The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Shame and Honor in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century–Joel Harrington

Medieval justice.  The phrase brings to mind, for many of us influenced by popular culture, something less than just.  Cruel and imaginative tortures and punishments.  Joel Harrington demonstrates, through the well-contextualized life of one executioner, Meister Frantz Schmidt, that the early modern’s cities’ search for justice and order, administered by the growing municipal governments as well as larger states, led to an increase in torture and executions.  In an era with limited forensic science, torture was the surest way to learn the facts of a case.  Governments agonized over the forms of torture, in what order they should be used, and when they should be stopped.  Many crimes were punished with fines or flogging, some with exile from the city.  Heinous crimes or repeat offenses were dealt with through execution, but even here the government agonized over method.  The goal of early modern execution was not to create a spectacle of excessive physical suffering, but to demonstrate that the society operated according to laws overseen by the city fathers.  Many judgments noted that an execution was ordered in mercy, for instance beheading rather than hanging.  Burning at the stake could be done after the executioner broke someone’s neck or with a bag of gunpowder around the neck to facilitate a faster death.  Even hanging could be made less painful by having the executioner’s assistant hang on the condemned’s legs to hasten strangulation.  There was, Harrington explains, no trap door hangings and so no swift deaths from snapped necks.  Hanging was a slow strangle if done purely.  The most difficult execution to comprehend, perhaps, for a modern audience, is death by the wheel, in which the condemned was pinned to the ground with supports beneath his or her joints and beaten to death by the executioner using a large wooden wheel.  I wanted to know more about the origin of this punishment, about what had made anyone decide that breaking someone with a wheel rather than any other blunt object was preferable.  Perhaps the wheel also hastened death by beating someone’s body all over at once rather than one area at a time as would be possible with a cudgel.  Once broken, the condemned’s body would be attached to a wheel on a pole and the corpse left exposed for the birds. As further proof that executions were not spectacles of excessive physical pain, Harrington relates cases in which executioners were stoned or otherwise attacked my mobs when they botched an execution, such as requiring several blows in a beheading or overseeing a burning that went on too long before actual death.

Executions were at their height in the sixteenth century and diminished rapidly in the seventeenth and eighteenth as, Harrington postulates, governments became more secure in their authority, having performed it repeatedly throughout the sixteenth.  Harrington’s executioner, Meister Frantz Schmidt, served his career as the city of Nuremberg’s executioner during this high point.

I began this review with medieval justice because the phrase is often invoked to critique modern justice systems, but the sixteenth century was not medieval. It belongs to the early modern period and the growing power of national monarchies, emerging structures of national identity that overlapped, coincided, or even conflicted with changing religious identities in the wake of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations.  The story of how governments used their handling of crime and punishment to build authority and gain the trust of their citizens is one story line.

Another involves the Schmidt family’s efforts to escape the dishonor of execution.  Even though governments needed the executioners to build and buttress their reputations as guardians of justice and even though society needed executioners to be the public face of the maintenance of law and order, the gory nature of their work made executioners outcasts much like butchers and others who dealt in death and blood.  Meister Frantz Schmidt’s father became an executioner at the command of his lord.  He was in the wrong place at the wrong time when Bamberg needed an executioner and the office was empty.  Pressed into service, Schmidt’s family became tainted and left the ranks of polite society.  Frantz’s father encouraged him to change their situation and, when Frantz followed in his father’s footsteps (other trades no longer being open to him), he began keeping a journal of his official work that ultimately documented 394 executions and hundreds of other punishments over his forty-five years as Nuremberg’s executioner.  Frantz documented the crime with which the condemned had been found guilty and, as the years went on, added more about the criminal pasts of the condemned as he saw the same people come before him for punishments and, eventually, execution.  His entries are sober, as was he.  Unlike many executioners, who sought solace in drink to escape the realities of the violence and, perhaps, the social injustices heaped on the executioners and their families, Meister Frantz Schmidt remained sober throughout his life, drinking neither on or off the job.  His sobriety and his skill at his job, his professionalism, allowed him to negotiate very good terms for his employment as well as a pension.  Near the end of his life, his record, both in terms of people who knew and had worked with him and the written record of his career through his journal, earned for him an imperial restitution of honor.

The role of honor in the sixteenth century is a third story line.  The Schmidt family needs to demonstrate their honor despite their dishonorable profession.  Those accused of crimes are often condemned through a demonstrated lack of honor.  The city government pursues, punishes, and executes criminals to build and maintain its own honor.  The Nuremberg citizens refuse to socialize with the Schmidt family because to do so would taint their own honor.  Honor is a currency harder to accumulate than gold and much more quickly dissipated.  Honor is an internal value, but, more importantly, an external standard to which individuals, families, and groups needed to perform.  This story line takes Harrington into the history of gender and sexuality and allows him to integrate women into a story otherwise dominated by men.  Harrington is blunt about the limited choices available to women that often put them under the purview of the court.

In a fourth story line, Harrington analyzes Meister Frantz Schmidt’s views of his job over time.  The spare youthful entries that simply mark the facts of judgment and punishment or execution are replaced by longer entries that tell stories about the condemned and seek to put their violation of the law and society’s norms in a larger context, to make sense of their choices.  His own life choices and limitations influence his views.  For example, Harrington argues that Frantz struggled to understand people who set aside their privilege, their honor, to commit useless crimes or to ruin the honor of others.

When Frantz’ honor is restored by the imperial court, he asks to be allowed to continue his work as a healer, which was part of a sixteenth-century executioners job, as odd as that may sound to us.  Executioners were allowed, and expected, to treat external wounds.  At its most basic, prisoners damaged in interrogation needed to be whole and hale on their execution days, another proof that the sixteenth-century justice system was not simply a sadistic spectacle.  Executioners gained reputations as efficient healers, some better than others, and Frantz seems to have read or been informed of key medical treatises of his day that made him a valuable healer.  He was not simply peddling charms and amulets, although such healing was part of the mix of early modern medicine.  He was so good that his successor as executioner repeatedly complained that he was stealing his clients.

Harrington starts with Frantz’ journal, which he happened upon in a German bookstore, and he leads us through his journey as a historian to make sense of what was in its pages.  He looks at Nuremberg municipal records as well as those from other cities.  He integrates literature of the time as well as period drawings.  He is fortunate that Meister Frantz Schmidt was Nuremberg executioner during the period in which the famed Nuremberg Chronicle was compiled and printed in all of its glory, so he is able to share with us woodcuts of the town and even Frantz at work executing criminals.

Like Jill Lepore’s recent work on Jane Franklin, Harrington seeks to present to us the life of an ordinary person (though perhaps less ordinary than Jane in that he was a government official) through his subject’s own words put into context by a larger historical study.  Both are highly successful, but Harrington is more successful in keeping Frantz’s story always in focus and not let the master narratives (the rise of the state, for instance) take over. Once again, this book is a model of popular history done very well.

Finished 6/11/15


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