it 🙂
      Kind thanks for your insightful comment.

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