This is an excerpt from The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, written by Joel F. Harrington and out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
In the medieval era, public executions were meant to accomplish two goals: first, to shock spectators and, second, to reaffirm divine and temporal authority. A steady and reliable executioner played the pivotal role in achieving this delicate balance through his ritualized and regulated application of violence on the state's behalf. The court condemnation, the death procession, and the execution itself constituted three acts in a carefully choreographed morality play, what historian Richard van Dulmen called “the theater of horror.” The “good death” Meister Frantz Schmidt, an executioner in 16th-century Nuremberg, sought was essentially a drama of religious redemption, in which the poor sinner acknowledged and atoned for his or her crimes, voluntarily served as an admonitory example, and in return was granted a swift death and the promise of salvation. It was, in that sense, the last transaction a condemned prisoner would make in this world.
Let us take the example of Hans Vogel from Rasdorf, who, as Schmidt wrote in his extensive journals, “burned to death an enemy in a stable [and] was my first execution with the sword in Nuremberg” on Aug. 13, 1577. As in all public performances, the preparation behind the scenes was crucially important. Three days before the day of execution, Vogel was moved to a slightly larger death row cell. Had he been seriously wounded or otherwise ill, Frantz and perhaps another medical consultant would have tended to him and perhaps requested delays in the execution date until Vogel regained the stamina required for the final hour.
While awaiting judgment day, Vogel might receive family members and other visitors in the prison or—if he was literate—seek consolation by reading a book or writing farewell letters. He might even reconcile with some of his victims and their relatives, as did a murderer who accepted some oranges and gingerbread from his victim's widow “as a sign that she had forgiven him from the depths of her heart.” The most frequent visitors to Vogel's cell during this period would be the prison chaplains. In Nuremberg the two chaplains worked in concert and sometimes in competition, attempting to “soften his heart” with appeals combining elements of fear, sorrow, and hope. If Vogel couldn't read, the clerics would have shown him an illustrated Bible and attempted to teach him the Lord's Prayer as well as the basics of the Lutheran catechism; if he was better schooled, they might engage him in discussions about grace and salvation. Above all, the chaplains—sometimes joined by the jailer or members of his family—would offer consolation to the poor sinner, singing hymns together and speaking reassuring words, while repeatedly admonishing the stubborn and hardhearted.
Whatever their success in effecting an internal conversion, the clerics were at minimum expected to sufficiently calm the condemned Vogel for the final component of his preparatory period, the famed “hangman's meal.” As in those modern countries that still maintain capital punishment, Vogel could request what ever he wanted for his last meal, including copious quantities of wine. The chaplain Hagendorn attended some of these repasts and was frequently appalled by the boorish and ungodly behavior he witnessed. One surly robber spat out the warden's wine and demanded warm beer, while another large thief “thought more of the food for his belly than his soul … devouring in one hour a large loaf, and in addition two smaller ones, besides other food,” in the end consuming so much that his body allegedly “burst asunder in the middle,” as it swung from the gallows. Some poor sinners, by contrast (especially distraught young killers of newborns), were unable to eat anything whatsoever.
Once Vogel was adequately satiated (and inebriated), the executioner's assistants helped him put on the white linen execution gown and summoned Frantz, who from this point on oversaw the public spectacle about to unfold. His arrival at the cell was announced by the warden with the customary words, “The executioner is at hand,” whereupon Frantz knocked on the door and entered the parlor in his finest attire. After asking the prisoner for forgiveness, he then sipped the traditional Saint John's drink of peace with Vogel, and engaged in a brief conversation to determine whether he was ready to proceed to the waiting judge and jury.
A few poor sinners were at this point actually jubilant and even giddy about their imminent release from the mortal world, whether out of religious conviction, exasperation, or sheer intoxication. Sometimes Frantz decided that a small concession might be enough to ensure compliance, such as allowing one condemned woman to wear her favorite straw hat to the gallows, or a poacher to wear the wreath sent to him in prison by his sister. He might also ask an assistant to provide more alcohol, sometimes mixed with a sedative he prepared, although this tactic could backfire, leading some women to pass out and making some of the younger men still more aggressive. Once confident that Vogel was sufficiently calmed, Frantz and his assistants bound the prisoner's hands with rope (or taffeta cords for women) and proceeded to the first act of the execution drama.
The “blood court,” presided over by a patrician judge and jury, was a forum for sentencing, not for deciding guilt or punishment. Vogel's own confession, in this case obtained without torture, had already determined his fate. At the end of Nuremberg's chamber, the judge sat on a raised cushion, holding a white rod in his right hand and in his left a short sword with two gauntlets hanging from the hilt. Six patrician jurors in ornately carved chairs flanked him on either side, like him wearing the customary red and black robes of the blood court. While the executioner and his assistants held the prisoner steady, the scribe read the final confession and its tally of offenses, concluding with the formulaic condemnation “Which being against the laws of the Holy Roman Empire, my Lords have decreed and given sentence that he shall be condemned from life to death by [rope/sword/ fire/water/the wheel].” Starting with the youngest juror, the judge then serially polled all 12 of his colleagues for their consent, to which each gave the standard reply, “What is legal and just pleases me.”
Before confirming the sentence, the judge addressed Vogel directly for the first time, inviting a statement to the court. The submissive poor sinner was not expected to present any sort of defense, but rather to thank the jurors and judge for their just decision and absolve them of any guilt in the violent death they had just endorsed. Those relieved souls whose punishments had been commuted to beheading were often effusive in their gratitude. A few reckless rogues were so bold as to curse the assembled court. Many more terrified prisoners simply stood speechless. Turning to Frantz, the judge then gave the servant of the court his commission: “Executioner, I command you in the name of the Holy Roman Empire, that you carry [the poor sinner] to the place of execution and carry out the aforesaid punishment,” whereupon he ceremoniously snapped his white staff of judgment in two and returned the prisoner to the executioner's custody.