The period in European history from (roughly) 900 to 1500 AD is generally regarded as a time of religious supremacy and non-stop brutality, probably best forgotten. While there can be no denying the power of the church or the level of violence at the time, the era has too often become a caricature of the true picture.
I thought it would be useful to start the Medieval Era by debunking some of the myths that surround it. Most of these originated in the 19th century, when writers did their best to make their ancestors look even more barbaric than they really were.
The iron maiden (nothing to do with the band): These coffin-sized metal caskets, with the figure of a woman on the outside and a comprehensive set of spikes inside, were supposedly a form of medieval torture … except that no contemporary chronicle from the Medieval Era mentions them.
Let’s be clear about this: Torture happened a lot throughout history. Amnesty International has an easier job today than it would have had 500 years ago, but the iron maiden just doesn’t work as an implement of torture. Are you going to half close it and only sort of kill the person? Or slam it shut and have a very messy death?
Executions in this era were beheadings, hangings or the slightly more religious burning at the stake. As for pain, well, thumbscrews, racks, branding with hot irons – all of these are a lot less bother than making an iron maiden. But after these became associated with the era, every stately home and castle (especially in Germany, for some reason) felt they needed to acquire one, and a cottage industry developed to meet the demand. But for all of this, the iron maiden was a 19th century invention.
Prima noctur (or ‘first night’): This is the idea that a peasant bride was compelled by law to sleep with the local landowner on her wedding night. It’s not true; it’s completely made up. No law from the era has ever been found that would enforce such a regulation, and even a passing knowledge of history would make it seem unlikely.
Why? The Church. The medieval church may have ignored the bit in the Bible that said, ‘thou shalt not kill’, and it may have dreamt up both the Crusades and the Inquisition, but it hadn’t forgotten about chastity. Lustfulness was frowned upon in every level of society, so to have enshrined in law the idea that the local nobleman could work his way through the maidens of the area is to propose an idea that was contradictory to everything medieval society stood for.
But, did nobles seduce any peasant girl who caught their eye? Yes, but that’s not the same thing as having enshrined in law the right of a lord to have ‘access’ to every bride. And it is shameful that the movie ‘Braveheart’ uses this non-existent law as a key motivation for William Wallace’s rebellion. Once again, this idea of prima noctur is a Victorian invention to make the past look more barbaric.
The chastity belt: When a crusader went off for what could be years abroad, he would lock his wife’s loins in a sturdy metal device to ensure that she could not be unfaithful (even if she wanted to be). Apart from the fact that, once again, there is no contemporary evidence for such a contraption, the idea itself is laughable. Even allowing for the fact that reproductive knowledge in those days was much sketchier than today, if the husband was away for years and came home to a wife with a baby, everyone knew enough to be suspicious about the circumstances.
Even if such equipment had existed, it would have been totally impractical if only because it would have killed the wearer through poor hygiene, not to mention that, generally speaking, ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’. It’s just another example of the kind of barbaric image the post-enlightenment world loved to project onto that of the pre-Renaissance.
There are examples of ‘medieval’ chastity belts in museums, but none have been dated back to the era of the crusades. They are all, most likely, 19th century fakes.
This article is from a fellow historian known as History Gems and heres all his links