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This blog is the work of an educated civilian, not of an expert in the fields discussed.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Faithful Executioner: LIfe and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century

In this vividly drawn portrait of the life of an early modern executioner, Meister Franz Schmidt, Joel Harrington immerses us in the world of crime, violence and honour of 16th- and 17th-century Germany.
This can be a Rev. Joe (haven't done that for a while) segment as seen by the title. One theme of the book was that the long time (about a half-century, especially given his apprenticeship with his dad) executioner, torturer and corporal punishment guy for Nuremberg (most of his career) Germany in the 16th and 17th Centuries was his sense of morality.  Meister Franz Schmidt left a journal of his work (and a later letter trying to protect his family's name) and the historian here shows us how he saw his job as bringing justice, even to teenage thieves, even if this was by the wheel and confessions obtained by formalized torture.

We get a very good feel of the overall setting (including such things as the fear of arson) and can imagine the hellish jails and torture cells, questions sent in by air vent or from outside the cell. The author has to infer various things since there is little of Schmidt's voice especially regarding his personal life.  For instance, being an executioner was a nice living if you can get it, but socially poison for unsurprising reasons.  The author infers a few things here from the evidence; we would like to know a bit more.  The executioner comes from middling folk (his father was originally a woodsman) not that introspective about his work; still has things to say. Like other historical figures, it is amazing what we can determine from this distance while hoping for more. That's part of the charm -- imagining.

One part of history that I think is often not expressed or at least realized by some people is the differences of the past. We see this in movies, especially when (right you are John Oliver) the character are played by white people when they are not.  You lose the color, so to speak, there especially the different world.  The book reminds us that 1600 Holy Roman Empire (even if Voltaire told us it was none of them) was that though basic similarities can be felt as well. The people here might come from a more nasty world (e.g., torture exists in civilized countries today, but formalized torture of the nature here is still of a different animal)  but we can still recognize them. The legal reforms of the early 16th Century is an example, this is the "early modern" world, with the Protestant Revolution just occurring etc.

The book is helped by many photos and a basic down to earth tone. It is also that mid-200s or less length that appeals to me these days. At times, it did feel a bit dry; this just might be my grumpiness the last few years -- too much online reading, perhaps.  Overall, recommended.

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