Based on the rare and until now overlooked journal of a Renaissance-era executioner, the noted historian Joel F. Harrington’s 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 apprentice’s rigorous training under his executioner father to the adult Meister Frantz’s 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 Schmidt’s 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 man’s 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.
“Who can imagine how an executioner feels about his trade? Joel F. Harrington has written a considered and fascinating book that helps us hear the voice of one such man, a professional torturer (and healer) who, astonishingly, kept a diary. Exploring both sixteenth-century Nuremberg and the world about the city, he re-creates the social context for the flamboyant displays of cruelty that later centuries find so hard to comprehend. Both the executioner and his victims are rescued from our condescension and restored to their own moral universe—which is not as far from ours as we like to suppose.” —Hilary Mantel, Man Booker Prize–winning author Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
“A book as entertaining and revealing as it is improbable and outrageous. Joel F. Harrington has told a marvelous yarn, giving us not just the compelling biography of Meister Frantz but his world.” —Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943–1944
“In an astonishing feat of historical reconstruction, Joel F. Harrington uniquely draws us into the emotional world of a man paid to kill professionally—into his troubled sense of achievement and shame. This compelling book is brilliant reading for everyone interested in new ways of thinking about the past as well as crime and punishment today.” —Ulinka Rublack, author of Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe
“The Faithful Executioner masterfully conjures the heavy stench and bustle of a sixteenth-century southern German city—waterlogged roads, smoky marketplaces, blood-lusty masses laden with bizarre superstitions—via the Lebenslauf of a curious figure: Meister Frantz Schmidt, Nuremburg’s state executioner from 1578 to 1617. With the help of Schmidt’s private journal, Joel F. Harrington revivifies both the detailed and the abstract with enviable scholarship and style. This is social history at its very best: weird, riveting, addictive.” —R. Jay Magill Jr., author of Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion That We All Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull)
“A fascinating read.” —Publishers Weekly
“Surprisingly poignant . . . A whole teeming world of Reformation Germany comes alive.” —Kirkus Reviews
Joel F. Harrington is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of The Unwanted Child, winner of the 2010 Roland H. Bainton Prize for History, as well as Reordering Marriage and Society in Reformation Germany and A Cloud of Witnesses. He lives with his wife and two children in Nashville, Tennessee.