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One afternoon in May 1573, a 19-year-old man named Frantz Schmidt stood in the backyard of his father's house in the German state of Bavaria, preparing to behead a stray dog with a sword. He'd recently graduated from "decapitating" inanimate pumpkins to practicing on live animals. If he passed this final stage, Schmidt would be considered ready to start his job, as an executioner of people.
We know the details of this morbid scene because Schmidt meticulously chronicled his life as an executioner, writing a series of diaries that painted a rich picture of this profession during the sixteenth century. His words provided a rare glimpse of the humanity behind the violence, revealing a man who took his work seriously and often felt empathy for his victims. But what's more, Schmidt wasn't necessarily all that unusual; historical anecdotes reveal that the prevailing stereotype of the hooded, blood-spattered, brutish executioner falls far short of the truth.
Work - Hundreds - Years - Europe - Executioner
So then, what was it like to do this work hundreds of years ago in Europe? And how did "executioner" become a legitimate job title in the first place?
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Countries - Europe - Time - Law - Enforcement
"What's common to all [countries in Europe at the time] is that they're all trying to have better criminal law enforcement," said Joel Harrington, a historian at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and the author of "The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century" (Picador, 2013), a book about Schmidt's life.
The problem was that things were "a little like the American Wild West, in that most criminals got away," Harrington told Live Science. "So when they did catch them, they really liked to make a good example and have a public spectacle" — hence the need for public executioners to carry out that work.
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