The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel F. Harrington is the biography of a professional executioner based on the man's own journal (available March 19, 2013).
Based on the rare and until now overlooked journal of a Renaissance-era executioner, the noted historian Joel F. Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner takes us deep inside the alien world and thinking of Meister Frantz Schmidt of Nuremberg, who, during forty-five years as a professional executioner, personally put to death 394 individuals and tortured, flogged, or disfigured many hundreds more. But the picture that emerges of Schmidt from his personal papers is not that of a monster. Could a man who routinely practiced such cruelty also be insightful, compassionate—even progressive?
An Excerpt from Part 2, The Journeyman
Formally initiated into the brotherhood of executioners, the nineteen-year-old Frantz Schmidt could now begin building the professional résumé that might one day secure him a permanent position. Shortly after his professional debut in Steinach in June 1573, the young journeyman was called to the town of Kronach, halfway between Bamberg and Hof, to administer his first execution with the wheel. His recording of the occasion is terse, as was his habit during these journeyman years. We learn only that the robber in question, one Barthel Dochendte, was guilty of at least three murders with his unnamed companions, and that his painful final ordeal was preceded by the uneventful hanging of a thief—a double execution and thus another first for the novice executioner. The young Schmidt does not in any way commemorate these novel professional experiences, at least not in writing.
Assisted by his father, Frantz secured an impressive total of seven commissions during his first twelve months on the job. Most of these involved the execution of thieves with the rope, all described by Frantz in succinct and emotionless terms. Hanging was a relatively simple, albeit grisly operation: the young executioner mounted a double ladder with the poor sinner then simply pushed his victim off. Some jurisdictions used stepstools or chairs, but the platform with the trap door did not make its appearance anywhere in Europe before the late eighteenth century. Thus there was no sharp drop to break the neck, but rather prolonged choking, which might be accelerated by the executioner or his assistant pulling on the legs of the convulsing victim, typically wearing special gloves made of dog leather. Once the desperate struggle for survival came to an end, Frantz removed the ladder and left the executed corpse hanging on the gallows until it decayed and dropped into the pit of bones below the gallows.
Three of Frantz’s assignments during his first year involved execution with the wheel, an extended procedure requiring a much greater degree of physical and emotional stamina on his part. It was also the most explicitly violent, even gruesome act the young executioner would be required to carry out as a professional. Typically reserved for notorious bandits and other murderers, this method of final dispatch essentially consisted of public torture, akin to the more infamous—and also much rarer—drawing and quartering. Whereas the much more common interrogatory torture of the prison chamber ostensibly sought information leading to conviction or vindication, the very public breaking with the wheel aspired to no more than providing a ritualized outlet for the community’s rage and a terrifying warning to any spectators with murderous inclinations.
All three men Frantz executed with the wheel during his first year were multiple murderers, but only Klaus Renckhart from Veilsdorf, the young executioner’s seventh victim, merited more than a line or two in his journal. Sometime during the second half of 1574, Meister Heinrich arranged for his son to travel to the village of Greiz, about forty miles northeast of their native Hof. Upon the completion of his four-day journey from Bamberg, Frantz came face to face with Renckhart himself, convicted of three murders and numerous robberies. Their initial contact was likely brief, but during the last hour of the condemned man’s life, the journeyman executioner and his victim would be constant companions.
Immediately following the local court’s pronouncement of the death sentence, Frantz shepherded the shackled Renckhart to a waiting horse-drawn cart. During their slow pro cession to the execution site, Frantz administered the court-prescribed number of “nips” with red-hot tongs, ripping flesh from the condemned man’s arm or the torso. Frantz rarely comments in his journal on this aspect of the ordeal, but it could not have been more than four nips, which was commonly considered fatal. Upon their arrival at the execution scaffold, better known as the Raven Stone, Frantz then forced the weakened and bloody Renckhart to strip down to undergarments, then lie down while the executioner staked his victim to the ground, meticulously inserting slats of wood under each of the joints to facilitate the breaking of bones. The number of blows with a heavy wagon wheel or specially crafted iron bar was also preordained by the court, as was the direction of the procedure. If the judge and jurors had wished to be merciful, Frantz proceeded “from the top down,” delivering an initial “blow of mercy” (coup de grâce) to Renckhart’s neck or heart and before proceeding to shatter the limbs of his corpse. If the judges had deemed the crime especially heinous, the procedure went “from the bottom up,” prolonging the agony as long as possible, with Frantz hefting the wagon wheel to deliver thirty or more blows before the condemned murderer expired. Again, Frantz does not not remark whether a mercy blow preceded this particu lar ordeal but it seems unlikely, given the alleged atrocities involved. Finally, the young executioner untied Renckhart’s mangled body and placed it atop a wheel on a pole, which he then hoisted to an upright position so that it might serve as a feast for carrion birds and as a graphic admonition to all new arrivals of the authorities’ deadly seriousness about law enforcement.
How did Frantz feel about his role in these macabre blood rituals? His journal entries provide little insight, except perhaps in their very brevity. Was his performance during these journeyman years as tentative as his subsequent recording of it? After all, witnessing such gruesome spectacles was quite another thing from perpetrating them with his own hands. Just as important as attaining the appropriate level of technical expertise, he had to develop the psychological fortitude to look into the eyes of condemned criminals like Renckhart before terminating their earthly existence. Did the young journeyman’s ambition override his innate distaste for his unsavory work or did he find other ways to make the job more palatable? Above all, how would he keep the near daily violence he administered from consuming him?
The short paragraph that Frantz writes about Renckhart in his journal provides a partial answer. Rather than describe the execution ritual itself, as he often does later in life, the journeyman executioner focuses on Renckhart’s crimes, giving most attention to a recent atrocity that clearly chilled the journeyman executioner to the bone. After briefly mentioning the robber’s other murders, Frantz recounts how one night Renckhart and a companion attacked the isolated rural home, known as the Fox Mill. Upon their break-in, Renckhart shot the miller dead [and] forced the miller’s wife and maid to his will and raped them. He then made them fry an egg in fat and lay it on the dead miller’s body [and] forced the miller’s wife to join him in eating. Also kicked the miller’s body and said, “Miller, how do you like this morsel?”
The robbers’ shocking violations of all human decency in Frantz’s eyes provided all the justification he required in his subsequent administering of death by the wheel. This stratagem of recalling and recording the heinous offenses that had made necessary the very punishments he carried out was a useful discovery that provided continual reassurance to Frantz throughout his long career.
On the Road
From the age of nineteen to twenty-four, Frantz continued to use his parents’ home in Bamberg as a base while he traveled the Franconian countryside from one temporary assignment to another. In this respect, his life differed little from the lives of most journeymen his age, all of whom sought to build a reputation and secure a permanent position as a master. Meister Heinrich’s name and professional contacts served him well during this period, providing him entrée into several villages in need of an ad hoc executioner for interrogation or punishment. None of these small communities offered Frantz any hope of a permanent position but collectively they allowed him to earn his keep while gaining invaluable experience.
His journal entries during these years record twenty-nine executions in thirteen towns, most frequently Hollfeld and Forchheim, each less than a two-day journey from his new home. He also performed three executions in his father’s stead in Bamberg, one in 1574, the other two in 1577. In later years, Frantz would sometimes write long, reflective journal entries in which he speculated on such questions as the motives of the people he executed. But in these early years, only the Renckhart execution runs to more than a terse one or two lines. Instead, professional advancement dominated the young journeyman’s thoughts and writings, and so he concentrates on documenting the number of executions he performed and the variety of killing methods in his repertoire. Even the briefest hint of introspection would have to wait until he was established and secure.
Like many ambitious young men, Frantz evidently knew—perhaps thanks in part to his father’s counsel—that technical proficiency alone would not earn him a coveted permanent position. In the increasingly lucrative, and thus competitive, world of professional executioners, a man also had to cultivate a social network and build a respectable name. Heinrich Schmidt could help his son get in the door but ultimate success depended on Frantz’s own ability to impress influential legal authorities with both his professional skills and personal integrity. To that end, building a reputation for honesty, reliability, discretion, and even piety went hand in glove with gaining experience at the gallows. In later years, Frantz would improve his reputation by drawing nearer and nearer to respectable society. At the onset of his career, though, his more urgent need was to push away— to the extent possible—his association with disreputable society. This precocious act of self-fashioning made his journeyman years more difficult and lonely—but it also allowed him to establish many of the habits and character traits for which the later Meister Frantz was known and revered.
In his journeys as a “wander bird,” Frantz encountered individuals from virtually every social rank. We tend to think of premodern Europe as fairly static, but there was in fact considerable geo graphical mobility. The young executioner was able to identify most travelers immediately by their attire and means of transportation. Fur-bedecked nobles and patricians in silk traveling cloaks were—as they intended—the most conspicuous, journeying by horse or carriage, usually accompanied by at least a few armed retainers. Merchants, bankers, physicians, and lawyers also typically traveled by horse and dressed in crisp woolen mantels. Frantz himself might have had use of his father’s riding horse but more likely he journeyed as did most other honest folk of modest means, by foot. Along the dirt paths and muddy roads of the Franconian countryside, he would frequently be overtaken and passed by galloping couriers and even plodding transport carts, filled with manufactured goods, wine, or foodstuffs. Pilgrims traveling to a religious shrine wrapped themselves in penitential white or sackcloth and moved at a slower gait, while families traveling to a wedding feast or farmers on the way to market hastened along amid boisterous chatter. A young journeyman wearing a modest hat and traveling cloak, perhaps with a walking staff in hand, was one of the most common sights of all.
Rural travel, as Frantz well knew, posed many dangers. Whatever personal encounters he had with highwaymen or other ruffians while underway are lost to history. We do however know of a more insidious threat the young executioner regularly faced and likewise struggled to evade—association with the dishonorable “traveling folk” who also filled the roads. The least marginalized of these were the numerous migrant agricultural workers and traveling tradespeople: peddlers, hawkers, tinkers, pewterers, knife grinders, and ragmen. Executioners themselves, like butchers and tanners, were still widely considered part of this group, as were entertainers of all sorts—acrobats, pipers, puppeteers, actors, and bear baiters. If he mingled in public with any of these individuals during his travels Frantz risked bringing down on his head the very social stigma he sought to escape.
His deep personal familiarity with the criminal underworld, the so-called thieves’ society, put Frantz in an even more uncomfortable spot. Many of his father’s assistants came from unsavory backgrounds, as did of course most of his victims. Like all executioners, Heinrich and Frantz Schmidt were both fluent in Rotwelsch, the colorful street slang of vagrants and criminals that combined elements of Yiddish, Gypsy, and other German dialects. A denizen of the underworld, for instance, who had “bought the monkey” (was drunk) might be wary of running into a “lover” (police official), especially if he had recently been “fencing” (begging), “bargaining” (swindling), or “burning” (blackmailing). Frantz also knew the signs and symbols that such vagabonds carved or chalked for each other on hospitable houses and inns. The extensive personal contact that young Schmidt had with hardened professionals, albeit not in a social context, meant that in most ways he was more a part of their “wised- up” (kocheme) society than the general public’s “witless” (wittische) world. His familiarity with the denizens of both worlds admittedly gave him an advantage in recognizing and steering clear of shady characters, but his years of assisting his father had also taught him that the line between honest and dishonest was neither fixed nor always obvious.
In that respect, the greatest challenge for a young man of the day seeking to establish an upright name came from other young men. Everywhere that Frantz went, he encountered the dominant culture of unmarried males—whether honest journeyman like himself or those engaged in shadowy enterprises—a social world based primarily on drink, women, and sport. Alcohol in particu lar constituted a key component of male friendship in early modern Germany and held special significance in the rites of passage among young men. Accompanied by raunchy songs and poems, the prolific quaffing of beer or wine could establish the ephemeral bonds of drinking buddies or be part of formal initiation into a local youth group, a military cohort, an occupational association, or even some form of blood brotherhood. Taverns with now quaint names such as the Blue Key or the Golden Hatchet were usually the first stop for all male travelers upon arrival in a village or town, and buying a round of drinks was a particularly effective way for a newcomer to command respect and make new friends, at least at a superficial level.
Like today, young male friendships of the era thrived on competition of all sorts. Card playing and gambling were givens. Wrestling or archery matches provided both a test of physical skill and yet another opportunity for betting. German men indulged to a legendary degree in prolonged drinking bouts and “duels” of wine and beer that occasionally resulted in serious internal injuries or, in rare cases, death. The drunken camaraderie of the taverns often led to much bragging—and exaggeration—about sexual prowess. And of course the dangerous combination of alcohol and testosterone inevitably sparked violence, not just brawls and knife fights among the young men themselves but also attacks on others, especially sexual assaults against women.
Participation in this rambunctious world was not an option for an ambitious young executioner. His efforts to avoid such company, as well as association with any dishonorable individuals, needed to be relentless and total. The subsequent self-isolation must have been emotionally difficult for Frantz, especially since he had not yet gained the accep tance of honorable society either. Respectable innkeepers remained wary about housing a man of his background, regardless of his commission from the prince-bishop or how finely attired or well-mannered he appeared. On the road, Schmidt could attempt to conceal his profession, even lie about it, or seek lodging elsewhere, in the house or barn of a hospitable stranger. Upon his arrival in the village of execution, though, it became impossible to hide his identity from anyone, so he was effectively shut out of all social gatherings. The only young males willing to share Frantz’s table (and his bar tab) were the very individuals he was trying to avoid—beggars, mercenaries, and probable criminals. His options for female companionship were just as limited: honorable artisans’ daughters wanted nothing to do with him, and consorting with prostitutes or other loose women would undermine the very reputation he was seeking to establish.
Thus Frantz did not make any great social sacrifice when he came to what was a remarkable decision for a man of his era: never to drink wine, beer, or alcohol of any kind. It was a vow he apparently kept for the rest of his life and for which he eventually became widely known and admired. Frantz’s religious beliefs may have played a role in this choice, but complete abstention from alcohol was rare in the sixteenth century, even among the most godly men and women. Our modern inclination might be to speculate that he had suffered from the embarrassing behavior or drunken violence of someone close to him—perhaps even his own father. But whatever his religious or emotional reasons, Schmidt’s vow not to drink was also a carefully calculated career decision. Early modern Europeans considered it a given that the executioner would drink to excess—a stereo type with a great deal of truth behind it. Compelled to kill and torture their fellow human beings again and again, many in Frantz’s profession likely sought preexecution courage in a tankard or two of beer or oblivion after the fact in a large quantity of wine. By publicly refuting the legendary fondness of his fellow executioners for the bottle, Frantz found an extraordinary means of underscoring the sobriety, both literal and figurative, of the way he had chosen to live. This jujitsu maneuver cleverly took the disadvantage of his de facto social isolation and turned it into a virtue that distinguish him in the eyes of future employers and perhaps even society at large. The quiet journeyman who sat without companions—or drink—in a far corner of the tavern may have been lonely but he knew exactly what he was doing.
Copyright ©2013 Joel F. Harrington
Joel F. Harrington is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of The Unwanted Child, winner of the 2010 Roland H. Bainton Prize for History, as well as Reordering Marriage and Society in Reformation Germany and A Cloud of Witnesses. He lives with his wife and two children in Nashville, Tennessee.