Review: The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel F. Harrington

The Faithful Executioner [2013] – ★★★1/2

A technically proficient and reliable executioner was himself the very embodiment of the sword of justice in action – swift, unwavering, deadly, but never appearing susceptible to arbitrary or gratuitous cruelty” [Harrington, Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publications, 2013: 67].

This book is a biography of Franz Schmidt (1555-1634), a public executioner who lived in what is now Germany in the Renaissance period. He kept a diary for the majority of his professional life, which lasted some forty-five years and included the execution of at least three hundred and sixty one people. Harrington traces Schmidt’s life, from his apprenticeship to him becoming a master of his craft, a healer, a family man and, finally, “an honourable member of society”, grounding his research in Schmidt’s dairy. After gaining technical skills, Schmidt travelled several years across the country, performing executions for a fee (as was customary), and though associating with a dishonourable profession, always tried to challenge the social stigma and strived to be part of the honourable society, taking pains to avoid associating with the world of immorality, including gambling, drinking and fighting. Harrington’s non-fiction is not for the squeamish and the biography presented is a bit misguided, but those who are interested in the history of criminal punishment will find much here to consider at length.

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