Books: Joel Harrington and the meaning of justice, honor, and law in 16th century Europe

Friday, April 26, 2013 at 6:23pm
By Tim Boyd

During the late 16th century, the city of Nuremberg was a bustling commercial metropolis at the heart of the Holy Roman Empire. As one of the first cities to convert to Lutheranism in the 1520s, it was also on the front lines of the Reformation. In The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, Vanderbilt historian Joel Harrington considers this world as it is revealed in the extensive diary of Frantz Schmidt, the city’s public executioner for more than 40 years.

What thoughts go through the mind of someone carrying out the execution of another human being as part of a public spectacle? Schmidt experienced this moment dozens of times, but his thoughts and feelings about what he was doing would have been largely inscrutable both to his employers and to the masses in the crowd watching him do his job. Fortunately for historians, Schmidt chronicled each of his executions in an extensive and often highly detailed personal record of his career. Having stumbled across Schmidt’s diary while in a Nuremberg bookstore, Harrington has used it to give a compelling account of the executioner’s life and career. In the process, readers also gain a rich understanding of what law and order, justice, and public rituals of punishment meant to 16th century German society.

Schmidt occupied a critical place in the city’s public life, both professionally, where he was charged with protecting upright citizens from the criminal element, and personally, with his own social status in a hazy “no-man’s land” between respectability and disrepute in the eyes of Nuremberg’s residents. Harrington uses Schmidt’s diary to unpack the meanings behind the practical and symbolic implementation of justice in the city and to describe Schmidt’s personal quest to attain “respectability” and ensure a better life for his offspring. The result is an excellent example of micro-history — the use of a single person’s life to examine broader social and cultural trends — and a book that pushes us to re-examine our pre- conceptions about the “barbaric” nature of justice in the early-modern world.

Harrington answered questions from Chapter 16 via email.



“Public executioner” is a term that conjures up a fairly brutal and barbaric image, though that’s not how Schmidt himself comes across in your book. Is he an exception, or is our image of  16th century justice wrong?

Meister Frantz’s lifetime (1554-1634) actually corresponded to a time of dramatic transition in European criminal-law enforcement. Early in his career, legal authorities got rid of most of the most extreme punishments. They retained some public punishments, however, that seem almost cruel to us, including death by the wheel, mainly to help bolster their own reputation.

By the end of Schmidt’s career, though, these same authorities felt secure enough to reduce such punishments to simple beheadings or outright pardon. Workhouse sentences also became more common for career thieves. This entire legal revolution hinged on a simultaneous shift to more professional executioners such as Frantz Schmidt — a dramatic contrast to the days of Frantz’s father (also an executioner), when most practitioners were shady characters. So you could say that Meister Frantz was a pioneer in this respect.



You point out the absolute necessity for a city like Nuremberg to have a public executioner, and you make it clear that the citizens appreciated having one as honest and competent as Schmidt. And yet alongside this gratitude was their insistence that he be excluded from “respectable” society. How did people reconcile these apparently contradictory impulses?

It was a huge contradiction and one that caused Schmidt a lot of consternation. Even more amazing, there were countless superstitions about bad luck emanating from “the executioner’s touch,” yet patients came to Meister Frantz’s residence to be healed by him over the course of the long career. Yet when you think about other societies with segregation or ostracism, there are often the same hypocritical examples of members of “proper society” at various times interacting with and even relying on individuals otherwise deemed disreputable.

In the Schmidt family’s case, there was a gradual lessening of popular suspicion and even some signs of respect later in Frantz’s life, such as his neighbors serving as pallbearers at his wife’s funeral. Overall, though, the social isolation remained intense. Fittingly, the Hangman’s House was itself on an island, with a respectable neighborhood on one shore and a prison on the other.



The Nuremberg city fathers saw public executions as a way to emphasize their ability to maintain law and order, but for spectators they often seemed to be a form of macabre entertainment. Was there any concern that people were enjoying the spectacles too much, perhaps undermining their purpose as a deterrent?

Surprisingly, this issue was not really much discussed until the 18th century, by which time the number of public executions had declined considerably since the time of Meister Frantz. Maintaining some semblance of public order, however, was always important. Government officials very much wanted a well-orchestrated illustration of their own power, as well as a chance at religious redemption for the condemned person.

To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.