Faithful Executioner

Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century

By Harrington Joel F., Joel F. Harrington

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2013 Harrington Joel F.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8090-4992-9


A father who does not arrange for his son to receive the best education at the earliest age is neither a man himself nor has any fellowship with human nature.
—Desiderius Erasmus, “On the Education of Children” (1529)1
A man’s value and reputation depend on his heart and his resolution; there his true honor lies.
—Michel de Montaigne, “On Cannibals” (1580)2
Neighbors in Bamberg had become accustomed to the weekly ritual getting under way in the back courtyard of Meister Heinrich Schmidt’s house and went about their business uninterested. Most of them were on cordial terms with Schmidt, the prince-bishop’s new executioner, but remained wary of inviting him or any of his family members into their homes. His son, Frantz, the focus of his father’s attention on this May day in 1573, appeared to be a polite and—if one could say this of the offspring of a hangman—well-bred youth of nineteen. Like many teenagers of the day, he planned to follow his father into the same craft, a path he began as early as the age of eleven or twelve. Frantz’s childhood and adolescence had been spent in his native Hof, a small provincial town in the far northeast corner of modern-day Bavaria, ten miles from what is now the Czech border. Since the family’s move to Bamberg eight months earlier, he had already accompanied Heinrich to several executions in the city and nearby villages, studying his father’s techniques and assisting in minor ways. As he grew in size and maturity, his responsibilities and skills developed apace. Ultimately he intended to become, like his father, a master in the practice of “special interrogation” (i.e., torture) and in the art of efficiently dispatching a condemned soul in the manner prescribed by law, using methods that ranged from the common execution with the rope, to the less frequent death by fire or by drowning, to the infamous and exceptionally rare drawing and quartering.
Today Meister Heinrich was testing Frantz on the most difficult—and most honorable—of all forms of execution, death by the sword, or beheading. Only during the past year had father considered son capable and worthy of wielding his cherished “judgment sword,” an engraved and elegantly crafted seven-pound weapon that spent most of its time hanging in an honored spot over their fireplace. They’d begun their practice months earlier with pumpkins and gourds before moving on to sinewy rhubarb stalks, which better simulated the consistency of the human neck. Frantz’s first attempts were predictably clumsy and at times endangered himself and his father, who held the poor sinner firmly in place. Over the weeks, his gestures gradually became more fluid and his aim more accurate, at which point Meister Heinrich deemed his son ready to ascend to the next level, practicing on goats, pigs, and other “senseless” livestock.
Today, at Schmidt’s request, the local “dog slayer,” or knacker, had assembled a few stray canines and brought them in his ramshackle wooden cages to the executioner’s residence in the heart of the city. Schmidt paid his subordinate a small tip for the favor and removed the animals to the enclosed courtyard behind the house, where his son was waiting. Though there was only an audience of one, Frantz was visibly anxious. Pumpkins, after all, did not move, and even pigs offered little resistance. Perhaps he felt a twinge of apprehension about killing “innocent” domestic animals, though this is likely an anachronistic projection.3 Above all, Frantz knew that successful decapitation of the former pets before him, each requiring one steady stroke, would be the final step in his apprenticeship, a visible sign of his father’s approval and of his own readiness to go out into the wider world as a journeyman executioner. Meister Heinrich again played the part of the assistant and held the first yapping dog fast while Frantz tightened his grip on the sword.4
A dangerous world
Fear and anxiety are woven into the very fabric of human existence. In that sense they link all of us across the centuries. The world of Heinrich Schmidt and his son, Frantz, however, was characterized by much more individual vulnerability than members of a modern, developed society might imagine bearable. Hostile natural and supernatural forces, mysterious and deadly epidemics, violent and malevolent fellow human beings, accidental or intentional fires—all haunted the imaginations and daily lives of early modern people. The resulting climate of insecurity may not account entirely for the frequent brutality of the era’s judicial institutions, but it does offer a context for understanding how institutional enforcers like the Schmidts might simultaneously be viewed with gratitude and disgust by their contemporaries.5
The precariousness of life was evident from the very beginning. Having survived a combined miscarriage and stillborn rate that claimed at least one in three fetuses, Frantz Schmidt entered the world with only a fifty-fifty chance of reaching his twelfth birthday. (Childbirth also presented real risks for the mother, with one in twenty women dying within seven weeks of delivery—a significantly higher rate than in even the worst-off of modern developing nations.) The first two years of a child’s life were the most dangerous, as frequent outbreaks of smallpox, typhus, and dysentery proved particularly fatal to younger victims. Most parents experienced firsthand the death of at least one child, and most children the death of a sibling and one or both parents.6
One of the most common causes of premature death was infection during one of the innumerable epidemics that swept through Europe’s cities and countryside. Most people who reached the age of fifty would have survived at least half a dozen outbreaks of various deadly infections. Large cities like Nuremberg and Augsburg might lose as much as a third to a half of their entire population during the one-to-two-year course of an especially severe epidemic. The most feared disease, though not necessarily the deadliest by this point, was the plague. Outbreaks of the plague became especially frequent in central Europe during Frantz Schmidt’s lifetime—occurring more often than at any other time or place in European history since the Black Death’s first appearance in the mid-fourteenth century. They were also fearsomely capricious in their timing and their virulence.7 Individuals’ traumatic memories and experiences generated a shared cultural dread of all contagion, further underscoring the fragility of human life and the extent of individual vulnerability.
Floods, crop failures, and famines also struck at frequent—though rarely predictable—intervals. The Schmidts had the particular misfortune to live during the worst years of the period known to us as the Little Ice Age (c. 1400–1700), when a global drop in year-round temperatures resulted in longer, harsher winters, and cooler, wetter summers, particularly in northern Europe. During Frantz Schmidt’s lifetime, his native Franconia saw much more snow and rain than in previous years, resulting in flooded fields and crops left rotting in place. In some years there were not enough warm months for grapes to ripen, thus yielding only sour wine. Harvests produced desperately little, and the resulting famine left humans and their livestock prey to disease and starvation. Even wildlife populations shrank dramatically, with starving wolf packs increasingly turning their attention to human prey. The scarcity of all foodstuffs sent inflation soaring and, faced with starvation, many formerly law-abiding citizens turned to poaching and other stealing to feed themselves and their families.8
Pummeled by natural forces beyond their control, the people of Frantz Schmidt’s day also had to contend with the violence of other humans, particularly the seemingly ubiquitous bandits, soldiers, and assorted lawless men who roamed the land freely. Most territorial states, including the prince-bishopric of Bamberg and the imperial city of Nuremberg, mainly consisted of virgin forests and open meadows, dotted with tiny villages, a few towns of one to two thousand inhabitants, and one relatively large metropolis. Without the protection of city walls or concerned neighbors, an isolated farmhouse or mill lay at the mercy of just a few strong men with modest weapons. Well-traveled paths and country lanes often lay far from help as well. The roads and forests just outside a city, along with all border territories, were especially dangerous. There a traveler might fall prey to bandit gangs led by vicious outlaws such as Cunz Schott, who not only beat and robbed countless victims, but also made a point of collecting the hands of citizens from his self-declared enemy, Nuremberg.9
The largest German state of the day was in fact—as Voltaire later famously quipped—neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire. Responsibility for law and order was instead divided among the empire’s more than three hundred member states, which ranged in size from a baronial castle and its neighboring villages to vast territorial principalities, such as Electoral Saxony or the duchy of Bavaria. Seventy some imperial cities, such as Nuremberg and Augsburg, functioned as quasi-autonomous entities, while some abbots and bishops, including the prince-bishop of Bamberg, had long enjoyed secular as well as ecclesiastical jurisdiction. The emperor and his annual representative assembly (known as the Reichstag, or diet) provided a common focus of allegiance and held symbolic authority throughout German lands, but remained utterly powerless in preventing or resolving the feuds and wars that regularly broke out among member states.
Just two generations before Frantz Schmidt’s birth, the reforming emperor Maximilian I more or less conceded the violent chaos that prevailed throughout his realm, proclaiming in his 1495 Perpetual Truce:
No one, whatever his rank, estate, or position, shall conduct feud, make war on, rob, kidnap, or besiege another … nor shall he enter any castle town, market, fortress, villages, hamlets, or farms against another’s will, or use force against them; illegally occupying them, threaten them with arson, or damage them in any other way.10
In those days, feuding nobles and their entourages proved the greatest cause of unrest, conducting frequent small-scale raids against one another—and in the process burning many rural inhabitants out of their homes and property. Worse still, some of these nobles freelanced as robber barons, running criminal rackets based on robbery, kidnapping, and extortion (commonly referred to as Plackerei), further terrorizing rural folk and travelers.
By the time of Frantz Schmidt, incessant feuding between noble families had largely ceased, thanks in equal measure to greater economic integration among the aristocracy and the rise of stronger princes.11 However, having consolidated their power in large states such as the duchy of Württemberg and the electorate of Brandenburg (later Prussia), these powerful princes now set out to conquer still more territory, using much of their considerable wealth to raise large armies of soldiers for hire. This thirst for war coincided with a steady decline in the number of nonmilitary jobs available to commoners during an exceptionally long period of inflation and high unemployment that historians have dubbed the long sixteenth century (c. 1480–1620). The ranks of soldiers for pay accordingly ballooned twelvefold over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, spawning a terrifying new threat to personal safety and property in German lands: the universally despised landsknechts, or mercenaries.
One contemporary characterized landsknechts as “a new order of soulless people [who] have no respect for honor or justice [and practice] whoring, adultery, rape, gluttony, drunkenness … stealing, robbing, and murder,” and who live “entirely in the power of the devil, who pulls them about wherever he wants.” Even the emperor Charles V, who relied heavily on such men, acknowledged the “inhuman tyranny” of the roving bands of landsknechts, which he considered “more blasphemous and crueler than the Turks.”12 While engaged, the mercenaries spent most of their time loitering in camps and sporadically pillaging the hinterlands of their contracted enemy—perpetrating countless acts of small-scale localized violence like that captured chillingly in an episode from Hans Jakob Christoffel Grimmelshausen’s seventeenth-century novel Simplicissimus:
A number of soldiers began to slaughter, to boil and roast things, while others, on the other hand, stormed through the house from top to bottom. Others still made a large pack out of linens, clothes, and all kinds of household goods. Everything they didn’t want to take with them they destroyed. A number of them stuck their bayonets into the straw and hay, as if they didn’t already have enough sheep and pigs to stick. Many of them shook out the feathers from the bedcovers and filled them with ham. Others threw meat and other utensils into them. Some knocked in the oven and the windows, smashing copper utensils and dishes. Bedsteads, tables, stools, and benches were burned. Pots and cutting boards were all broken. One servant girl was so badly handled in the barn that she couldn’t move any longer. Our servant they tied up and laid on the ground and rammed a funnel in his mouth and then poured a ghastly brew full of piss down his throat. Then they started to torture the peasants as if they wanted to burn a bunch of witches.13
Things were not much better in times of peace. When unemployed or simply unpaid (a frequent occurrence), some of these groups of mostly young men roved about the countryside in search of food, drink, and women (not necessarily in that order). Frequently joined by runaway servants and apprentices (known in England as “ronnegates”) as well as by debt-laden wife deserters, banished criminals, and other vagrants, these “sturdy beggars” survived mainly by panhandling and petty theft. Some became more aggressive, terrorizing farmers, villagers, and travelers with the same Plackerei as robber knights and professional bandits. The distinction between full-time and part-time extortionists and robbers was of course irrelevant to their many victims, as in the instance of two professional thieves flogged out of town by the adult Frantz Schmidt, who along with their companions, some begging mercenaries, forced the people at three mills to give them goods and tortured [them], taking several hatchets and guns.14
Among the many crimes associated with robber bands and other roving ruffians, one struck special terror in the hearts of the rural populace: arson. In an era long before fire departments and home insurance, the very word was incendiary. One carefully placed torch could bring a farm or even an entire village to ruin, turning prosperous inhabitants into homeless beggars in less than an hour. In fact, the mere threat of burning down someone’s house or barn—often used as a form of extortion—was considered tantamount to the deed itself and thus subject to the same prescribed punishment: being burned alive at the stake. Some gangs—known as murderer-burners—actually thrived on the extortion money they extracted from farmers and villagers threatened with this terrifying crime.15 Fear of professional arsonists was rampant in the German countryside, but most intentional house fires were the by-product of endemic private feuds and attempts at revenge, sometimes preceded by the warning figure of a red hen painted on a wall or a dreaded “burn letter” nailed to a front door. Fire prevention in most cities had advanced little since the Middle Ages, and rural dwellings and barns remained completely without protection. Only the wealthiest merchants could afford insurance, and even then it usually covered only goods in transit. Whether natural or man-made, house and barn fires spelled financial devastation to virtually all households.
Beset by all the dangers above, the people of Frantz Schmidt’s day feared yet another unseen, lurking threat: the bewildering array of ghosts, fairies, werewolves, demons, and other supernatural attackers traditionally believed to inhabit field and forest, road and hearth. Clerical reformers of all religious denominations attempted in vain to quash such ancient beliefs, while at the same time generating even more widespread anxiety by trumpeting what they believed to be the greater supernatural threat of a genuine satanic conspiracy at work in their time. The specter of witchcraft hovered menacingly throughout Frantz Schmidt’s lifetime, often leading to the tragic real-world consequences we know today as the European witch craze of 1550–1650, during which at least sixty thousand people were executed for the crime.
Where did one turn for protection and consolation in this vale of tears? Family and friends, the typical refuge from the world’s cruelties, might help an individual cope with misfortune but could offer little preventive help. Popular healers (“cunning people”), barber-surgeons, apothecaries, and midwives could offer occasional relief from some pains and wounds, but they remained helpless against serious diseases or most of the dangers of childbirth. Physicians, the modern medical expert of choice, were rare, expensive, and just as constrained by the medical knowledge of the day. Astrologers and other fortune-tellers might provide some sense of control and even destiny to troubled souls, but, once more, they could offer no protection from the world’s dangers themselves.
Religion continued to serve as one of the main intellectual resources of the age, offering explanations of misfortune and occasionally putative preventive measures. The teachings of Martin Luther and other Protestants from the 1520s on repudiated any reliance on “superstitious” protection rituals, but otherwise reinforced the common belief in a moral universe where nothing happened by chance. Natural disasters and epidemics were routinely interpreted as signs of God’s displeasure and even anger, though the cause of that divine wrath was not always self-evident. Some theologians and chroniclers identified a particular unpunished atrocity—an act of incest or infanticide—as the catalyst. Other times, collective suffering was interpreted more generally, as a divine call to repentance. Luther, John Calvin, and many other early Protestants retained an apocalyptic expectation that they were living in the final days and that the tribulations of the world would soon be at an end. And of course the devil and his minions remained a key component of every explanation of disaster, ranging from claims that witches caused hailstorms to stories of demons endowing criminals with supernatural powers.
The most commonly used preventive measure against the various “angels of death” was simple prayer. For centuries, Christians had collectively intoned “Protect us, O Lord, from plague, famine, and war!”16 Petitionary prayer to Christ, Mary, or a specific saint against a specific threat remained widespread throughout the later sixteenth century, even among Protestants, who formally rejected any supernatural intercession other than Christ’s. For many believers, magical talismans—such as gems, crystals, and pieces of wood—provided supplementary protection against natural and supernatural dangers, as did a variety of quasi-religious items known as sacramentals among Catholics: holy water, pieces of a consecrated host, saints’ medals, blessed candles or bells, and supposedly holy relics, such as an alleged bone fragment or other bodily part from a saint or member of the Holy Family. Other more explicitly magical spells, powders, or potions—some of them officially proscribed—promised recovery from illness or protection from enemies. If consolation and reassurance were the primary goals, we cannot so readily dismiss the efficacy of such measures. Belief in an afterlife, where the suffering and virtuous would be rewarded and the evil punished, may have offered additional solace, though even the strongest personal faith remained powerless to prevent or avoid catastrophe itself.
Assailed by dangers on all sides, Frantz Schmidt and his contemporaries were desperate for some sense of security and order. Secular authorities—from the emperor to territorial princes to the ruling magnates of city-states—all shared this longing and were determined to do something about it. Their paternalistic outlook was far from altruistic—entailing by definition an expansion of their own authority—but their concern for public safety and welfare was for the most part genuine. Their efforts to mitigate the effects of earthquakes, floods, famines, and epidemics may have offered some small aid to victims. But even the most ambitious improvements in public hygiene had a minimal impact before the modern era. The quarantines that many governments imposed during epidemics, for example, slowed the spread of contagion somewhat, as did better-regulated trash and waste disposal, but flight from urban areas during outbreaks remained the most effective measure among those who could afford it.
Law enforcement, on the other hand, offered an irresistible opportunity to demonstrate government’s ability to curb violence and provide some measure of security for all inhabitants. It also ensured greater popular support and expanded power for secular leaders themselves. Frantz Schmidt and his contemporaries consequently shared a paradoxical attitude toward the violence that surrounded them. As we might expect, people resigned to regular assault by waves of unpreventable natural disaster and illness tended to regard the violence of their fellow humans with a similarly fatalist resolve. At the same time, the heightened aspirations of political leaders in reducing such violence—or at least extracting a heavy price for it—clearly raised popular expectations and hopes. When legal authorities urged aggrieved individuals to avoid private retribution and turn to their own courts and officials, they were scarcely prepared for the onslaught of petitions and accusations that flooded their chanceries. Requests for official intervention ranged from complaints about road repairs and trash collection to requests to curb the public nuisance of aggressive beggars and rambunctious street children to reports of unruly or criminal activities among neighbors. The greater dominance these ambitious leaders sought came at the high price of having to listen to their subjects and provide visible proof that the people’s confidence in official promises was not misplaced.
The skilled executioner was in that sense the ruling authorities’ most indispensable means of easing their subjects’ fear of lawless attacks and providing some sense of justice in a society where everyone knew that the great majority of dangerous criminals would never be caught or punished. The ritualized violence that the executioner administered on the community’s behalf at once (1) avenged victims; (2) ended the threat represented by dangerous criminals; (3) set a terrifying example; and (4) forestalled further violence at the hands of angry relatives or lynch mobs. Without the executioner’s carefully orchestrated, highly visible, and often brutal assertion of civic authority, secular rulers knew that “the sword of justice” would remain an empty metaphor and that their self-proclaimed role as the guarantors of public safety would be regarded as meaningless. As their representative, the executioner undertook the precarious operation of achieving the desired semblance of orderly justice while in the process of physically assaulting or killing another human being. An aspiring master such as Frantz Schmidt would need to convince prospective employers not only of his technical abilities but also of his capacity to remain calm and dispassionate in even the most emotionally charged situation. This was a daunting goal for one so young, but one that Meister Heinrich and his apprentice son embraced with singular and unflinching resolve.
A father’s shame
The relative social tolerance that Heinrich Schmidt and his family enjoyed in the spring of 1573 was itself a recent development, and one by no means guaranteed to endure. Since the Middle Ages, professional executioners had been universally reviled as cold-blooded killers for hire and accordingly excluded from respectable society at every turn. Most were forced to live outside the city walls or near an already unclean location within the city, typically the slaughteryard or a lazar house (for lepers). Their legal disenfranchisement was just as thorough: no executioner or family member could hold citizenship, be admitted to a guild, hold public office, serve as a legal guardian or trial witness, or even write a valid will. Until the late fifteenth century, these outcasts received no legal protection from mob violence in the event of a botched execution, and a few were actually stoned to death by angry spectators. In most towns, hangmen—as they were most commonly known—were forbidden to enter a church. And if an executioner wished to have his child baptized or desired last rites for a dying relative, he depended on the willingness of the sometimes less-than-compassionate local priest to set foot in an “unclean” residence. They were also banned from bathhouses, taverns, and other public buildings, and it was virtually unheard-of for an executioner to enter the home of any respectable person. People of Frantz Schmidt’s era harbored such a pervasive fear of social contamination at the very touch of an executioner’s hand that respectable individuals jeopardized their very livelihoods by even casual contact. Folklore abounded with tales of the disasters that befell those who broke this ancient taboo, and of beautiful condemned maidens who chose death over marriage to willing hangmen.17
The source of this deep anxiety seems obvious, given the distasteful nature of the hangman’s trade. Even today, direct contact with dead bodies carries a polluting stigma in many traditional societies. In early modern Germany, the associated “infamous occupations” thus not only included executioners, but also gravediggers, tanners, and butchers.18 Most people also considered hangmen a type of amoral mercenary and thus excluded from “decent” society in the same manner as vagrants, prostitutes, and thieves, as well as Gypsies and Jews. Contemporaries and even some modern scholars commonly supposed that any individual attracted to such an unsavory occupation must be a criminal himself—even though the evidence of such a correlation remains inconclusive. It was likewise presumed that socially marginalized figures had been born out of wedlock, with the distinction between illegitimate (unehelich) and dishonorable (unhehrlich) often elided, so that even official documents might casually refer to “the whoreson hangman.”19
Not surprisingly, hangmen and other dishonorable individuals tended to bond together, both professionally and socially. Executioner dynasties sprang up across the empire, built on both mutual exclusion and strategic intermarriage. Some of these families bore ominous surnames—such as Leichnam (corpse)—while most gained fame principally among their fellows in the trade, such as the south German families of Brand, Fahner, Fuchs, and Schwartz.20 Over the course of generations, these interconnected families developed many of the same ritual initiations and other forms of corporate identity common to “honorable” crafts such as goldsmiths and bakers. Like the honorable craftsmen who spurned them, executioners also developed professional networks, oversaw the training of new practitioners, and sought to secure gainful employment within the trade for their sons.
The full extent of Heinrich Schmidt’s ambitions for his own son at this moment, however, was far greater than either of them dared admit to anyone outside their own household. Together they sought to undo the family curse that had condemned them and all their progeny to the gutter status of the executioner—an audacious dream of social ascent that was virtually unthinkable in their rigidly caste-conscious world. The secret reason for the family’s descent into shame—a story passed down from father to son—would only be revealed to the wider world by Meister Frantz in his old age. But on this day, as the young Frantz raised his sword over the trembling body of an unlucky stray, that secret shame burned fresh in his mind.
Until the fall of 1553, Frantz’s father, Heinrich Schmidt, had enjoyed a comfortable and respectable life as a woodsman and fowler in the town of Hof, situated in the margravate of Brandenburg-Kulmbach, the territory of a Franconian noble of middling rank. Schmidt and his family had survived and even prospered during several years of upheaval caused by the expansionist ambitions of their young lord, Albrecht II Alcibiades (b. 1522), popularly known as Bellator (warrior). Like his Athenian namesake, Albrecht Alcibiades frequently shifted allegiances during the religious conflicts of the 1540s and 1550s, ultimately alienating both Catholic and Protestant states with his savage raids of their territories. Most recently, the Warrior’s aggression and duplicity had even succeeded in uniting against him troops from the Protestant states of Nuremberg, Bohemia, and Braunschweig, with those of the Catholic prince-bishoprics of Bamberg and Würzburg, in what would later be known as the Second Margrave War. Albrecht’s act of unintentional ecumenism culminated in his enemies’ joint invasion of his territory and their siege of many strongholds, including the city of Hof.
One of Albrecht’s better-fortified towns, Hof was surrounded by stone walls twelve feet high and three feet thick. The margrave himself was not resident when the siege began on August 1, 1553, but the local militia of some six hundred men held their own against a surrounding army of more than thirteen thousand troops for over three weeks, until a letter from Albrecht arrived, announcing that reinforcements were on the way. The promised relief never came, however, and after four more weeks of daily bombardments, raiding parties, and mass starvation, the battered town capitulated. The subsequent occupation was mild. Nonetheless, the conquerors had to force Hof’s angry citizens to formally welcome their own lord when he finally rode into town with an entourage of sixty knights on October 12. Within a few weeks of his return to Hof, Albrecht succeeded in not only further alienating his resentful subjects but also reigniting hostilities with the victorious army still camped outside the city walls. This foolhardy campaign ended in disaster, with the conquerors inflicting a much more severe occupation on the city and the margrave himself forced to flee the city. Declared an imperial outlaw, he spent four years as a wandering exile in France, before dying in 1557 at the age of forty-five. By then, large parts of Albrecht’s territory lay in ruins and his name was bitterly cursed among his former subjects.
Heinrich Schmidt and his son had a still deeper and more enduring grudge against the disgraced margrave than did other residents of Hof. It originated on Monday, October 16, 1553, three days after Albrecht Alcibiades had returned to the devastated Hof with his retainers. Like other German towns of its size, Hof could not afford to maintain a full-time executioner. But when the widely despised Albrecht had three local gunsmiths arrested in an alleged plot on his life, rather than sending for a traveling professional to execute them—the usual course of action—the headstrong margrave invoked an ancient custom and commanded a bystander to carry out the deed on the spot. The man singled out for this terrible distinction was Heinrich Schmidt. Having lived as a respectable citizen of Hof, Schmidt vehemently protested to his ruler that this act would bring infamy upon him and his descendants—but to no avail. Unless [my father] complied, recounted the seventy-year-old Frantz, [the margrave] threatened to string him up instead, as well the two men standing next to him.
Why was the innocent woodsman singled out for this dreadful commission? The answer lies in another story that Frantz would not reveal until late in his life—a bizarre and improbable case of a dispute with a man about a dog. A few years before the fateful confrontation with Albrecht Alcibiades, Frantz’s grandfather, the tailor Peter Schmidt, was approached by a weaver journeyman from Thüringen and asked for permission to wed his daughter. The young couple subsequently married and settled in a small farmstead near Hof. One day, as the weaver (named Günther Bergner, Frantz recalled eight decades later) was strolling the countryside, he was attacked by a large dog. In anger, Bergner picked up the animal and hurled it at its owner, a deer hunter, to his misfortune and ours (Frantz later recalled) killing him. Though not prosecuted, the weaver was thereafter considered dishonorable and barred from all crafts. Since no one wanted to be around him, out of desperation and melancholy he became an executioner. The stigma did not apparently carry over to his father-in-law Peter Schmidt, who continued to work as a tailor in Hof. A few years later, though, when the anxious margrave sought someone to dispatch his would-be assassins, the infamous occupation of Heinrich Schmidt’s brother-in-law Bergner (who presumably was not himself available) sealed the choice of a new executioner.21
As Schmidt had predicted, from his moment of capitulation to Albrecht’s order, he and his family were ruthlessly and definitively excluded from honorable society by their own neighbors and former friends, simultaneously tainted by their association with an odious trade and a reviled tyrant. The dishonored Heinrich Schmidt could have attempted to escape ignominy by starting anew with his family in a distant town. Instead, he chose to remain in his ancestral home and attempt to earn a living from the only craft now open to him. Thus was a new executioner dynasty born—though if the plan that Heinrich would later share with his son, Frantz, succeeded, it would be a short-lived one.
Frantz Schmidt entered the world within months of his father’s dramatic fall from grace, sometime between late 1553 and mid-1554.22 The Hof of his childhood and adolescence remained a closed society of at most one thousand people, its insularity and social rigidity exacerbated by its remote location. Later known as the Bavarian Siberia, the region surrounding the town on the Saale River was wrapped in dense, ancient forests and overshadowed by mountains up to one thousand meters high. Long, brutal winters and a native soil riddled with chalk and iron made farming difficult. Weaving and other cloth-related trades dominated economic life in the town, cattle- and sheepherding in the countryside. Mining had provided another source of wealth for centuries, in the days of Frantz Schmidt yielding finds of gold, silver, iron, copper, tin, granite, and crystal.23
Hof was also a frontier town in the cultural sense. To Thuringians and Saxons, it was the far south; to Franconians their own far north. Just west of the Bohemian border, the town was shaped by a unique mix of Slavic and German influences and in 1430 had actually been sacked by invading Hussites, radical followers of the martyred religious reformer Jan Hus. The regional identity most closely associated with Hof was that of the Vogtland. By the sixteenth century, the territory originally named for its imperial Vögte (lord protectors) had become more of a vague cultural construct than a political entity, distinguished most by its dialect, sausages, and exceptionally potent beer. Much later, among nationalists of the nineteenth century, the scenic and pristine Vogtland would represent an ur-Germanic wilderness, possessing an idealized but also savage beauty. For the ostracized Schmidt family, the geographical isolation of Hof merely deepened their own state of internal exile and despondency.
Heinrich Schmidt’s reasons for staying put after his disgrace are unclear. At least the political aftermath of Albrecht Alcibiades’s disastrous reign was more favorable to his imposed profession. Upon Albrecht’s death in 1557, his cousin Georg Friedrich, margrave of neighboring Brandenburg-Ansbach, assumed control over Brandenburg-Kulmbach as well. Hof’s new lord was as steady and circumspect as his kinsman had been rash. All the city’s trees miraculously bloomed again that fall, reported the local chronicler Enoch Widman, as potent an omen as the earthquake that had presaged Albrecht’s disastrous rampage.24 From his residence in nearby Bayreuth, Margrave Georg Friedrich immediately set about rebuilding Hof and other damaged towns while repairing relations with neighboring states. He also initiated thorough financial and legal reforms, beginning with a series of new police ordinances and other criminal legislation. One immediate result was a sharp increase in the number and intensity of criminal prosecutions. In the twelve months leading up to May 1560, Heinrich Schmidt, the margrave’s new executioner, was called on to perform an unprecedented eight executions in the district of Hof alone.25
Heinrich Schmidt’s work for the margrave was consequently stable enough to provide him with a reliable income, which he was able to supplement with freelance execution work as well as the traditional executioner sideline of healing wounds. His chances of reversing the family’s social misfortune while in Hof, however, were practically nil. He applied at least twice for executioner jobs elsewhere but not until 1572, when Frantz was eighteen, did he finally secure the position of executioner to the prince-bishop of Bamberg, a notable step up the career ladder.26 After nearly two decades of being shunned by their former friends and neighbors, the Schmidts were finally free of provincial Hof, if still shackled to their painful memories and shameful legacy.
The diocese (later archdiocese) of Bamberg was one of the oldest and most prestigious sees in the empire. In 1572 its bishops had enjoyed four centuries of simultaneous secular and religious authority and, despite considerable losses to the Protestant Reformation during the previous four decades, still ruled over four thousand square miles of territory and approximately 150,000 subjects. The prince-bishopric’s administration was relatively sophisticated and widely admired in the area of criminal law, particularly since the 1507 publication of its immensely influential code, the Bambergensis.27 Bishop Veit II von Würtzburg, Heinrich Schmidt’s new lord, was better known among his subjects for his heavy taxes, but it was in any event his vice chancellor who supervised the new executioner and other judicial personnel. When Heinrich Schmidt reported to the cathedral city for duty in August 1572, he celebrated a significant personal as well as professional achievement.
The Schmidt family enjoyed a materially comfortable life in their new hometown, with a healthy income that averaged 50 fl. a year—as much as a pastor or schoolteacher—as well as other benefits Meister Heinrich accrued as a municipal employee.28 Their spacious house, located on a peninsula in the northeastern corner of the city today known as Little Venice, came rent free for the duration of his work for the bishop. After the family’s arrival in the late summer of 1572, the city undertook a thorough renovation and expansion of the house according to Heinrich’s specifications.29 Admittedly, the family was expected to share quarters with Hans Reinschmidt, the executioner’s assistant (known in Bamberg as the Peinlein, or penalizer), but with Frantz the only child remaining at home, some degree of privacy was still possible.
Although still precarious, the family’s social position became less oppressive than it had been in the smaller community of Hof. Bamberg was a relatively cosmopolitan town of about ten thousand, known principally (even today) for its magnificent thirteenth-century cathedral and the city’s prolific production of a unique smoked beer. Locals proudly compared Bamberg’s seven majestic hills, each crowned with its own distinctive church, to the seven hills of the Eternal City. At least in theory, the Schmidts’ new home allowed them a much greater degree of anonymity in the streets and markets than provincial Hof, and perhaps even a degree of neighborly acceptance. Some churches in cities of this size had begun to permit executioners their own pews, and a few taverns even provided them with their own stool—sometimes three-legged, like a scaffold.30 The Schmidts’ Protestant faith undoubtedly created some additional barriers in the overwhelmingly Catholic city, but it apparently made no difference to Heinrich’s Catholic employers, despite the bishopric’s public embrace of the Counter-Reformation.31
The surest sign of the executioner’s relatively enhanced (or rather, less degraded) status in this era was the increasing frequency of reactionary legislation that attempted to restore “traditional values” and the “natural” social order. Like the so-called sumptuary laws of the previous century, imperial police ordinances of 1530 and 1548 required executioners (as well as Jews and prostitutes) to wear “distinctive clothing by which they could be readily identified.”32 Many local decrees similarly decried the blurring of traditional boundaries and attempted to reverse the perceived trend toward tolerance of all “dishonorable” people, imposing hefty fines or even corporal punishment on those who transgressed.
Popular prejudice always dies slowly, especially among those individuals most anxious about their own deteriorating economic situation and unstable social status. The second half of the sixteenth century saw the emergence of an increasingly global marketplace, a shift with especially dire consequences for traditional craftsmen and their products. But rather than direct their anger at the new breed of extravagantly wealthy bankers or merchants, most “poor but honest” artisans instead attacked seemingly prosperous executioners such as Heinrich Schmidt and other individuals (notably Jews) whom they considered rightfully beneath them. Obsessed with preserving their self-defined “dove pure” honor, German craftsmen universally ignored the emperor’s 1548 opening of guild membership to executioners’ sons and continued to forbid their members any social contact whatsoever with them. Any artisan defying this sweeping ban—which also applied to butchers, cobblers, tanners, sack carriers, and a number of other “disreputable” occupations—risked social ostracism, loss of guild membership, or worse. One Basel artisan allegedly committed suicide because of his pollution by close contact with the local executioner; others so tainted felt compelled to leave town and start anew somewhere else. This rigid view of social status, based principally on birth, would continue to exercise enormous influence on how most people in Europe and in the German lands thought and acted for a long, long time—well into the modern era, in fact.33
Fortunately for the Schmidts, these heavy-handed legal attempts to single out marginal individuals and stymie their social advancement made no difference in day-to-day life and served little purpose other than to appease anxious artisans. Contrary to modern representations, for instance, Heinrich Schmidt and later his son, Frantz, were not compelled to wear any standard on- or off-duty uniform, and there is absolutely no evidence anywhere of the stereotypical black mask—likely an invention of nineteenth-century Romantics. A few cities required their executioners to don a bright red, yellow, or green cape, or wear a striped shirt, or perhaps a distinctive hat.34 In illustrations from the second half of the sixteenth century on, though, they are invariably well dressed, sometimes to a dandified degree. In short, they dressed the same as any other middle-class burgher—and therein lay the problem for status-anxious craftsmen.
The toothlessness of such ordinances did not ease the uncertainty of the Schmidts’ slightly improved social standing in urban Bamberg. Personal honor, based on both social rank and reputation, remained the most valuable—and fragile—commodity around. In Heinrich Schmidt’s day, verbal insults to one’s “name”—“rogue” or “thief” for a man, “whore” or “witch” for a woman—frequently led to physical assault or even homicide among individuals of every rank. “Whoreson of a hangman” remained a common curse (even appearing in Shakespeare’s plays) and “it belongs to the gallows” was the most succinct way to condemn any frowned-upon practice. The Schmidts were likewise reminded of their lowly place with virtually every feast day, public procession, or other civic occasion, where both the reigning social hierarchy—and their own exclusion from it—were vividly reasserted. As in any racially or otherwise segregated society, law and custom still explicitly banned executioners and their families from many venues and severely constrained their opportunities for education, occupation, and housing, a condition that would persist for generations to come.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the stigma tied so deeply to Heinrich Schmidt’s profession was its unpredictable effect, which created a fragile and always socially tenuous atmosphere in any interaction between family members and their Bamberg neighbors. Like other elastic social concepts—the famed U.S. “middle class” comes to mind—the definition of the executioner’s dishonor might be interpreted variously and selectively, and sometimes even spitefully, by different individuals and communities. A visiting merchant from Lübeck might express shock not only that the Augsburg “hangman” lived in the midst of town but also that honorable people regularly ate and drank with him and even entered his house. In another town, by contrast, there might be regret but also little surprise when the wife of one executioner died in childbirth because the midwife refused to set foot in their home. Even a widely respected executioner might be reputed to have “a great many friends in the village,” and yet at his death have not a single soul willing to serve as a pallbearer.35
Heinrich Schmidt knew well that neither his position as a well-paid government official nor his bourgeois standard of living nor his personal reputation for honesty guaranteed any kind of lasting acceptance or secure future for him or his family. Social humiliation in minor or major ways remained a routine experience, a continual reminder of his shame. His contemporaries considered his predicament an unalterable fact of life. But for Meister Heinrich and his equally determined son, the disgraceful occupation thrust upon them both would provide the very means of their family’s attempted salvation.
A son’s opportunity
Timing and luck are important to any personal success. Frantz Schmidt had the good fortune to come to maturity in what historians now call “the golden age of the executioner.” This development was itself the culmination of a very gradual yet profound transformation of German criminal law that had been under way for at least two centuries. Since the days of the Roman Empire, Germanic peoples had treated most crimes as private conflicts to be resolved by some form of financial compensation (wergild) or by a customary punishment, such as loss of a limb or banishment. State officials, who remained few in number until the later Middle Ages, typically played the role of referee, ensuring orderly procedures but leaving instigation, trial, and judgment to elders or other local jurors. The main goal in this approach was modest—to prevent blood feud and ongoing violence—certainly not to punish all malefactors, which would have seemed a simultaneously alien and impractical objective. Usually a male relative of a murder victim was allowed to execute the perpetrator himself; other state-endorsed killings used freelance hangmen or court beadles (low-level enforcers), paid on an ad hoc basis, by the execution.36
The late medieval origins of a more active, even interventionist, governmental role in criminal justice lay in two intertwined but distinctive impulses. The first was a broader, more ambitious definition of sovereignty itself that first surfaced in prosperous city-states, such as Augsburg and Nuremberg. Eager to make their jurisdictions safe and attractive havens for trade and manufacturing, municipal guilds and ruling patrician families began to issue ordinances governing a wide variety of behavior previously left to the private sphere. Some of the new regulations appear odd, even quaint to modern eyes, particularly the many sumptuary ordinances ostensibly aimed at preserving the public peace by restricting clothing and dancing of various sorts. Only noblemen might wear swords or fur, for instance, while their wives and daughters might possess exclusive right to don jewelry and certain multicolored fabrics. More significant, by the beginning of the sixteenth century, more than two thousand cities and other jurisdictions in Germany had sought and been granted the monopoly of high justice, or the right to try capital crimes. Most of these local courts continued to rely on private settlements for lesser offenses but jealously guarded the privilege to perform their own executions. Lynch justice—whether by stoning, beating, or hanging—became almost as much a target as crime itself, since such spontaneous mob actions deeply undermined the authority that governmental officials sought for themselves.
Of course it is one thing to loudly proclaim new laws and state prerogatives and a different matter entirely to enforce them, particularly in a highly decentralized empire. At this point a new generation of reforming lawyers emerged, providing the second key element in the transformation of German criminal law and practice. These academically trained jurists convinced their more business-oriented magisterial colleagues that the increasing number and complexity of new laws and procedures rendered the old legal apparatus inadequate and instead required an ever-growing cadre of professional functionaries at all levels.
In a similar vein, the patrician magistrates of both Augsburg and Nuremberg became the first to conclude that in order to prosecute criminals more effectively, their cities needed to employ a full-time expert trained in the methods of judicial interrogation (including torture) and execution. Elevating the hangman to the position of a permanent civic employee helped legitimize his work, in theory associating him more with scribes and municipal inspectors than with mercenary soldiers and their “evil turbulent lust for spilling human blood.”37 Offering the city executioner a long-term contract also gave local authorities a greater sense of security and control over these presumably loyal implementers of their expanded legal ambitions. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the trend throughout the empire toward permanent executioners appeared irreversible.
The full transformation of the part-time hangman into the full-time professional executioner, however, like the evolution of German criminal justice itself, required several generations and was still not complete by the time of Frantz Schmidt’s birth in 1554. In some areas, officials continued to pay the hangman on a per-execution basis as late as the eighteenth century.38 Many smaller jurisdictions simply could not justify the expense of a full-time executioner, while others selectively followed the medieval tradition of requiring a young male member of the community to carry out the odious task of judicial killing—a scenario intimately familiar to the Schmidt family. A few more isolated localities continued the still more ancient custom of bestowing the right of administering final justice to a male member of the victim’s family. Even among the majority of German lands that employed a salaried executioner by the sixteenth century, prosecution and punishment of crime remained one part of a job description that also included a number of other distasteful tasks, ranging from oversight of the city’s brothel to garbage disposal to burning the bodies of suicides.39
The mid-sixteenth century nonetheless inaugurated a new era of opportunities for the professional executioner. Even more fortuitously, Frantz’s two future employers, the prince-bishop of Bamberg and the imperial city of Nuremberg, stood at the forefront of that very reform of German criminal justice. Jurists trained in civil (Roman) law were particularly influential in Franconia, leading to two exceptionally influential pieces of criminal legislation: the 1507 Bambergensis, officially titled the Bambergische Halsgerichtsordnung (literally, “neck-court-ordinance,” because of its focus on capital punishment), and its 1532 successor, the imperial Constitutio Criminalis Carolina (or Criminal Constitution of [Emperor] Charles V), popularly known as the Carolina.40 The older publication, compiled by the Franconian nobleman Johann Freiherr von Schwarzenberg, was intended as a manual for lay judges who, like Schwarzenberg himself, had not trained as jurists, and was thus written in a direct and unornamented German, accompanied by many illustrative woodcuts. Though the book lacked official endorsement, it became immensely popular, going through several editions within the first ten years.
The full-fledged, imperially sponsored offspring of the Bambergensis, the Carolina, incorporated much of the parent text’s directness but was more ambitious in its political goals. By the early sixteenth century, territorial rulers and the emperor himself had come to appreciate the value of standardized legal procedures in governing their own realms, but they faced considerable opposition from many quarters on the use of Roman law in their attempted codifications. The Carolina hit upon a workable compromise between innovative jurists attracted by the substance and consistency of Roman law and conservative secular authorities suspicious of “foreign laws and customs” and jealous of their own prerogatives.41 While “we would in no way detract from the old, lawful, and just customs of electors, princes, and estates,” the authors of the Carolina sought to establish fair and consistent standards and procedures among the empire’s diverse jurisdictions, involving trained legal professionals as much as possible. Rather than just proscribing a variety of crimes, the new code meticulously defined the scope and nature of the offenses, provided standards for arrest and establishing evidence, and issued formulas for judicial proceedings themselves. Clarity and regularity in practice were the goals. With the notable exceptions of magic and infanticide (newly promoted to capital crimes), the Carolina did not alter customary definitions of serious criminal offenses. Virtually all medieval forms of execution—including live burial, live burning, drowning, and quartering—likewise remained untouched in substance.
Most important for young Frantz Schmidt, the Carolina endorsed the Bambergensis’s detailed guidelines for the performance of each judicial functionary, including the individual formerly known as the hangman, now consistently referred to as the executioner (Nachrichter, literally, “after-judge”) or the “sharp (i.e., sword) judge” (Scharfrichter).42 The document strongly recommended regular salaries for “reputable individuals,” to be supplemented by a sliding scale of compensation for different types of executions (with drawing and quartering earning the most). The Carolina also formally guaranteed a professional executioner immunity from all popular or legal retribution for his work and required that courts publicly reaffirm this status at each judgment. Cruel, corrupt, or otherwise unprofessional executioners were to be dismissed immediately and punished appropriately. Finally, to prevent the capricious or otherwise unjustified use of physical coercion, the new imperial ordinances set out copious instructions on what evidence might be considered sufficient to initiate torture (e.g., the testimony of two impartial witnesses), which crimes qualified for such “special interrogation” (most notably witchcraft and highway robbery), and how such duress was to be applied (listing the standard implements of torture on an ascending scale of severity, beginning with thumbscrews for women).43
The Carolina’s higher professional standards for executioners typically translated into better pay, but the law code’s broader social impact enhanced Frantz Schmidt’s position beyond anything its framers could have imagined. Within one generation of the Carolina’s proclamation, criminal arrests, interrogations, and punishments all spiked dramatically throughout the empire. The execution rate likewise skyrocketed, in some places by more than 100 percent over the previous half century—and many times that if witch panics are included in the statistics—creating a huge demand for trained executioners. In fact, Nuremberg’s average execution rate of nine per year during Meister Frantz’s lifetime (in a city of forty thousand) was the highest per capita of any city in the empire. But many larger jurisdictions saw similar levels of activity. Heinrich Schmidt himself averaged nearly ten executions a year during his service in the more populous prince-bishopric of Bamberg, and the yearly total for the still larger nearby margravate of Brandenburg-Ansbach totaled nearly twice that during the same period.44
What accounts for this apparent surge in crime and punishment? Rising unemployment and inflation—which led to more theft and violence—naturally played a role in the perceived crime wave of Frantz Schmidt’s day. But the most powerful reason for the increase in prosecutions was, paradoxically, the Carolina itself. The new imperial law code achieved much that was good. But like many well-intentioned reforms, the Carolina also yielded unintended consequences that exacerbated the situation in several unprecedented ways. First, the new codes inadvertently opened local authorities up to greater popular manipulation, most infamously in the case of the witch craze, when mobs or even a single individual could demand the prosecution of a suspected witch, who if convicted now faced the death penalty. Second, the Carolina’s attempt to eliminate arbitrariness and “unnecessary” cruelty in criminal prosecution produced exactly the opposite effect in the use of torture, the so-called last resort of the interrogator. Some jurisdictions, Nuremberg for example, adhered more closely to the Carolina’s prerequisites for administering torture. But elsewhere local authorities paradoxically perceived the imperial code’s multiple guidelines and restrictions on the appropriate use of “special interrogation” to be a learned endorsement of physical coercion during questioning.
At the same time, another section of the Carolina, which was intended to prevent recidivism, unintentionally forced the execution of many repeat offenders—often for mere property crimes such as theft that, in an earlier time, would not have sent them to the gallows. How did this happen? To discourage criminals from returning to crime, the Carolina prescribed an ascending scale of punishment: public flogging for a first offense, banishment for a second offense, and in the event that an exiled offender returned and was convicted of a third offense, execution. This frustratingly narrow set of punishment options forced the hand of local governments with tragic consequences. Crimes against property, for instance, had previously resulted in less than a third of the executions in German lands, but during Frantz Schmidt’s lifetime they accounted for nearly seven in ten executions.45
This seemingly inexplicable harshness was less the product of new cruelty than of deep frustration over the ineffectiveness of existing punishments. Most of the thieves that Meister Frantz hanged during his career had lengthy criminal records, comprising numerous imprisonments, various corporal punishments, and banishments. Occasionally flogging, both painful and humiliating, followed by banishment from the territory—the typical punishment for first- and second-time offenders—produced the desired effect. After the adult Meister Frantz publicly whipped two teenage brothers, who stole here and there at the markets, they disappeared from Nuremberg’s criminal records.46 More often, however, the publicly humiliated and exiled offenders—now permanently cut off from whatever kin and social network they had enjoyed—simply returned to the only life they knew and resumed stealing in another location, often nearby, or even in the city itself.
The obvious ineffectiveness of local banishment for nonviolent crimes led some European states to adopt a more permanent kind of exile for thieves and other undesirables, known as transportation. But sending deviants across the ocean was not a ready option among landlocked German states such as Nuremberg and the prince-bishopric of Bamberg, which possessed neither fleets nor foreign colonies. The duke of Bavaria did persuade the city of Nuremberg to experiment briefly with leasing its convicted thieves out to Genoese galleys. But after five years its frugal leaders concluded that the venture was too unreliable. Forced enlistment in the emperor’s Hungarian army was another frequently suggested solution but apparently also remained small-scale and short-lived.47
The modern-day solution to this problem—internal exile, or extended incarceration—entailed a much greater conceptual leap and was thus even slower to gain acceptance. Most governmental authorities considered long-term imprisonment—except in the case of the dangerously insane—too costly and too cruel. The popular precursor to modern prisons, the workhouse, would gain many adherents during the seventeenth century, largely because it was touted to be financially self-supporting. But Frantz Schmidt’s Nuremberg superiors accurately determined early on that such an institution would in fact be a money pit, and thus resisted the new fad for another century.48 Instead they embraced the allegedly more efficient punishment of chain gangs for begging and thieving youths and young men, a practice until then limited principally to France. Known as Springbuben or Schellbuben (“knaves” wearing foot irons and belled hats respectively), these prisoners typically faced several weeks of street cleaning and repairs, including the collection and disposal of human and animal waste and other garbage. Like banishment, the chain gang deterred some but not all young thieves from continuing in their criminal ways, as Meister Frantz would later note when many of them ended up before him on the gallows.49 Perceiving themselves as out of options for dealing with recidivist thieves and other “unreformable” nonviolent offenders, governmental authorities during the second half of the sixteenth century thus turned increasingly to the “last resort” of hanging.
The subsequent rise in demand and salaries for trained executioners was obviously good news for a budding young professional of Frantz Schmidt’s background and aspirations. The Carolina’s elevation of his craft to the indispensable servant of justice further strengthened his hand. Protestant Frantz was probably most grateful for a blessing from the father of the Reformation himself. “If there were no criminals, there would also be no executioners,” Martin Luther preached, adding, “The hand that wields the sword and strangles is thus no longer man’s hand but God’s hand, and not the man but God hangs, breaks on the wheel, beheads, strangles, and makes war.” Lest the implications for the reviled hangman be lost, Luther concluded,
Thus is Meister Hans [the stereotypical executioner] a very useful and even merciful man, since he puts a stop to the villain so that he can do no more and warns others so that they do not do [the same]. The one has his head chopped off by him; the others behind him he admonishes that they should fear the sword and keep the peace. That is a great mercy.
While John Calvin remained content to acknowledge the executioner as “God’s instrument,” the ever-ebullient Luther went so far as to provide a celebrity endorsement for the profession: “If you see that there is a lack of hangmen, constables, judges, lords, or princes, and you find that you are qualified, you should offer your services and seek the position so that the essential governmental authority may not be despised or become enfeebled.”50
The clerical elevation of the Schmidts’ profession, while a welcome development for executioners, was slow to spread outside of learned circles. Luther’s pleading tones still resonated in one famed jurist’s 1565 defense that “although the name of executioner is still hated by many [and] it is perceived as an inhuman, bloody, and tyrannical office, he does not sin before God or the world if he acts on orders, not of his own will but out of justice, as God’s servant.” Like the judge, jurors, and witnesses in the trial, the executioner was himself blameless unless he acted “out of greed, jealousy, hate, vengeance, or lust”; otherwise, he was as indispensable to law and order as the princes themselves. Another legal scholar compared the disgust directed at the executioner’s task to the shame associated with excretion—both distasteful but necessary parts of God’s plan. The source of continuing popular opprobrium, all agreed, lay less in the office itself than in the job’s tendency to attract “godless and rash people, [among them] sorcerers, robbers, murderers, thieves, adulterers, whoremongers, blasphemers, gamblers, and others burdened with coarse sins, scandals and troubles,” when what effective courts needed were “pious, debt-free, kind, merciful, fearless men, well-experienced in such work and executions, who carry out their office more for the love of GOD and the Law than out of preexisting hate and scorn for poor sinners.”51
Frantz Schmidt thus entered the profession of executioner at a time of significantly greater remuneration and social acceptance than his predecessors, but also of higher personal standards and expectations. A generation or two earlier, secular authorities necessarily tolerated the unsavory background of many recruits to the office and still saw some executioners who eventually ended up on the wrong side of the scaffold or pyre. By Frantz’s day, professionals’ reputations as “very orderly and law-abiding” had become a prominent part of their public profile, with any kind of criminal transgression resulting in swift dismissal and punishment. In return, the previously ironic designation of every practitioner as Meister took on a new dignity, with a few executioners even permitted to practice other arts or even granted their own coat of arms.52
Centuries of accumulated superstition, disgust, and fear were not easily erased, of course, and the relatively greater opportunities Frantz enjoyed must be weighed against the still heavy social cost. Whatever magistrates and ministers said, most of Frantz’s contemporaries still considered executioners to be suspicious, if not sinister figures. In a society obsessed with the ritualistic display of rank and honor, pious and honest hangmen were a welcome development, but the perception that these people would pollute others by their mere touch persisted. Many doors would remain closed to the son of Heinrich Schmidt throughout his life. But the growing demand for a new kind of executioner provided young Frantz with an opening, one that he would gladly exploit to achieve the dream that eluded his father and die an honorable man.
The art of the executioner
We know nothing directly of Frantz Schmidt’s childhood and youth in Hof. A surprising number of his experiences would have been similar to those of any middle-class boy in sixteenth-century Germany, despite his father’s infamous occupation. His first six or seven years were spent mostly in the company of adult women as well as other children. Frantz’s mother died sometime before his sixth birthday, possibly during or shortly after his birth—an all-too-common occurrence at the time—at which point an aunt or grandmother most likely stepped into the maternal role. In 1560 he acquired a stepmother, also a common experience for the day, when his widower father married Anna Blechschmidt, likely from an executioner family herself, in nearby Bayreuth.53 Despite the bad press of the Brothers Grimm, many early modern stepmothers enjoyed positive, even loving relationships with their stepchildren. We can only hope that this was the case for young Frantz.
If the family’s social isolation in Hof was as severe as Frantz later suggested, his childhood must have been a solitary one. Toddlers and young children of the day were fairly unsupervised—at least by modern Western standards—and were free to explore open wells, cooking fires, and a multitude of other dangerous places that routinely claimed many young lives. Perhaps this liberty provided Frantz with some playmates, undaunted by the prejudices of their parents. We know that he had at least one older sister, Kunigunda, who reached adulthood; it’s possible, even likely, that he had other siblings who were victims of the dreadful 50 percent mortality rate for all children under the age of twelve.
About the time that Heinrich Schmidt remarried, Frantz probably acquired more household chores and began to learn the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. In some locations, executioners’ children were permitted to attend a local Latin school or German grammar school, always on a fee basis. Frantz’s Nuremberg kinsman Lienhardt Lippert later complained bitterly that other parents refused to let their children sit next to his own son in school, but city officials refused to intervene, suggesting instead that the boy be taught at home.54 Hof maintained both a parochial (German) school and a Latin school (founded by a student of Philipp Melanchthon), but the matriculation records have not survived, so we can’t be sure whether Frantz learned to read and write at school, from a private tutor, or from one of his parents. His adult writing, as well as his elegant signature, suggest rudimentary training in German and perhaps some Latin. But he writes completely without punctuation and employs idiosyncratic syntax and spelling, displaying no apparent awareness of literary or even plain notarial style. Like many “semieducated” artisans of the day, Frantz Schmidt wrote as he spoke, without artifice. He was a practical chronicler who valued fact and expediency, sometimes even at the expense of clarity.
Frantz likely received his religious training at home, although a local pastor—if one would consent to enter the Schmidt household—may have instructed the boy in the rigors of the catechism. It was the Evangelical, or Lutheran, faith that informed the boy’s earliest religious sensibilities. The city of Hof had broken with the Catholic Church and allied itself with the new Lutheran faith during the early, strife-ridden days of the Reformation in the 1520s. By the time of Frantz’s birth a generation later, Hof had become a bastion of Lutheranism, with virtually every citizen adhering to its Protestant creed. The adult Meister Frantz held strong religious convictions, and it’s likely that he learned to take his faith seriously from his parents or other members of the immediate household who did so as well. Many children of the era studied religion at home. In fact, church leaders preached that every Hausvater (literally, “house father”) had a divine responsibility to ensure that children received proper instruction. As in most households, young Frantz and his sister, Kunigunda, would thus study the Lutheran perspective on the central doctrines of Christianity at an early age, learning of both original sin and divine forgiveness, of the centrality of faith in the human experience, and of the imperative to persevere in godly living.
Frantz’s apprenticeship in the executioner craft probably began around the age of twelve. Whatever Heinrich Schmidt’s presence in his son’s life had been until this point, he now became the boy’s most important personal and professional role model. Honorable trades—such as tailoring or carpentry—typically required a formal apprenticeship contract of two to four years with an acknowledged master, who received a sizable annual fee from the young man’s family. Some executioners’ sons did leave to work for a kinsman or other master executioner on such terms. But such masters were relatively few, so most sons stayed at home and learned the craft “from youth on” under their own fathers’ tutelage.55 An executioner’s son like Frantz was of course forbidden to train in another, respectable craft, nor could he pursue a university education or even seek to enter the ministry—all deeply entrenched prohibitions that were still widely in force two centuries later. Such realities could not prevent him, of course, from imagining a different life for himself or for his children.
What did the teenage Frantz learn from his father? Above all, he formed his fundamental notion of what it meant to be a man. Early modern masculinity was particularly focused on the notion of honor, both personal and collective. As Heinrich impressed upon Frantz from an early age, the hated margrave had robbed them of everything they held precious: an honorable profession, the right to citizenship, the company of friends, and their very name. The details that the seventy-year-old Meister Frantz would include in his own much later recounting—the full names of his late grandfather and uncle (in an era when most people never knew their own grandparents), the fatal encounter with the deer hunter and his dog, the exact words of the margrave to his father, the number of the would-be assassins, and so on—all bear the hallmark of a much-told family tale. Most early modern men were preoccupied with attacks on their honor; the Schmidts were—understandably—morbidly obsessed with the subject, not least because of the daily reminders of their ignominy. Frantz’s own understanding of personal honor evolved over his lifetime, but, like his father, he held fast to a burning anger over the fundamental injustice of his family’s predicament. One wonders, in fact—was it mere coincidence that Heinrich and Frantz went on to serve the cities of Bamberg and Nuremberg, once the bitterest enemies of the hated Albrecht Alcibiades?
The only other knowledge we can be sure that Heinrich Schmidt imparted to his son concerned the practical side of masculinity—a craft. “The art of the executioner” in fact comprised several discrete skills. The sine qua non was technical competence: how to effectively administer torture and a range of corporal punishments, ranging from eye-gouging and finger-chopping to flogging with birch rods to several forms of execution. First, however, Frantz performed the menial tasks delegated to any apprentice: cleaning and maintaining his father’s sword and torture equipment, gathering and preparing supplies for public executions (shackles, rope, wood), fetching food and drink for his father and his assistants, and perhaps even helping to dispose of the bodies (and heads) of decapitated felons.
As he grew older and stronger, Frantz advanced to helping restrain prisoners during interrogation or execution, and he began to accompany his father on trips to various execution sites throughout the Franconian countryside. By observing and listening to the experienced Meister Heinrich, Frantz learned where to place the double ladder at a hanging and how to manage both rope and chains with a resistant victim. He helped construct the temporary wooden platforms used for drowning in rivers and observed how to expedite this inevitably difficult and often prolonged ordeal. Most crucially, Heinrich Schmidt taught his son how to apply the various instruments of torture at his disposal during “painful interrogation,” and how to judge a subject’s capabilities of endurance, so as to avoid a premature death.
One area of expertise for the typical executioner often comes as a shock to modern observers: the frequent sideline as a popular healer. Some professionals exploited the magical aura of their craft to attract clients, but it was their familiarity with human anatomy—and particularly with various wounds—that ensured the reputations of the hangman healer. Thus Meister Heinrich also passed on to Frantz his own knowledge (likely learned from other executioners) of which healing herbs and salves to apply to the wounds of a torture victim and how to mend the broken bones of a prisoner in preparation for a public execution. Having mastered such skills, the adult Frantz Schmidt earned a significant supplementary income as a healer and medical consultant throughout his life—and finally went on to establish for himself an alternate professional identity after his retirement.
Finally, a successful executioner, especially in this era of heightened expectations, also needed what we would call people skills and a certain degree of psychological insight. Abilities of this nature were of course more difficult to teach, but Heinrich Schmidt at least provided an example of how to deal with both status-conscious patrician superiors and less-than-reliable lower-class subordinates, as well as agitated poor sinners in the torture chamber and at the gallows. For Heinrich’s Bamberg employers, the key attributes of a successful executioner were obedience, honesty, and discretion—all explicit in his oath of office:
I shall and will protect my gracious Lord of Bamberg and His Grace’s diocese from all harm, conduct myself piously, serve faithfully in my office, judicially interrogate and punish as I am commanded each time by His Grace’s secular authority; also not take more than the appropriate fee, all in accordance with this ordinance; also whatever I hear during criminal interrogation or am otherwise commanded to keep secret, the same I will not further disclose to anyone; nor will I travel anywhere without the explicit permission of my gracious Lords Chamberlain, Marshall, or House Steward and I will be obedient and compliant in all affairs and commands of the same, faithful and without trouble in all things. So help me God and the saints!56
Frantz witnessed firsthand the transactional character of each capital case that came before his father, the difficult balancing of diverse interests and objectives, as well as the business dimension of criminal justice in practice. Whether Heinrich provided a positive or negative model in each of these areas we cannot know, but the teenage Frantz quickly realized that technical proficiency would in fact be less crucial to his professional success than would his ability to instill confidence in his employers, fear in subjects under interrogation, and respect among his neighbors. The performative aspect of his job, in other words, was not limited to those dramatic (and still important) minutes on the scaffold. The position of executioner would be an all-encompassing lifelong role, demanding unrelenting self-awareness and vigilance.
People skills also came into play in an executioner’s relationships with his fellow professionals. Like all specialists, Meister Heinrich and his counterparts in other cities employed an insider lingo, often based on the street cant of the day, known as Rotwelsch or Gaunersprache. Among fellow practitioners, hanging was known as “lacing up” and beheading as “slicing.” An especially skilled colleague might be admired for “making a fine knot,” “playing well with the wheel,” or “carving nicely.”57 Executioners also had their own word for a botched beheading (putzen), as well as their own nicknames for their craft, such as Punch, Killer, Crusher, Slicer, Freeman, and Cruncher. Though hardly flattering, these self-designations were at least less condescending (and colorful) than the dozens of more popular appellations, such as “shortener,” “bogeyman,” “blood-judge,” “bad man,” “thief hanger,” Hans, “heads-off,” “chopper,” “little hammer,” Master Hammerling (also a nickname for the devil), “racker,” Snip Johnny, “tie maker,” “holy angel,” Master Ouch, Master Fix, and, most simply, “butcher.”58
As in other guilds and brotherhoods, early modern executioners called one another “cousin” and enjoyed common social gatherings, coming together informally at weddings and festivals or in larger numbers at occasional organized assemblies. The most famous German executioner conference, known as the Kohlenberg Court, began in fourteenth-century Basel and recurred irregularly there until the beginning of the seventeenth century. The gathering played out as a typical late medieval “court of equals,” combining dispute resolution with comical rituals and copious eating, drinking, and swapping of tales. In this instance the membership comprised not only executioners but also many of the other dishonorable “traveling folk” who had no guild or justice of their own. By the sixteenth century, the assembly was dominated by executioners and sack carriers, but other marginalized men and women continued to participate. According to a 1559 account, the court convened in the square outside the executioner’s residence on the Kohlenberg, “beneath a large lime tree [the German tree of justice] and another tall tree here that is called the Vinegar Tree.” The presiding judge, elected by the assembly, sat “with his bare feet in a tub of water, summer or winter,” and heard cases of defamation and other disputes among his fellow executioners. Upon polling the seven jurors, the judge then pronounced his decision and emptied the tub, and the festivities for the day began. One disgruntled husband, summoned to appear before the court by his wife’s executioner paramour, contemptuously described the gathering as “full of foreign ceremonies” and disregarded by all locals except those up to mischief (including, apparently, his own wife).59
Frantz Schmidt’s journal does not mention attending the Kohlenberg Court—or any other social occasion, for that matter. Perhaps Heinrich compelled him to come along once to Basel or another assembly. It’s more likely that father and son considered such boisterous and indiscriminate mixing with prostitutes and beggars as unseemly, an unwelcome reminder of their craft’s lingering shameful associations. The carnivalesque and irregular character of the court also belonged to an earlier time, before the introduction of more sophisticated legal machinery and professionalization of the executioner craft. Frantz already knew many of his fellow professionals via his father and certainly corresponded with some of them. Celebrating their corporate identity and trade secrets, however, was something that his generation of executioners mostly preferred to do in private, and certainly away from the skinners, tanners, and other disreputable individuals from whom they had worked so hard to distinguish themselves.
The culmination of Frantz Schmidt’s apprenticeship returns us to his training with the judgment sword. Unlike axes, which on the Continent were commonly associated with mercenaries and woodsmen, swords in premodern Europe embodied honor and justice. Emperors, princes, and other rulers spoke of their own God-given legal authority in terms of the sword, and the weapon itself played a prominent part in coronation and other formal ceremonies. The right to carry a sword long remained a jealously guarded privilege of nobles alone, an immediately visible display of their high status. Beheading by the sword, consequently, had since Roman times been the privilege of citizens and aristocrats and the universally preferred form of execution, as much for its connotation of honor as for its swiftness.
The executioner’s sword itself had become an object of particular symbolic and monetary value. It was large—on average measuring more than forty inches long and weighing about seven pounds—and often impressively ornamented. By the mid-sixteenth century, the typical battlefield sword used by medieval executioners had been mostly replaced by a specially designed weapon, with a flat rather than pointed tip and a more carefully balanced distribution of weight, adapted to the exclusive purpose of beheading. Many such swords have survived to the present and bear witness to the extraordinary craftsmanship and deliberation that went into their creation. Typically, each sword carried a unique inscription, such as “Through justice will the land prosper and thrive; in lawlessness it will not survive,” or “Guard thyself from evil deeds, else thy path to the gallows leads,” or, more succinctly, “The lords prosecute, I execute.”60 Several swords also bore engraved images of the scales of justice, Christ, or the Madonna and Child, or of the gallows, wheel, or a disembodied head. Some executioner dynasties inscribed the names and dates of each owner, and one family even notched on their sword the number of people it had executed.
Meister Heinrich’s judgment sword was thus more than a sign of his technical prowess; it represented his ostracized family’s last tenuous link with honor. For his apprentice son, it also stood as a symbol of the new, professional, even respectable executioner, a stark contrast to the mercenary butcher who still lived on in many people’s imaginations. As an adult, Frantz wielded a sword designed to his own specifications, proudly borne throughout the entire execution ritual in its own wood and leather sheath and removed only at the ultimate moment of the public drama. In his journal, he would carefully note the exact dates of his first execution with the sword, first execution with the sword in Nuremberg, and first execution with the sword [and the victim] standing.61
In the spring of 1573, two hurdles remained on Frantz Schmidt’s path to master executioner status. Like all craftsmen, he needed to spend several years as a journeyman, traveling the countryside, working on a fee basis, and gaining valuable experience along the way. But before he could begin his professional wanderings, he had to pass a master test. By the eighteenth century, Prussia actually required aspiring executioners to pass an extensive written and practical examination, judging whether the applicant could apply torture without breaking bones, burn a corpse completely to ashes, and show proficiency with all the interrogation and execution equipment.62 The procedure in sixteenth-century Bamberg was much less thorough or formalized, but it remained essential for an apprentice to attain the ritualistic approval of his craft’s masters if he hoped to secure a good position in the future.
Frantz’s own day of reckoning came on June 5, 1573, when he was nineteen. Five years later, when he began his journal, it was the only exact date he could recall from this period, underscoring its momentous place in his life. With his father at his side, he made the two-day journey to the village of Steinach, forty miles northwest of Bamberg. The condemned was one Lienhardt Russ of Zeyern, whose full description in Frantz’s journal is a thief. It’s possible that some of Heinrich’s colleagues or associates came to witness the execution, an otherwise routine hanging, given its momentous nature in the lives of father and son. The form of execution ranked as the least prestigious for a professional, but it was also the least likely to go wrong. What was young Frantz thinking as he led Russ to the gallows, bound his wrists and ankles in the prescribed manner, and moved him up the ladder toward the waiting noose? Did his voice falter as he called for the condemned to speak his final words? Did the assembled crowd of villagers remark on the youth of the executioner or question his skill? About these things we can only speculate. What we do know is this: Frantz completed his task without any apparent misstep. As the body of the condemned man swung lifeless from the gallows, Meister Heinrich or another master strode forward to where young Frantz stood. With ritual aplomb he administered three face-slaps, “according to ancient custom,” and then loudly proclaimed to all assembled at the execution that the young man had “executed adroitly, without any mistakes,” and should henceforth be acknowledged as a master. Frantz would later receive a notarized certificate (Meisterbrief) to show to prospective employers, proclaiming that the new master had performed his task “with all bravery to absolute satisfaction”63 and was eligible to be hired—and paid—as a master. As in other crafts, a successful master executioner test often gave way to a festive gathering of family members and friends, all eager to enjoy the hospitality of the proud father. If such a celebration was planned for Frantz, it would most likely have taken place later, in Bamberg.
Half a century after this day, a melancholic bitterness still permeates the recollections of the elderly former executioner as he describes the great misfortune [that] forced the office of executioner on my innocent father as well as on myself, since as much as I would have liked, I couldn’t escape it.64 But his account also evinces an unmistakable sense of accomplishment in having spent a lifetime restoring peace, calm, and unity to the land. At the age of nineteen, still fresh from my first execution, the future Meister Frantz had just begun to experience this complex mix of revulsion and pride regarding his ordained profession. It was a duality of feeling that would propel him up the career ladder in the years following that milestone day, but it would also pit the young executioner against himself and render elusive the genuine personal and professional satisfaction he sought.

Copyright © 2013 by Joel F. Harrington
Maps copyright © 2013 by Gene Thorp


Excerpted from The Faithful Executioner by Harrington Joel F., Joel F. Harrington. Copyright © 2013 by Harrington Joel F.. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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