THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF A RENAISSANCE-ERA EXECUTIONER AND HIS WORLD, BASED ON A RARE AND OVERLOOKED JOURNAL.
In a dusty German bookshop, the noted historian Joel F. Harrington stumbled upon a remarkable document: the journal of a sixteenth-century executioner. The journal gave an account of the 394 people Meister Frantz Schmidt executed, and the hundreds more he tortured, flogged, or disfigured for more than forty-five years in the city of Nuremberg. But the portrait of Schmidt that gradually emerged was not that of a monster. Could a man who practiced such cruelty also be insightful, compassionate—even progressive?
In The Faithful Executioner, Harrington teases out the hidden meanings and drama of Schmidt's journal. Deemed an official outcast, Meister Frantz sought to prove himself worthy of honor and free his children from the stigma of his profession. Harrington uncovers details of Schmidt's life and work: the shocking, but often familiar, crimes of the day; the medical practice that he felt was his true calling; and his lifelong struggle to reconcile his craft with his religious faith.
In this groundbreaking and intimate portrait, Harrington shows us that our thinking about justice and punishment, and our sense of our own humanity, are not so remote from the world of The Faithful Executioner.
In Harrington's gruesome and enlightening latest (after The Unwanted Child), the career of German executioner Frantz Schmidt is used to paint a ghastly portrait of life in the "long sixteenth century." The book's backbone is Schmidt's remarkable journal, a laconic catalogue of 45 years of executions and reflections. Medieval class distinctions, held in place by heredity and Christian values, are dissected as the executioner attempts to expunge the "dishonorable" stigma from his family name (his father trained him in the "odious craft"). An anomaly for his time, the pious, sober executioner meticulously recorded the deeds of those he dispatched. From his retellings of various crimes which run the gamut from slander to patricide a sense of the medieval moral system emerges, as do Schmidt's own personal ethics and beliefs: contra the status quo, Schmidt, a proponent of "a more modern concept of individual identity," refused to "conflate social status and reputation." Juxtaposed against the moral underpinnings of barbaric justice in 16th-century Europe, Schmidt's journey to reconcile his profession with his faith and personal philosophies makes for a fascinating read. 39 illus., 2 maps.