Joel F. Harrington | The Faithful Executioner, Farrar, Straus and Giroux | March 2013 | 15 minutes (3,723 words)

Below is an excerpt from the book The Faithful Executioners, by Joel F. Harrington, which was recently featured as a Longreads Member Pick. Thanks to our Longreads Members for making these stories possible—sign up to join Longreads to contribute to our story fund. 

Read more from Harrington on how the book came together.

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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)

A man’s value and reputation depend on his heart and his resolution; there his true honor lies.
—Michel de Montaigne, “On Cannibals” (1580)

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. 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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

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. 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.” 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.

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.

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. 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 manmade, 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!” 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.

Originally published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2013. Read more from Harrington here.