The daily life of a medieval executioner was not easy. They did more than simply chop off heads and break prisoners on the wheel. Trying to uphold justice and set an example for their community was only one part of an executioner's duties; they also served as medical professionals and sometimes as spiritual guides, helping the condemned accept their fate and beg forgiveness before God. Occasionally, other villagers ostracized executioners for having a grim job, and yet, as they say, “It’s a job and somebody has to do it.”
But what was it like for these people to wake up in the morning and begin a day possibly fraught with hate, boredom, or extreme danger? What devices for executions did they use back in the Middle Ages? And what about the psychology of an executioner? Fortunately, history has handed down the detailed story of Master Franz Schmidt, an executioner in 16th-century Nuremberg.
The following account comes from Schmidt's diaries, and gives a strange and rare glimpse into the daily life and practices of a medieval executioner.
The stereotypical image of a 16th-century executioner is of a burly, bare-chested fellow in a black hood, wielding a massive axe. This mask may send shivers down the spines of kids today, but the town executioner was likely proud of his well-paying job.
For other executioners across Europe, sometimes they had several victims to deal with in the same day. If you lived in the time of Henry VIII, you hardly had time for a break - there are estimates of as many as 72,000 executions during Henry’s reign.
You would have had your day cut out for you, so to speak. But this time, your task is different. Today, on August 13, 1577, you have but one execution before you. You will not behead bands of pirates or break the bones of your victims on the wheel. Your charge is a man named Hans Vogel, and your duty: Send this repentant sinner off to the promise of salvation.
You recently arrived in Nuremberg from Bamberg, your birthplace. This will be your first execution in your new home. Vogel’s crime was burning an enemy to death in a stable, and for this you must do your job. You think back to how you came to your profession: “Like father like son,” they say. But your father’s profession was more by default than by design.
The vicious Bavarian magistrate Albrecht II wanted three men hanged. Without an executioner at hand, he picked your father Heinrich out from the crowd and forced him to perform the execution or face a hanging himself. What's a father to do?
Once your father did it, however, nobody wanted to have anything to do with him. As was the tradition for the son of an executioner, you took up the same occupation. You were 18 when you became executioner under your father’s supervision in 1573, and since then, you have performed 361 executions and 345 minor punishments - floggings, as well as ear or finger amputations.
You've executed criminals by rope, sword, the breaking wheel, burning, and drowning. And yet, despite the dishonorable nature of his profession - according to others, anyway - your endearing name: Meister Franz. You're a respected member of the community for your piety. But let us return to Vogel and August 1577.
As is customary with prisoners, you've gotten to know Vogel - after all, you are personally sending him off to eternity. If he had serious wounds or were otherwise ill, you would have nursed him back to health, fulfilling the duties of your secondary profession as a medical consultant.
You might have also requested the execution's delay so he could face a proper death with his health intact. You must have thought it fitting “vogel” meant bird, and if he were truly repentant, he would have assuredly ascended to heaven.
It was not uncommon for prisoners like Vogel to receive visitors, such as family members or the relatives of the victim seeking reconciliation. You knew deep down: Forgiveness is divine, and you must've felt joyful when one condemned killer accepted some oranges and gingerbread from his victim’s widow. You saw it as a sign that she had wholeheartedly forgiven him.
You also might contemplate your role as someone who metes out justice in the name of society and - above all - God. It is your professional and sacred duty to serve as an agent who balances divine and earthly authority.
Most who visited condemned prisoners were the clergy. The chaplains who visited Vogel and other prisoners would most likely attempt to soften their hearts and convince them to beg for God’s forgiveness. They would read from the Bible, pray, and preach while appealing to such diverse emotions as fear, sorrow, and hope.
The prisoner was unlikely to see much art in his life. Smaller towns might have had a small church with only the most rudimentary paintings on its walls - if any. The prisoner could have possibly known about heaven and hell from prints. But they were too expensive for the lower classes to own, even with the advent of the printing press. Peasants relied on the clergy to show them their illustrated prayer books.
Undoubtedly, the chaplains who visited Vogel would have brought their prized Bibles or their woodcuts, as well as etchings of saints, sinners, and death. The clerics used these pictures to illustrate their sermons.
You watched as the chaplains led prisoners to recite the Lord’s Prayer. They read from the Lutheran catechism and offered reassuring words. Sometimes they joined along with the jailer or members of their family to sing hymns of consolation. Everyone wanted to believe Vogel would be ready for a penitent and open-hearted death.