Live by the Sword
The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the
Turbulent Sixteenth Century
By Joel F Harrington (The Bodley Head 285pp £20)
This is a marvellous book about a fascinating subject. It is, in a sense, a portrait of a serial killer. Frantz Schmidt was employed between 1578 and 1618 as the official executioner (and torturer) of the prosperous German city of Nuremberg. Over the course of his career he personally despatched 394 people, and flogged, branded or otherwise maimed many hundreds more. His life is also a tale of honour, duty and a lasting quest for meaning and redemption.
The penal regimes of pre-modern European states were harsh and violent, heavy on deterrence and the symbolism of retribution. Towns such as Nuremberg needed professional executioners to deal with an ever-present threat of criminality through the public infliction of capital and corporal sentences. Punishing malefactors with lengthy periods of incarceration was an idea for the future, and would probably have struck 16th-century people as unnecessarily cruel. Methods ranged from execution with the sword (the most honourable) to hanging (the least), and from the relatively quick and merciful to the dreadful penalty of staking a person to the ground and breaking their limbs one after the other with a heavy cartwheel. This was not a world of mindless violence: the punishments Schmidt imposed were carefully prescribed by the city authorities, down to the number of 'nips' (pieces of flesh torn from the limbs with red-hot tongs) convicts were to receive on their way to the gallows.
This gruesome regimen can be reconstructed because, over the course of 45 years, Schmidt kept a personal journal - not a diary in anything like the modern sense, but a usually terse and impersonal chronological record of all the punishments he had inflicted, including some details of the crimes behind them. The journal is not a new discovery (a version of it was printed as long ago as 1801), but Joel Harrington, drawing on a previously unused, near-contemporary copy, is the first historian to realise its full potential. The source lends itself to a social history of crime and punishment, but Harrington also attempts something more interesting and ambitious: to enter imaginatively into the world-view of its compiler and construct a rounded portrait of a personality and a life. Cleverly, he weaves Schmidt's own words wherever possible into his historical narrative, placing them in italics to let us identify what he has reported and what the author has conjectured or imaginatively inferred (invariably pitched pleasingly between excessive caution and undue presumption). It is a virtuoso performance. Harrington is able to draw on a range of ancillary documents, but this is the best example of making a single, apparently unpromising historical source sing since Eamon Duffy breathed life into a set of dusty English churchwardens' accounts in The Voices of Morebath.
It is a moving and empathetic story. Schmidt was a torturer and killer, but also a skilled professional, a pious Lutheran and, quite remarkably for a 16th-century German, a strict teetotaller. From the scant clues of his journal entries, Harrington constructs a mental map of Schmidt's attitudes to the criminals he encountered and of the crimes that especially offended him, particularly those involving personal betrayal or harm to children. Schmidt was a man of honour in a fundamentally dishonourable profession. Executioners were a necessary evil in urban German society: respectable people would not socialise with them or allow their daughters to marry them. Even their claims to burial in consecrated ground were tenuous. Yet throughout his life, Schmidt pursued an 'audacious dream of social ascent' - to have his family declared honourable and see other professions opened to his sons.
His own apprenticeship as an executioner was the result of a catastrophic fall in family fortunes, originating in an episode of almost cinematic vividness. In October 1553, the erratic and unpopular Prince Albrecht Alcibiades von Brandenburg-Kulmbach suspected three local gunsmiths of plotting against his life. Invoking an ancient custom, he commanded a hapless bystander to execute them on the spot. Frantz's father, Heinrich, had no option but to carry out the commission and, tainted by the act, no options thereafter but to become a professional executioner. Nearly three-quarters of a century later, after a lifetime of devoted civic service, his son successfully petitioned the imperial court for a formal restitution of the family honour so that he could see his own sons enter the medical profession. Schmidt himself was a killer, but his true vocation was as a healer. He tortured and executed hundreds of people, but claimed to have treated more than fifteen thousand patients in and around Nuremberg. This is not as paradoxical as it seems: executioners often doubled as medics, drawing on their unrivalled practical knowledge of human anatomy.
A compassionate torturer? Harrington intends his readers to be morally challenged by Schmidt's biography, which is also a 'story for our time and our world'. We safely insulate ourselves from the past, intellectually and culturally, when we should look it squarely in the eye (the famed executioner's black mask turns out to be a romantic 19th-century invention). The Nuremberg councillors took the steps they considered both necessary and legitimate to preserve peace and order. In an age of escalating 'counter-terrorism measures', our moral superiority in this regard is far from self-evident. What would Schmidt - who punished a handful of Jewish criminals without any apparent anti-Semitic prejudice - have made of the death camps or the other genocidal urges of the 20th and 21st centuries? Harrington has harsh words for the complacent progressivism on display in works such as Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Yet all this may underplay somewhat the extent to which execution by the state has within our lifetimes become a profound moral and philosophical touchstone. Harrington points out that capital punishment is widely practised in the world today, even in 'self-proclaimed liberal democracies such as the United States and Japan'. But in fact, the US and Japan are now the only liberal democracies to execute their citizens (South Korea retains the penalty but has not employed it since the 1990s). Abolition of capital punishment is a strict condition of entry to the expanding European Union; executions have for many years been suspended even in Putin's Russia. The more difficult part of historical empathy is to observe people in the past thinking and behaving in ways we consider ethically unacceptable, but still to recognise, even to admire, a morally coherent approach to life. Harrington helps us to see how it can be done. The Faithful Executioner is a brilliant microhistory, a triumph of technique and a wonderful read.
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Peter Marshall is writing a new history of the English Reformation.