The Faithful Excutioner: Life and Death in the Sixteenth Century by Joel F Harrington

The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death in the Sixteenth Century by Joel F. Harrington

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Executioners in the sixteenth century were outcasts of society. Shunned by all and forbidden even the most simple of human rights they, and their families, were treated by their communities like the criminals it was their job to torture and execute.

Given this, executioners have largely remained shadowy figures of history which is what makes Franz Schmidt’s journal so remarkable. A citizen of Nuremberg in the sixteenth century, executioner of 394 people and torturer of hundreds of people, Schmidt was also a literate man and kept a highly detailed record of his working life.

Joel F. Harrington takes Schmidt’s log and attempts to take us deep inside the executioner’s world at each point of his career; from a young apprentice working with his father, to his elderly years as a healer.

The Faithful Executioner’s blurb describes it as an insight into Frantz Schmidt’s world. Although in large part this is correct, it is well worth noting that the records we have from Schmidt are entirely focused on his working life. His personal life, and even his personal feelings about his profession are unmentioned within his log, meaning that much of his life remains as much conjecture and guess work as the rest of his contemporaries.

I did find this a great disappointment. I think of a diary as a very personal, emotional record and was therefore expecting a great deal more substance than I was presented with. It is undeniably fascinating to read Schmidt’s meticulous accounts; however, I didn’t feel like I was being given the real insight into the person behind the profession that I was promised in the blurb.

That being said, Harrington has succeeded in providing a detailed social, legal and historical background to accompany Schmidt’s words which certainly does provide an in-depth insight into sixteenth century Nuremberg. Additionally, Harrington has provided an interesting personal interpretation of what Schmidt may have felt and thought. As far as conjecture goes, this interpretation is believable, however, Harrington himself admits after almost every personal assumption he makes about Schmidt that we can really never know what he was really thinking.

As a social history of sixteenth century Nuremberg “The Faithful Executioner” provides some fascinating insights into a time of great social change, for instance within the legal system and religious institutions. Additionally, Harrington’s book affords some interesting speculations about Schmidt’s personality. However, I recommend that you do not pick this book up if you’re looking for a personal account of his life because it simply doesn’t exist- there are certain aspects of the medieval executioner’s life that are just destined to remain lost in history.

This review was first published on and Goodreads on 18th September 2013.

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