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The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Centuryby Joel F. Harrington
Synopses & Reviews
Based on the rare and until now overlooked journal of a Renaissance-era executioner, the noted historian Joel F. Harringtons 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 apprentices rigorous training under his executioner father to the adult Meister Frantzs 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 Schmidts 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 mans 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.
"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. Agent: Rafe Sagalyn, Sagalyn Literary Agency." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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 Schmidts 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 Schmidts 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.
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 Schmidts journal, whose immense significance has been ignored until now. Harrington uncovers details of Schmidts 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.
About the Author
Joel F. Harrington is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of The Unwanted Child, Reordering Marriage and Society in Reformation Germany, and A Cloud of Witnesses.
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