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The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death,…

The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent… (2013)

by Joel F. Harrington

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The Faith­ful Exe­cu­tioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Tur­bu­lent Six­teenth Cen­tury by Joel F. Har­ring­ton is a biog­ra­phy of a Ger­man exe­cu­tioner, based on his diary.

he Faith­ful Exe­cu­tioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Tur­bu­lent Six­teenth Cen­tury by Joel F. Har­ring­ton is a won­der­ful book based on a remark­able jour­nal kept by the exe­cu­tioner of Nurem­berg, Meis­ter Franz Schmidt. Along with the “work” of Meis­ter Schmidt, the author vividly re-creates life in six­teenth cen­tury Nurem­berg and its surroundings.

The biog­ra­phy recounts the stigma an exe­cu­tioner had dur­ing his life­time. The exe­cu­tioner was an out­cast of soci­ety, even though a good one was dif­fi­cult to find and much appre­ci­ated, and so was his fam­ily. The stigma helped cre­ated a lin­eage of exe­cu­tion­ers since that was one of the few jobs they were able to hold in such a class con­scious society.

Mas­ter Schmidt kept his jour­nal for the main pur­pose of restor­ing honor to his fam­ily from the hor­ri­ble career which they were forced into. This is a fas­ci­nat­ing book, not for the squea­mish but the hor­ror is not there for horror’s sake, but instead to help the reader under­stand the time and the tech­niques used by the biogra­phies subject.

I was sur­prised to learn that many exe­cu­tion­ers at the time con­sid­ered them­selves pro­fes­sion­als and were proud of how lit­tle their “clients” suf­fered, unless instructed by the state to pro­long their death. An exe­cu­tioner which botched an exe­cu­tion could be fired (good luck inte­grat­ing into soci­ety) or even lynched by the angry crowd.

Meis­ter Schmidt would also tor­ture and patch crim­i­nals up if needed even though, it seemed, he under­stood the effec­tive­ness of psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ture bet­ter than some con­tem­po­raries of ours. Because of his inti­mate knowl­edge of anatomy, the exe­cu­tioner, an out­cast I must remind you again, was some­times called upon to heal the sick and injured of the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion. Many took great pride in that sec­ond profession.

This is a won­der­ful book, at times unpleas­ant to read because of the hor­ren­dous crimes or some­times equally hor­ren­dous pun­ish­ments. The world was very bru­tal in the six­teenth cen­tury, the author makes that clear, and Meis­ter Schmidt was an inte­gral part of the state to keep order and rel­a­tive safe.

For more reviews and bookish posts please visit: http://www.ManOfLaBook.com ( )
  ZoharLaor | Mar 18, 2016 |
Quite a good biographical microhistory based around the remarkable journal of a Nuremberg executioner. Harrington uses Frantz Schmidt's lengthy account of his life and of the executions he carried out over many years to explore the crimes and punishments of sixteenth-century Nuremberg (and surrounding areas). More than that, though, he also examines the official social stigma that attached to executioners and their families, and Schmidt's long effort to restore his family's honor.

Gets a mite slow at times, but overall this is very much worth a read. ( )
1 vote JBD1 | Feb 11, 2016 |
I will read this book again, sooner rather than later. An intriguing story about family redemption through being virtuous, sober and an expert at his work, . The fact that Meister Frantz is an executioner made me think about the time he lived and the society. There is more to it than 'I was just doing my job' or 'I was just following orders'. I would like to have seen facsimiles of the diary Joel Harrington worked from. His selected quotations giver an idea of content but I would like to see how sequential entries were laid out. ( )
  Goebte | Aug 29, 2015 |
A fascinating, remarkably insightful, and completely engrossing portrait of a 16th century professional executioner largely based upon his own journal kept during his 40-year career in southern Germany. Equally enlightening and absorbing are the times and place this man lived which are painstakingly recreated by Harrington in vivid detail. An exceptional work of biography and history that refrains from imposing contemporary moral sensibilities. ( )
1 vote Sullywriter | May 22, 2015 |
The book seemed a little slow at times, but gives you a good idea of how crime was viewed and dealt with in the era (and there was a lot of it, no different than today). If you're looking for the gory details of executions, this isn't the book for you. It focuses on Meister Frantz's attempt to regain his family honor. ( )
  tlawrence36 | Feb 5, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0809049929, Hardcover)

Based on the rare and until now overlooked journal of a Renaissance-era executioner, the noted historian Joel F. Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner takes us deep inside the alien world and thinking of Meister Frantz Schmidt of Nuremberg, who, during forty-five years as a professional executioner, personally put to death 394 individuals and tortured, flogged, or disfigured many hundreds more. But the picture that emerges of Schmidt from his personal papers is not that of a monster. Could a man who routinely practiced such cruelty also be insightful, compassionate—even progressive?


In The Faithful Executioner, Harrington vividly re-creates a life filled with stark contrasts, from the young apprentice’s rigorous training under his executioner father to the adult Meister Frantz’s juggling of familial duties with his work in the torture chamber and at the scaffold. With him we encounter brutal highwaymen, charming swindlers, and tragic unwed mothers accused of infanticide, as well as patrician senators, godly chaplains, and corrupt prison guards. Harrington teases out the hidden meanings and drama of Schmidt’s journal, uncovering a touching tale of inherited shame and attempted redemption for the social pariah and his children. The Faithful Executioner offers not just the compelling firsthand perspective of a professional torturer and killer, but testimony of one man’s lifelong struggle to reconcile his bloody craft with his deep religious faith.


The biography of an ordinary man struggling for his soul, this groundbreaking book also offers an unparalleled panoramic view of Europe on the cusp of modernity, a society riven by violent conflict at all levels and encumbered by paranoia, superstition, and abuses of power. Thanks to an extraordinary historical source and its gifted interpreter, we recognize far more of ourselves than we might have expected in this intimate portrait of a professional killer from a faraway world.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:05 -0400)

"The extraordinary story of a Renaissance-era executioner and his world, based on a rare and overlooked journal In the late 1500s a Nuremberg man named Frantz Schmidt began to do something utterly remarkable for his era: he started keeping a journal. But what makes Schmidt even more compelling to us is his day job. For forty-five years, Schmidt was an efficient and prolific public executioner, employed by the state to extract confessions and put convicted criminals to death. In his years of service, he executed 361 people and tortured, flogged, or disfigured hundreds more. Is it possible that a man who practiced such cruelty could also be insightful, compassionate, humane--even progressive? In his groundbreaking book, the historian Joel F. Harrington looks for the answer in Schmidt's journal, whose immense significance has been ignored until now. Harrington uncovers details of Schmidt's medical practice, his marriage to a woman ten years older than him, his efforts at penal reform, his almost touching obsession with social status, and most of all his conflicted relationship with his own craft and the growing sense that it could not be squared with his faith. A biography of an ordinary man struggling for his soul, The Faithful Executioner is also an unparalleled portrait of Europe on the cusp of modernity, yet riven by conflict and encumbered by paranoia, superstition, and abuses of power. In his intimate portrait of a Nuremberg executioner, Harrington also sheds light on our own fraught historical moment"-- "A work of nonfiction that explores the thoughts and experiences of one early modern executioner, Nuremberg's Frantz Schmidt (1555-1634), through his own words - a rare personal journal, in which he recorded and described all the executions and corporal punishments he administered between 1573 and his retirement in 1617"--… (more)

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