Angel of death – the stylish executioner

When we mention the medieval executioner most of us probably imagen a half naked man, hooded in a black cloak over his face and casually leaning against an enormous axe. This image is however a modern conception of the hangman of the past.

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The medieval executioner was indeed fully dressed, and never hooded. He wasn’t even all dressed in black – on the contrary we see him quite colorful in many depictions. But people did fear and shun the hangman intensely. He was often a ruthless criminal who chose the role as executioner instead of the death penalty, offered to him by the state. He was also often somehow marked with cut off ears, or burn scars on the side of the face.

The fact that the modern perception of the executioner highly differ from the historical one, made me curious. Who was the early modern hangman, and more importantly – what did he look like?

The diary of an executioner

In 16th century Hof in Germany lived a man called Frantz Schmidt. More formally known as “Meister Franz”, he might be the only 16th century executioner writing a diary during his 45 year long career of killing, punishing and handling criminals in the name of the state.

Schmidt was one of the executioners that inherited the title from his father, unlike earlier practice where the role as executioner was offered to criminals as an alternative to death penalty. Schmidt seems to have been a well mannered executioner, sought after and definitely not unlucky in love nor career:

“he married chief executioner’s daughter Maria, and eventually became chief executioner after his father-in-law. He fathered seven children, and his salary, on par with the city’s wealthiest jurists, allowed him to have a spacious residence in Nürnberg. After his retirement in 1617, he began a new, lucrative career as medical consultant.” (source)

In Schmidts diary he detailed all the punishments that he performed. He had a fruitful career where he performed according to his diary 361 executions, many finger-choppings aswell as ear-clippings:

During his entire career he flogged at least 367 offenders, usually before effecting the court’s order for their banishment from the city; many more were whipped by his assistant. He branded a large N for Nuremberg on the cheeks of four pimps and conmen, clipped the ears off four “thief-whores”, snipped off the end of one blasphemer’s tongue, and chopped off the fingers of nine prostitutes, procuresses, false gamblers, poachers and perjurers. (Source)

Despite his chopping, clipping and executing he seem to have been a fairly respected man. Even so that he could retire from his profession as hangman and instead end his life as a (surprisingly enough) healer, claiming to have treated more than 15,000 patients at the end of his life.

We have a few depictions of Frantz, and as far as we can see he was a fairly well dressed chap, and it seems his gear matched his salary:

The executioner Franz Schmidt executing Hans Fröschel on May 18, 1591.

Franz Schmidt executing Hans Fröschel on May 18, 1591.

A painting from the Nuremberg State Archive of Frantz Schmidt executing Anna Peihelsteinin for 'harlotry and lewdness'

Frantz Schmidt executing Anna Peihelsteinin for ‘harlotry and lewdness’, 1584.

Depiction attributed to Franz Schmidt, end of 16th century.

Depiction attributed to Franz Schmidt, end of 16th century.

Franz_Seuboldt_detail

Depiction of Schmidt executing the parricide Franz Seuboldt who killed his own father by ambush while dad was setting bird traps, 1589.

The coin and dress of the hangman

The executioner was by no means a wealthy profession but he couldn’t be called poor either. He had a steady income, certain executions gave extra cash and travels, accommodation and meals during work was paid for. A diligent and ambitious hangman could amass a good coin during his career.

Another less known perk of the job was garments:

“A privilege the executioner had at the time was that he got to keep the garment of the sentenced – as long as the criminal were considered without honor or a stranger to the community. And as most sentenced to death were considered without honor, the executioner pretty much kept all the clothing he desired. This meant that the executioner in many cases could be quite well dressed, to commons folks annoyance”. (93, Sanden)

That the feared and hated executioner was allowed to dress more or less finely, wasn’t highly appreciated.  In 1603 there is a somewhat disgruntled quote on the dressing of a german executioner. That his dress “be so great that not the princely grace was worthy to shine the shoe, and that his mother shall have such stately dress and skirts that the princess herself did not have it better” (93, Sandén)

The Swedish executioner Clemet Foss was 1594 said to “be with gaudy clothes”, probably due to pickings from his victims, and well use of his incomes. When the wealthy Ulrich Schwarz, master of the carpenters guild in Augsburg and famous for his love for fancy clothes, was sentenced to death 1478 the city council “forbade the hangman to appropriate his clothing, so as not to perpetuate his memory” (86, Rublack).

I have found some claims that the executioner during medieval times dressed in certain ways. “Hangmen, in particular, were often forced to to wear striped, or strangely cut clothing and are frequently represented in this manner in crucifixion scenes or martyrical scenes (103, Rublack)”.

"Die sieben Schmerzen Mariä" By Albrecht Durer, 1494-1497

“Die sieben Schmerzen Mariä” By Albrecht Durer, 1494-1497

However I am not sure that the strangely cut clothes in biblical scenes represent how the hangmen actually dressed, but is more of an exotic depiction of clothing. If the executioners garments in a biblical scene differ very much from common fashion during the 1500 and 1600s, it is most probably a fictional clothing style to symbolize a bygone time.

Some also claim that executioners were said to often be dressed in red (96, Sandén). But I am always suspicious of modern interpretation of color use in history. The color red is often said to be the color of devily, or a lewd woman. But I would say that that the meaning of color differs greatly according to who wore it. Martin Luther for example, infamous for wearing black, personally wore a lot of red (97, Rublack). “Luthers choice of scarlet clothing also reflects the increasing sartorial distinction that scholars had begun to raise their status”. (98 Rublack).

In the end, the only thing we can do is to look at contemporary sources and study depictions of executioners of the time:

Execution from a french Chronicle, end of 15th century.

Execution from a french Chronicle, end of 15th century.

The execution of Robert Tresilian, as depicted in Jean Froissart's Chroniques. Date 15th century

The execution of Robert Tresilian, as depicted in Jean Froissart’s Chroniques. 15th century

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Very early 16th century, origin unknown to me

woodcut of a decapitation, early 16th c.

Woodcut of a decapitation, early 16th c.

various torture and execution styles, 1509

Various torture and execution styles, 1509

A woodcut of Tyndale’s execution from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563)

A woodcut of Tyndale’s execution from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563)

"Scharfrichter" (Executioner) from "Praxis rerum criminalium iconibus illustrata", 1562.

“Scharfrichter” (Executioner) from “Praxis rerum criminalium iconibus illustrata”, 1562.

Woodcut from Swiss chronicle of Johann Stumpf, 1586.
Woodcut from Swiss chronicle of Johann Stumpf, 1586.
Unknown

Executioner, end of 16th century

The execution of Mary Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay Castle, 8 February 1587.

The execution of Mary Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay Castle, 8 February 1587.

Sources:

Suggested further reading, for the curious:

 The Director of the Theater of Horror
 The Journeyman
→ God’s Executioner

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The 16th century cook and his attire

Everything started with me searching different depictions of the female apron during the 16th century. And it ended up with me finding a lot of depictions of 16th century male cooks. Why not collect these, I realized.

On these depictions we see that there is a fashionable difference between an apron for a male or a female. The male apron seem to be extremely simple – just a squared piece of linnen fastened with a knot, and quite short.

I also would like you to note that quite a few of the depictions of our culinary artists portray them with fashionable clothes – it is slashed and well fitting, many with the hypermodern “kuhmaulschuhe”, the cow mouth shoe. I would like to point out that these cooks are most probably some sort of court cooks, or working for lords with a more lavish taste in food.

Also we see quite a few not only stylish, but also hygienic, hair nets and hair gears on our male chefs.

The Cook and His Wife Albrecht Dürer (German, Nuremberg 1471–1528 Nuremberg)

The Cook and His Wife Albrecht Dürer (German, Nuremberg 1471–1528 Nuremberg)

"Kuechenmeisterei" by Peter Wagner, Nuremberg, 1486.

German Cookbook “Kuchenmeistery”, 1485

German Cookbook "Kuchenmeistery" 1485

German Cookbook “Kuchenmeistery”, 1485

"Das Buch Granatapfel im Latin Genant Malogranatus", 1510, Hans Burgkmair I.

“Das Buch Granatapfel im Latin Genant Malogranatus”, 1510, Hans Burgkmair I.

"Der Weisskunig" (The White King Learning to Conduct a Kitchen), 1514-1516, Burgkmair d. Ä.

“Der Weisskunig” (The White King Learning to Conduct a Kitchen), 1514-1516, Burgkmair d. Ä.

From a german manuscript namned "Frau untreue (Untrue woman). Artist unknown. Made first half of 16th century. 320 [118v] - Frau Untreue

From a german manuscript namned “Frau untreue” (Untrue woman). Artist unknown. Made first half of 16th century.

Die Hausbucher der Nurnberger Zwolfbruderstiftungen 1527

“Die Hausbucher der Nurnberger Zwolfbruderstiftungen”, 1527

MEDIEVAL-KITCHEN

Unknown artist and date

"Zeltlager Kaiser Karls V. vor Lauingen", 1546.

“Zeltlager Kaiser Karls V. vor Lauingen”, 1546.

 

Interior of an Italian kitchen, after woodcut in 'Banchetti compositioni di Vivende' by Christoforo di Messisburgo, published 1549

Interior of an Italian kitchen, after woodcut in ‘Banchetti compositioni di Vivende’ by Christoforo di Messisburgo, published 1549

cook

“The chief”, woodcut by Jost Amman, in the cookbook “Ein new Kochbuch” by Marx Rupolt, 1581.

Marx Rumpolt, Ein new Kochbuch, 1581.

From the the cookbook “Ein new Kochbuch” by Marx Rupolt, 1581.

Bartolomeo Scappi Trattato di cucina 1570

Unknown artist and date

Bartolomeo Scappi Trattato di cucina 1570 kitchen

Unknown artist and date

 

Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529-1592) Baker Preparing Pies

“Baker Preparing Pies”. by Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529-1592)

I will end this little entry with a far older picture – it seems the manly square apron have been in fashion for quite some time:

Psalter. Flemish c. 1320-30.

Psalter. Flemish c. 1320-30.

A must see: “The high art of the low countries”

Its recommend a documentary time, again! This time i’ll recommend something that isn’t only about the 16th century, but starts in the 15th century. It is the wonderful art that was born in the Netherlands and Belgium during this period. I cannot stress enough how much I love the northern European renaissance – it’s love for the common man (and woman) and the artists almost alchemichal talent in using paints and colors.

The film is called “The high art of the low countries” from 2013. In the first episode of three the British art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon focuses on the 15th and 16th century and deeply explores the brothers van Eyck, Bruegel the elder and Peter Paul Rubens along with churches and tapestries of the time.

It’s a must see!

Reenactment: female pilgrims 16th century

Me and a friend shared a mutual interest for Northern European early 16th century female pilgrims and decided to recreate their gear. Our inspirations are of simple female clothing during the period but also the early modern pilgrims that we found depictions of. The entire outfit is not complete yet – we want more winter wear also, and yet have to make proper bags for longer travels.

The clothes are all handsown by us, all equipment and accessories handmade by us or friends that are crafts men. Everything is in materials of the time such as wool, linnen, silk threads, leather and oak.

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Our lovely hats are historically handmake by Amica at https://historicaltextiles.org/. They are based on depictions of 16th century pilgrims.

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Our lovely shoes are historically handmade by Sofia at http://historiskaskor.blogspot.se/. They are inspired from depictions of 16th century peasant shoes and also findings from the Mary Rose.

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I’m adding some of the inspirational pictures of 16th century pilgrims that we used during the process. Depicitions of female pilgrims during the period are, as always, alot fewer:

Please visit our amazing friends at Historical Textiles and Historiska Skor!

Good riddance to bad rubbish!

The saying “good riddance”, meaning “pleasure on being rid of some annoyance – usually an individual” is a phrase most people are familiar to.

But in the 16th century “riddance” wasn’t always of a good kind – it basically meant “deliverance from” or “getting rid of”.

A riddance can be of many kinds, it can be a “gentle riddance” as in Shakespeares “Merchant of Venice”. It was Shakespeare that first coined the combination of “riddance” and “good” as far as we know, in the line from “Troilus and Cressida” (1606):

Thersites: I will see you hanged, like clotpoles, ere I come any more to your tents: I will keep where there is wit stirring and leave the faction of fools. [Exits]

Patroclus: A good riddance!

But we find this little word in even earlier sources, in John Rastells little sarcastic love poem “Away mouring” written in 1525:

I haue her lost,
For all my cost,
Yet for all that I trowe
I haue perchaunce,
A fayre ryddaunce,
And am quyt of a shrew.

Lets just hope that the lady that Rastell is so bitter over truly was such a “fair riddance” as he’s implying.

I’ll end this little entry and conclude that the Devil himself just might sigh with relief and mumble “good riddance” as soon as he gets this angry witch of his back:

"Witch attacking the devil with a spindle", Jakob Binck (1528)

“Witch attacking the devil with a spindle”, Jakob Binck (1528)

Horror & gore! Hidden killers in early modern times

Its Recommend a Documentary time again!

This time it a sneak peak into the everyday lives of the tudor homes, and secret hidden dangers that effected the normal lives of people.

HEEMSKERCK, Maerten van Family Portrait c. 1530.

“Family Portrait” by Maerten van Heemskerck c. 1530.

The beautiful Dr Suzannah Lipscomb with BBC 4 takes us back to early modern times in search of the household killers of the era in the documentary series “Hidden killers“:

“It was a great age of exploration and science where adventurers returned from the New World with exotic goods previously unknown in Europe. An era in which the newly emergent middle classes had, for the first time, money for luxuries and early consumer goods, many of which contained hidden dangers.

The period also saw a radical evolution in the very idea of ‘home’. For the likes of Tudor merchants, their houses became multi-room structures instead of the single-room habitations that had been the norm (aristocracy excepted). This forced the homebuilders of the day to engineer radical new design solutions and technologies, some of which were lethal.”

I can tell you that there are some surprising finds that truly entertained and horrified me in this documentary. Like why drowning was a common reason of death for young women at the time. Or why teeth hygien suddenly horribly declined during the Tudor period.

I highly recommend it!

Weekly proverb of the past: Pushed into the pig sty

This time we sneak at a proverb that seems to have been a popular motiv for both of the Bruegels to paint on its own. Its it the depiction of a group of rowdy villagers loudly and roughly pushing an unhappily looking drunkard into a pig sty.

Pieter Brueghel the elder - 1568 - The Drunkard pushed into the pigsty

“The drunkard pushed into the pig sty”. Pieter Brueghel the elder, 1568

To the modern eye it seems only to be a comical scene, but this is actually a  Flemish proverb saying that “those who, like drunken pigs, waste their time and good in the house of Venus will finally have to be pushed in the pigsty with the other swine”.

Simply put: if you drink and whore around, you’ll end up knee-deep.

'The drunkard pushed into the pigsty' by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

“The drunkard pushed into the pigsty” by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

The Drunkard Pushed into the Pig Sty. Made after 1568, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

“The Drunkard Pushed into the Pig Sty”. Made after 1568, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder.