By Joel Harrington
June 5, 1573. “Leonardt Russ of Ceyern, a thief. Executed with the rope at the city of Steinach. Was my first execution.” So begins the sixteenth-century journal of Nuremberg’s Frantz Schmidt (1555-1634), who during 45 years of professional activity personally put to death 361 individuals and tortured, flogged, burned, or disfigured hundreds more. Legally empowered to torture, maim, and kill suspected or convicted criminals, the professional executioner is one of the more evocative and charged symbols of pre-modern Europe’s otherness. A ubiquitous and integral part of the European social fabric well into the modern era, these human “weapons of justice” were simultaneously viewed with suspicion and disdain by the very communities they served, formally marginalized as members of the “dishonourable trades”, a delimited menagerie that included slaughterhouse workers and gravediggers. And yet “Meister Frantz”, as he was popularly, endearingly known, remained a revered member of the local establishment, widely respected for his piety and steadfastness.
The dichotomy begs to be reconciled, or, at least, interrogated: How did early modern executioners square their unsavoury occupations with aspirations to social respectability and Christian morality? Was Schmidt a rare anomaly, or was he an indication of something of broader social significance underway, perhaps laying a foundation for modern rationalizations of the use of state violence?
Schmidt maintained his personal journal between 1573 and 1617, recording and describing each and every execution and corporal punishment he administered in Bamberg and Nuremberg. Although the original volume is no longer extant, several manuscript versions of it circulated during the subsequent two centuries. Three published versions appeared during the hundred years after that, the last in 1928. While relatively well-known among German early modernists, the journal itself has appeared curiously resistant to in-depth analysis, perhaps due to its seemingly disaffected chronicle format. There are no introspective crises resulting from extended torture sessions, nor lengthy philosophical discourses or even brief musings on the meaning of life.
But just below the surface, beyond the facticity of all the deaths caused by his very hand, the journal of Meister Frantz opens up a rich source for topics ranging from early modern concepts of identity and social status to notions about the human body and the development of both the picaresque and autobiographical genres. As Schmidt grows in both professional and storytelling experience, his accounts of the various unfortunates he encounters become both more colourful and more revealing of his inner world. Consequently, the journal unveils not so much a detailed portrait as a vivid sketch of the moral cosmology of a sixteenth-century executioner.
Frantz Schmidt considered himself first and foremost a professional, a master in the guild sense. And as in other crafts, the trade of the executioner was often passed from father to son, with Frantz following his own father, the hangman of Bamberg, into the family occupation, at the age of 18. After five years’ work as a journeyman, he secured a permanent appointment at nearby Nuremberg, succeeding his future father-in-law as the city’s official executioner – a position he would hold for a remarkable 40 years. Throughout this period Schmidt enjoyed a life of bourgeois respectability with his wife, Maria, and seven children in their spacious Nuremberg residence, boasting an annual salary that put him on a par with the city’s wealthiest jurists. After his retirement, in 1617, Schmidt began a lucrative career as a medical consultant, exploiting his extensive knowledge of human anatomy – now to the end of saving lives. Upon his death, in 1634, Schmidt enjoyed a state funeral and burial in the city’s most prominent cemetery, a few paces away from other famous sons, Albrecht Dürer and Hans Sachs. Schmidt’s life, in virtually every respect, had been a great social success, although the dishonourable nature of his profession consistently precluded his open participation in patrician and craftsmen circles alike, placing him and his family in a unique kind of social limbo.
Forty-five years of personal entries reveal a good deal about Meister Frantz’s internal reconciliation of apparently sincere personal piety and hunger for respectability with the violent acts he regularly performed – torture by various methods, flogging, cutting off of fingers or ears, as well as judicial execution by hanging, beheading, burning, drowning, live burial, or breaking on the wheel. Two aspects of his professional identity emerge most consistently, both of the moral and religious in a broad sense, rather than in a more constricted denominational or even evangelical sense. The first is, unsurprisingly, his self-identity as a restorer of social order, a kind of moral accountant, who, in his own words, “did his duty and made things right again”. As if making entries in a ledger, Meister Frantz carefully lists all known offenses committed by each individual, including full itemization of all stolen property, and numbers all of his punishments, capital and corporal, providing annual totals of each.
While Schmidt’s tone is almost always dispassionate, the relative length of the entries and other clues reveal his implicit hierarchy of social values. Violent crimes, particularly the outrages committed by vicious robber gangs, were clearly the worst and required the most severe punishments to restore justice. Abuses of trust, however, were nearly as grievous in Schmidt’s eyes, including treason, the murder of a relative (especially a child), the rape of a young girl, or audacious financial fraud, such as the one-legged “treasure finder” Elizabeth Aurholtin (a.k.a. “Scabby”), whose schemes amassed a considerable personal future, or the master forge and con-man Gabriel Wolf, who defrauded nobles across Europe of huge amounts. Crimes against property in general required strict rectification, often including hanging for theft. But most such offenses – except when they directly abused people’s good will or hospitality – did not arouse Schmidt’s ire. His complacency was even more evident in a variety of “victimless” sexual offenses (not rape), typified more by exasperation at the defiance of recidivist prostitutes and their pimps than by any evangelical fervour.
The other self-image that appears prominently is that of a healer-priest, likewise evident in his pervasive concern with full accounting of each individual’s crimes and sins, no matter how small, and Schmidt’s own active role in reconciling the sinner with God. Strikingly, his approach is much less overtly doctrinaire than that of his colleague, prison chaplain Johannes Hagendorn, who also kept a personal journal of criminal cases. Rather, Schmidt seeks to create in the elaborate spectacle of public death a sort of preliminary last judgment that provides the condemned the opportunity to achieve “a good end” or “fine death”, and in his journal he comments extensively on his own success or failure in ensuring that they did not part the world “godless” or “with no hope of salvation”. Above all, the journal entries and supplemental legal sources portray a man steeled to the use of torture and other violence on the offenders before him but also consistently attentive to avoid unnecessary cruelty. Schmidt, for example, successfully leads a pioneering campaign to abolish the drowning of female felons and execute them by what he considered the more humane method of decapitation. He also regularly persuades his magisterial colleagues to behead those condemned to die by fire or being drawn and quartered.
Meister Frantz’s style and thinking evolved over the course of his long career as did his reactions to the range of individuals he encountered during his professional duties, alternately evoking his pity, disgust, indifference, bemusement, and, occasionally grudging admiration. His matter-of-fact recitation of hundreds of state killings, including some horrendous punishments, cannot fail to jolt our modern sensibilities. At the same time, his work ethic, commitment to restoring civic order, and attempts at personal redemption are immediately familiar, perhaps to an uncomfortable degree.
Joel Harrington is Professor of History at Vanderbilt University and a fall 2009 Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. His most recent book, The Unwanted Child: The Fate of Foundlings, Orphans, and Juvenile Criminals in Early Modern Germany , has just been published by The University of Chicago Press.
This article first appeared in The Berlin Journal , no. 18; reproduced with permission.