The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century

Farrar. 2013. 352p. illus. notes. index. ISBN 9780809049929. $27. HIST
OrangeReviewStarMeister Frantz Schmidt of Nuremburg served as public executioner there from 1573 to 1618, when he retired. Over the course of those 45 years, he kept a journal, chronicling, in rather blunt seemingly nonchalant terms, the exercise of his responsibilities. The journal, both in its original German and in English translation, has been available in published form for scores of years. Though it has been considered a valuable primary source for the history of penal justice, its apparent lack of moral or internal reflection had not seemed to lend it well to social history—until now. Harrington (history, Vanderbilt Univ.; The Unwanted Child) seeks insights into Schmidt the man through his journal, while also using its narrative as a platform for his investigation into human nature and social progress. In his writings, Schmidt relates his 361 executions, along with his other avocations—he was also a healer—his yearning for social status, revealed in another document he wrote late in life, and his faith. Harrington's work is impressive and accessibly conveyed, with period illustrations for further—and sometimes unsettling—context.
VERDICT A fine example of social history that seeks the fuller and more complex story of some darker sides of human nature; a weighty, reflective, and rewarding read. Highly recommended.
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