What Was It Like to Be an Executioner in the Middle Ages?

In 16th century Bavaria, a professional executioner named Frantz Schmidt kept a diary through most of his life. This left us an extraordinary opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a professional we mostly know from fiction and the very fringes of textbooks. Schmidt was an educated man, took his work seriously, and sometimes felt empathy for those he lawfully killed. But he didn't choose his work; like most folks in the Middle Ages, he inherited the career from his father. Vanderbilt University historian Joel Harrington tells us more about executioners.

Over time, this passing of the baton from father to son created what Harrington called long-standing "execution dynasties" that spread across Europe during the Middle Ages.

But the existence of those dynasties also reveals the poor image executioners had at the time. People were trapped in this family cycle of employment because, in reality, they had few other opportunities to work, according to Harrington. People whose professions revolved around death were people that the rest of society did not want to associate with. So executioners were typically consigned to the fringes of society — and even forced to literally live at the edge of town.

"People wouldn't have invited executioners into their homes. Many executioners were not allowed to go into churches. Marriage has to be done at the executioner's home," Harrington said. "Some schools would not even take the children of executioners."

It wasn't all bad, though. There were perks designed to keep the executioner from abandoning his job, which was seen as a necessary part of law enforcement. Read about the life of an executioner at LiveScience.  -via Damn Interesting


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