The Faithful Executioner


The penal regimes of pre-modern European states were harsh and violent, heavy on deterrence and the symbolism of retribution. Towns such as Nuremberg needed professional executioners to deal with an ever-present threat of criminality through the public infliction of capital and corporal sentences. Punishing malefactors with lengthy periods of incarceration was an idea for the future, and would probably have struck 16th-century people as unnecessarily cruel. Methods ranged from execution with the sword (the most honourable) to hanging (the least), and from the relatively quick and merciful to the dreadful penalty of staking a person to the ground and breaking their limbs one after the other with a heavy cartwheel. This was not a world of mindless violence: the punishments Schmidt imposed were carefully prescribed by the city authorities, down to the number of ‘nips’ (pieces of flesh torn from the limbs with red-hot tongs) convicts were to receive on their way to the gallows. This gruesome regimen can be reconstructed because, over the course of 45 years, Schmidt kept a personal journal – not a diary in anything like the modern sense, but a usually terse and impersonal chronological record of all the punishments he had inflicted, including some details of the crimes behind them. The journal is not a new discovery (a version of it was printed as long ago as 1801), but Joel Harrington, drawing on a previously unused, near-contemporary copy, is the first historian to realise its full potential.

more from Peter Marshall at Literary Review here.