Tuesday, June 18, 2013

What We're Reading: New History

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

by Joel F. Harrington

Here’s a macabre and gruesome holiday from your usual reading: The Faithful Executioner is the true story of Meister Frantz Schmidt of Nuremberg. During forty-five years as a professional executioner (1573 to 1618) he personally put to death 394 individuals and tortured, flogged, or disfigured many hundreds more. Harrington’s account of Schmidt’s life is built around the journal Schmidt kept, one that recounts his executions, the particular manner in which they were conducted, and a brief description of the crimes for which the individual was executed. The entries are usually matter of fact. Sometimes Schmidt wrote a longer entry and went into greater detail about the commission of a crime, but unlike the popular broadsides and accounts of criminal activity and executions that were popular reading during the period, he was not trying to write anything sensational and did not intend that his journal would be published. His writing is dispassionate: He never tries to “justify” a sentence, and there is no indication that he ever felt a sentence was not just or that he was the instrument who punished an innocent man. Rarely, he might be critical of his own professional work, as when he indicates that an execution was “botched” (he didn’t decapitate the criminal in one clean swath but had to chop three times to get the head off). We know that Schmidt regularly tortured individuals in his role as an interrogator in the judicial process. The purpose of torture was not so much to elicit a list of accomplices as to produce a confession. Schmidt seldom mentions in his journal the torture that he applied in the course of carrying out his duties.
The journal itself would probably not hold our attention as literature or historical narrative. It is author Harrington’s placement of the details of the journal within the period’s political and social context that makes The Faithful Executioner a fascinating book. Readers will gain an understanding of the nature of criminal justice in European society in the late 16th and 17th centuries, of the society at large, and of the ambiguous social place of Frantz Schmidt in Nuremberg. Schmidt lived at a time when the job of an executioner was still considered to be socially dishonorable. An executioner was ostracized in church and civic organizations, and even in places of social entertainment such as public houses and taverns. Friendship with an executioner carried a taint of social dishonor.  Historically the job had been filled by characters of suspect repute, men often dissolute and unreliable with criminal leanings. They were unskilled at effectively managing the public spectacle that was such an important part of 17th century criminal justice, and often were insubordinate and tactless when dealing with civil authorities. Schmidt was part of the transformation of the executioner’s role to one of greater remuneration, civic importance and, to some limited degree, social respectability. He was sober in the job, tactful in dealing with civic authorities, reliable in managing the public spectacles of executions, and held his position for a long term. His approach was to model his job on that of a craftsman, displaying a certain mastery and professionalism, and he hoped by doing so to both enhance his place in civil society and mitigate social opprobrium.
Schmidt carried out punishments for lesser crimes, and was involved in court-ordered maiming (clipping off the tip of a tongue for blasphemy or cutting off an ear), public floggings, and the display of miscreants in the stocks, but it was the capital punishments that provided the major public “instructional” spectacles and are the events most frequently noted in his journal. The list of crimes that would carry the death penalty in the 17th century included murder and infanticide, armed robbery, burglary, repeated crimes of thievery, and arson. It seldom included witchcraft anymore, as the witch-hunting frenzy of earlier years abated in this second half of the century.  In this time before prisons and workhouses, the focus was on public and ritualized punishments. Banishment was often decreed for recidivists of small crimes. A public execution had a carnival-like atmosphere, and spectators hoped to witness a “good death,” one in which the offender, in an accession of religiosity (recovered or newly found) spoke to the crowd, regretting his crimes and seeking spiritual and public redemption before he died.

In a society in which public honor mattered a great deal (in both life and death), there was a hierarchy of honor represented in the means of execution specified by the court in its verdict. The most honorable death was to be beheaded by the sword, and convicted criminals often pleaded for such an end and were grateful to the court when their sentence was “commuted” to such a manner of demise. To be hung from the gallows at the execution site was a dishonorable end. The culprit’s body was left hanging and his bones fell into the pit below the execution platform. The grisly and dishonorable punishment of drawing and quartering was extremely rare by this time, as was the public drowning of women, which had been common earlier in the century in the prosecution of witches. The worst death sentence of Schmidt’s tenure was death by the wheel. This execution was nothing more than a method of crushing someone to death. A criminal was pummeled to death by the executioner using the instrument of a wagon wheel. The more “merciful” version started from the head down (where the criminal might quickly lose consciousness or have his neck broken), while the harsher method started with the executioner breaking the feet and legs and working his way up. Capital punishment also often involved torturing a criminal on the way to the gallows. As the transport cart was pulled along the route, burning hot tongs would be used to pull the flesh from the miscreant and create large bleeding wounds.  
Perhaps paradoxically to us, Schmidt saw his true calling and preferred profession to be that of a healer. This was a role often associated at this time with an executioner. The power to deal death apparently created in turn the public perception of a power to sustain life.  Executioners often made a side income, as did Schmidt, as healers. And in fact part of Schmidt’s job as an executioner and torturer gave him practical knowledge about wounds and the ways to heal them. Schmidt was often involved in healing sickness or resuscitating a criminal from torture wounds so that the criminal could be marched to the gallows under his own power--could be, in effect, in fine shape for his role in the public show of execution that was to be his fate. There was a gruesome black market in body parts, as they were thought to have healing properties, and there were consequently frequent thefts of corpses from the execution site. And perhaps the most memorable image in this book is that of epileptics, for whom human blood was thought to be a curative, crowding close to the gallows at a beheading.
Harrington structures The Faithful Executioner as a quest by Franz Schmidt to regain the honor of his family. The great tragedy of Schmidt’s life (as he saw it) was that he became an executioner not by choice but by the arbitrary action of a local potentate who had forced the young Schmidt’s father to carry out an execution in his hometown of Hof. The elder Schmidt had been working in an honorable profession as a woodsman, and in a whimsical and arbitrary exercise of authority was forced into the role of a social pariah. He had no option but to continue to work as an executioner, as no trade or profession would now give him gainful employment. We are to understand that his son had little choice but to follow in his father’s footsteps. It seems that Harrington would like us to sympathize, to some degree, with Schmidt’s unfortunate fate, and to feel as well perhaps some satisfaction at Schmidt’s eventual triumph, for Schmidt upon his retirement was able to elicit, with the help of his former employers in Nuremberg, a proclamation from Emperor Ferdinand that officially abolished his inherited shame and declared that his “honorable status among other reputable people” was restored.
And yet it remains hard for us to feel much of a share in Schmidt’s eventual triumph. Harrington shows us a different moral universe, or at least one we like to think is different than our own. But when it comes to the bloody and violent torture and punishment that is commonplace in The Faithful Executioner, we tend to rebel against any softening that moral relativism might prompt. There is something about the intimate and unmediated cruelty of these acts that seems to place them in  what we want to consider as a realm of absolute and timeless human values. We are reluctant to think that there are historical, social or political circumstances that would cause us to make accommodation with acts we seem to instinctively abhor, that we would ever come to consider these acts as necessary, decent, or moral. And maybe it is good that this is so, that there are such limits to our understanding, for even in our own time we have those who suggest we should moderate our revulsion and resurrect the kinds of actions we have now for long eschewed as barbaric. Smashing another human being to death or torturing them, we should remember, is a job Schmidt accepted doing in a “professional” way so that he might become a well remunerated, honorable and respected citizen. His actions served himself and those in power, those for whom administering justice, exercising the power to decide who was punished and how, was an important assertion of their legitimacy and authority. The Faithful Executioner calls to our attention the political side of acts of crime and punishment, and in exploring the social construction of our fluid notions of personal honor it is a testament to how frequently our sense of  the self-worth and individual consequence we so desperately pursue comes at the cost of mercy.
This book is illustrated with a wonderful selection of period woodcuts, engravings, and drawings, such as the one above.

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