Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Horrible Histories - The Measly Middle Ages

The real Iron Maiden was a medieval torture instrument, a sort of boiler which was shaped like a woman on the outside and lined with spikes. The front of the woman was composed of two hinged doors. The idea was to put a criminal inside and then close the doors slowly. There were two special spikes where his eyes would be. There was a drain in the bottom to let out all the blood.

So it goes
That's the straight dope, according to a character in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, who got his jollies by creeping people out with tales of  sadism and torture. The real Iron Maiden was apparently first used on August 14th 1515, to punish somebody who'd been forging coins. At least that's what Johann Philipp Siebenkees wrote in a 1793 pamphlet. Others beg to differ:

There is, however, one small problem with Herr Siebenkees’ story; it isn’t true. The first known references to the maiden appear in the late 18th century – besides Siebenkees’ pamphlet, a 1784 tour guide to Nuremberg allegedly whispered of “the Iron Maiden, that abominable work of horror that goes back to the times of Frederick Barbarossa” (by which it meant the 12th century). That guidebook might have referred to the infamous Iron Maiden of Nuremberg, which was destroyed in 1944, during the Allied bombing of Nuremberg. A copy of the Maiden, purchased by the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1890 and taken on a world tour, found its way back to Germany, and is now displayed at the Medieval Crime Museum in Rothenburg ob der Taube. Modern copies can be seen at Ripley’s Believe or Not and a variety of wax museums.

The Iron Maiden was probably made up by Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century medievalists and has as much to do with the real Middle Ages as Ivanhoe, the Pre-Raphaelites, Nineteenth Century Gothic architecture or the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds.

These days, if you describe something contemporary as "medieval" it's rarely a compliment - the word carries connotations of barbaric cruelty and a sort of clunky crudeness. By modern standards the European Middle Ages really did have a crummy human rights record. It was an age that combined endemic warfare (those castles weren't just put there to look picturesque) with all manner of cruel and unusual punishments from impalement, death by burning, breaking on the wheel to hanging drawing and quartering. Not surprising if you buy Steven Pinker's compelling argument that the per capita of rate of violence has probably declined throughout our history in most places. With such an extensive buffet of real past horrors to choose from, it seems quite surprising that people felt the need to make stuff like the iron maiden up.

Another iconic medieval device is that spiked iron ball on a chain and stick that we've all seen knights bashing each other with in illustrations and and films. I haven't studied the various movie interpretations of Robin Hood and other medieval epics in any detail, but I get the distinct impression that when a character is armed with one of these in a film, it's a visual clue that "this person is a baddie" (the same seems to go for crossbows, unless your name's William Tell). The spiked ball and chain is popularly known as a morning star, although this is, apparently, incorrect and the term actually refers to a weapon that looks like a club with added spikes on the business end:

The morning star is a medieval weapon consisting of a spiked club resembling a mace, usually with a long spike extending straight from the top and many smaller spikes around the particle of the head. The spikes distinguish it from a mace, which can have, at most, flanges or small knobs.

The stick, chain and spiked ball affair is more properly called a military flail. According to Wikipedia, there's not much evidence that weapons like this were actually used in the Middle Ages although 'the weapon captured the imagination of later writers and illustrators, becoming a stock 'prop' in Victorian Era Medievalist literature and Hollywood movies set in the age of chivalry.' Wikipedia isn't always authoritative, but after a little light googling, I haven't found any killer article from an academic contradicting Wikipedia with hard proof of a real medieval weapon of the stick, chain and spiked iron ball-type. The nearest thing I've come across is the lash-ball, a ball of bronze or iron (without spikes)  attached by a lash to a stick  This weapon originated in Russia and was mainly confined to eastern Europe. So, the spiked ball on a chain was probably just another product of the overheated Victorian imagination.*

The real military flail was a bit more prosaic; often just a peasant's threshing flail, possibly souped up with a few studs or spikes on the end - the medieval equivalent of a nail-studded baseball bat. In an age when peasants were obliged to provide military service to their lords, it seems that sometimes they used whatever improvised weapons came to hand. When the peasants revolted, they took these crude weapons into battle on their own behalf - contemporary illustrations show Hussite peasant armies armed with flails and I'm sure that many a peasant grabbed the nearest flail during the English Peasants' Revolt.

If the Wikipedia article is correct, the agricultural flail must have been reasonably effective as a weapon, as modified versions were apparently purpose-built for fighting.

So the iron maiden almost probably didn't exist, evidence for spiked iron balls on chains is patchy - what about that other iconic medieval artifact, the chastity belt? Not looking good:

There are, in fact, no genuine chastity belts dating from medieval times: all known 'medieval' chastity belts have been produced in the first half of the 19th Century. These fake-medieval chastity belts are too heavy and the workmanship is too crude, even for medieval standards. The oldest design for a chastity belt that can be taken seriously dates from the 16th Century - but it's just a design, with no real working models believed to have ever been constructed. The concept of a chastity belt itself is a lot older, but it was usually used in poems in a metaphorical sense. According to Dr Eric John Dingwall, who wrote a deeper study on the subject in 1931, 'the chastity belt probably made its first appearance in ordinary use among the Italians of the period of the Renaissance or perhaps somewhat later.'

Most of the 'medieval' chastity belts on display in museums have been tested to confirm their actual age. As a result, the Germanisches National Museum in Nuremberg (Nürnberg), the Musée Cluny (officially known as Musée National du Moyen Âge, or the Middle Age Museum) in Paris and The British Museum in London have all either removed the chastity belts from their medieval displays or corrected the date.

Again, probably not a part of real life in the middle ages, although a brief Internet search on the term "chastity belt" confirms that plenty of firms today are kept busy satisfying the demands of rather specialist consumers and are probably manufacturing more chastity belts and associated restraining garments than have ever been made in any previous period of history.

 Why do these sort of myths gain traction? They've got a passing resemblance to modern media myths of the "Immigrants Are Eating Our Swans" or "Local Authority Bans Christmas" type - if you make up something shocking or dramatic enough, somebody's going to believe it without bothering to check. But most of the myths that get reported in the papers have some sort of not-very-subtle agenda behind them, whereas there's limited propaganda value in claiming that medieval Europeans tortured each other inside spiked cabinets, or bashed one another with spiky iron balls, or crusaders locked their wives up in steel knickers while they were away on heathen-slaying business. These myths are closer to unofficial urban myths - not the overtly political "Obama is a Muslim" rubbish, or the plain silly "Apple giving away FREE i-Pods" sort, but weird or frightening stories about people having their drinks spiked by organ thieves and waking up minus a kidney, or  The Vanishing Hitchhiker, just made up to freak people out.

These sort of myths don't have any overt purpose. Maybe they exist for the same reason that ghost stories, horror films, grisly waxworks and programmes like Embarrassing Bodies exist - people seem to like being a little shocked, scared or even grossed out in a safe environment. And half a millennium or so in the past counts as a pretty safe distance for a cheap thrill at a distant danger. 'People like to be scared when they feel safe' said Alfred Hitchcock. There are a lot of pop psychological explanations of why people like to be scared or take their imagination to a dark place - some of them might even be true. From visitors to the London Dungeons, through role playing gamers brandishing fearsome-looking "medieval" weapons to couples getting a naughty BDSM thrill from a spot of chastity belt role play, it seems that people still are still furtively turned on by the idea of medieval barbarity.

I suppose that people fantasizing about torture, oppression and violence, rather than doing it for real, is an indication that we've progressed a bit since the real Middle Ages.

* the Wikipedia article itself includes a photograph of something that is purported to be a 14th century stick-ball-and-chain-type flail in a Russian museum, but I don't know whether this real or just a reconstruction