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The German Iron Maiden Posted by on Jun 16, 2016 in History, Language, Music, vocabulary

Guten Tag!

Part of learning a language involves stumbling upon interesting little facts you didn’t know about before. This is what happened to me the other day. I was reading a book that mentioned the Iron Maiden – I had no idea this was a German invention! So I decided to do some reading about it and bring the facts to you here.

So when I say Iron Maiden you might think of a band. But the torture device they are named after is not!

The German Iron Maiden

The original iron maiden was a torture device said to have originated in 14th century Nürnberg (Nuremberg).  It was a tall, coffin-like structure with hinged doors, tall enough to shut a human inside it. Its interior was full of spikes, so that when the person was inside it and the doors closed, the spikes would pierce their organs and other body parts, causing a slow, painful death.

Iron maiden interior

The original ‘iron maiden’. Photo: quinet on flickr.com under a CC license (CC BY 2.0)

The iron maiden is called the Eiserne Jungfrau in German. The word ‘Jungfrau’ means virgin. The iron maiden had a female face resembling the Virgin Mary. This torture device is said to have been a misinterpretation of the earlier Schandmantel – ‘coat of shame’ – which was to be worn for public humiliation.

Pretty gruesome, right?

Iron maiden replica

Interior and exterior of the iron maiden. Photo: madamjujujive on flickr.com under a CC license (CC BY 2.0)

130704_Poeggstall_G_ 012

Schandmantel – ‘coat of shame’. Photo by alfreddiem on flickr.com under a CC license (CC BY 2.0)


*Bonus fact!*

In German (and in fact, in many European languages) there is a phrase: sich wie gerädert fühlen, which literally means ‘to feel like you’ve been wheeled’. This phrase is in reference to the Breaking Wheel, also known as the Catherine Wheel, another medieval torture device on which victims were placed to have their limbs crushed. Though not German in origin, the Germans have the phrase sich wie gerädert fühlen as a direct reference to the Wheel, as a way of describing physical exhaustion and intense discomfort.

“Ich fühle mich wie gerädert” – I am exhausted/in pain/’done in’.


Vocabulary (underlined words in text above):

torture – die Folter (noun), foltern (verb – to torture)

device – das Gerät

coffin – der Sarg/der Totenschrein

spike – der Nagel/der Spieß, aufspießen (verb – to impale)

to pierce – durchstechen

body part – der Körperteil

death – der Tod

Virgin Mary – die Jungfrau Maria

humiliation – die Erniedrigung

gruesome – gruselig/grauenhaft/grausig

victim – das Opfer

limb – das Glied

exhaustion – die Erschöpfung

discomfort – die Beschwerden


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About the Author:Constanze

Servus! I'm Constanze. I'm half English and half German. I write here because I'm passionate about my languages and my roots. I also work as a translator & group fitness instructor.


  1. rosette v:

    what? what if the iron maiden was to be introduced today?
    love this informative article

  2. sunshine:

    To each his own. This topic is a “guy” topic perhaps but even though historical it does not have a wide appeal to me. What do you all think? So many good topics out there especially given how cruel life can be these days with all the wars. I would suggest more hopefulness for future choices. Danke

  3. Nicole:

    I found this very interesting and I remember seeing things like this in museums when I was in Europe. Danke Constanze!

    • Constanze:

      @Nicole Glad you enjoyed it, Nicole! History truly is fascinating!

  4. Snehal:

    Hello, thank you for sharing this. I found this info very intresting and your other sharing related German language is very helpful.

    Danke sehr!