Considering their literal and figurative positions atop pedestals, historical objects in museums, films, or books can seem like infallible sources of knowledge. These same objects, found in fiction and mythology, have entertained us for centuries, ranging from King Arthur’s Excalibur and the Norse god Thor’s legendary hammer, Mjölnir, to Game of Thrones’ Valyrian Steel and Harry Potter’s Sword of Gryffindor. But some of these hallowed objects blur the boundaries between fact and fiction. Take, for instance, the horned "Viking" helmet popularized in 19th century dramas and operas. Despite being all but completely made up, its iconic shape has been stuck in the collective consciousness ever since. The Dark and Middle Ages, in fact, are some of the most heinous sources of design sensationalism; of countless objects that became real. They're treasure troves of embellished or fully fictitious objects that have since become canonized by the imagination.
One classic example is the "Morning Star" flail. Pop culture engines like Game of Thrones propagate the image of the spiked ball-and-chain mace—Benjen Stark’s flaming weapon in Season 6—and they've appeared in fantasy classics like Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons for decades. Historians like Kelly DeVries and Robert Douglas Smith, however, suggest it was far from a utilitarian weapon, and was instead popularized later by imaginative accounts of war. There’s a chance the Morning Star was used for ceremonial, decorative, or psychological purposes, like controlling large crowds, but it was likely not the commonplace weapon we know (and love) today.
Consider also infamous torture devices, like the rack and Scolds Bridle, which also face scrutiny over their popularity and practicality. Bridget Clifford, the Head of Collections at The Tower of London, tells The Creators Project, “In many cases, the threat was as much the weapon as the object itself. At the Tower, the Lieutenant had to have a warrant to support racking, and prisoners were shown the rack and threatened with it before it was actually used.”
Perhaps the most outrageous case is the Iron Maiden, which, like the Viking helmet, is a complete fabrication. If an image of a cabinet with impaling spikes lining its interior comes to mind, you’ve likely been hoodwinked by 19th century art collector Matthew Peacock and philosopher Johann Siebenkees. Peacock pieced together the Iron Maiden from real historical artifacts, and Siebenkees was known for telling tales about criminals sealed in spiked caskets. It was so successful as a sensationalist symbol of medieval cruelty that the concept holds fast today in wax museums and themed restaurants the world over. Also surviving years of historical criticism is the Pear of Anguish, a fruit-shaped torture device that was inserted into its victims openings, then expanded. “Although our surviving evidence for these objects may be later, the concept of crushing people and the insertion of objects into orifices has a long history,” says Clifford. ”These ideas predate the means we identify in prosecuting them. Perhaps the whole idea is a Victorian construction with their eagerness to categorize, compartmentalize, and to trace this developmental path?”
Perhaps the most worthy object of debunking is the chastity belt, revived just last year in Mad Max: Fury Road. Presumably, medieval men could lock their wives up with it while they went to war, secure in the knowledge they wouldn’t be cuckolded. As with the Iron Maiden, though, for its exciting, perverse nature, historians and museum professionals invented it. In reality, a woman would not survive the potential health risks associated with the instrument for more than a tortuous few days. In 1996, the British Museum rejected the medival chastity belt, removing one from their collection when it was found to have been created in the 19th century. But that doesn't stop people today from using them.
Popular culture, fancy dress stores, and even fetish shops may be to blame for our beliefs in these ahistorical artifacts, but let us not forget the chief culprit: our own perversions. After all, if the Iron Maiden, chastity belt, and viking helmet are any indication, history's fluid, but aesthetics are forever.