The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century
Meister Frantz Schmidt of Nuremberg, Germany, spent 45 years as a professional executioner during the height of public executions from 1573 to 1618. Based upon his journal, this book documents both his life and the kind of society that people lived in during this era. What kind of individual would personally execute 395 people, torture others to obtain a confession, and still remain a compassionate human being? The key attributes of a successful executioner were obedience, honesty and discretion. Due to the type of service he fulfilled for the community, he was socially ostracized; therefore, executioners of the various towns attended common social gatherings.
Because of the increased number of crimes committed due to rising unemployment and inflation, the cities required a professional executioner. Also, new criminal codes required the forced execution of repeat offenders. Because of his knowledge of the human body (based upon his ability to apply pain to body parts without creating serious injury), as much as half of his annual income came from healing people.
Frantz’s father was an executioner so from age 19 to 24, Fritz was a journeyman. He travelled from town to town working on a fee basis, performing executions and learning his trade. He first had to pass a master test to work as a master executioner. Following his retirement in 1618, he continued applying his medical knowledge healing patients for several years.
With over 40 pages of notes, the author has written a revealing narrative of a little-known profession. This book is not for the squeamish, although Harrington keeps the description of tortures and bloodletting to a minimum. I found this book fascinating to read and scholarly in content, and it provided me with a greater explanation as to how crime and punishment were dealt with during the Renaissance era.