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.


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.


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


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.

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.


Suggested further reading, for the curious:

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


16th century filth: Bathing hats and scented soaps

There seem to be a widespread opinion that hygiene by bathing had its highlights during roman and medieval period, only to decline drastically during the 16th  century. The Dutch philosopher Erasmus in 1526 noted the fall of common hygiene: “Twenty-five years ago, nothing was more fashionable in Brabant than the public baths. Today there are none, the new plague has taught us to avoid them”.

Yet bathing, both alone and in group, seems to persist during the 16th century. At least depictions of bathing people remain popular during the period. Browsing through these early modern nudies I spot a remarkable hat that seems only to show up in bathing situations. It is round, slightly squarish and sometimes with a little tuft on the top:

('Monks in the bath'). Jena Code Antithesis Christi et Antichrist, 1490-1510

“Monks in the bath” from the Jena Code Antithesis Christi et Antichrist (1490-1510).

Depiction of a Nuremberg bathmaid, from 1585.

The text of the Nuremberg bathmaid above translates:

The speech of the bathmaid: I the bathmaid stand alone, with naked arms and white legs. I tend to the bathing men, also the young boys. With my water I am skilled, young and old, the little child, I wash, and I scrub them, so they go home clean.

Labors of the month may by Jörg Breu the Elder

Labors of the month May, by Jörg Breu the Elder (1475–1537).

A somewhat basic everyday cleanliness seems to be expected of the 16th century person: Washing the hands before eating is emphasized in manners manuals of the 15th and 16th century, as well as washing hands and face in the morning and rinse the mouth with cold water. Babies were bathed in tubs, and rather ingeniously binded in the tub to ensure its safety and let the parents have some cupping therapy and wash the older sibling, in the already mentioned bathing hat:

Bathers from Das Ständebuch (The Book of Trades), 1568

Bathers from Das Ständebuch (The Book of Trades), 1568

The theory that people ceased bathing altogether during the 16th century isn’t at all reflected in pictures from the period, as we can see. In fact, even though mixed bathing was discouraged by the Church, records exist that “baths were used as social affairs, with banquets and wedding feasts being joined with the baths”. But Durer’s 1497 woodcut of men at a public bathhouse, contrasted with ‘Women’s Bath’ of the same year shows sex-segregated bathing as well as the little rounded bath hat we’ve already peeked at:

“The Men’s Bath” Albrecht Dürer (1497 Nuremberg)

As we can see in the pictures above and below the habit of head gears follow the early modern people even into the bathroom – we have trendy hairnets on men, braided hairdo’s or headscarfs on the women or bathing hats on both genders. If not naked, men seemed to wear the male tanga we’ve already talked about, and women in a simple linnen underdress.

The gentlemen prefering a slightly more discrete but fast hair wash could also get that done at the barbers, as shown in this late 16th century woodcut (please also note the casual way the barber keeps his comb behind the ear):


Woodcut by J. Amman

Washing, alone or in group, certainly persisted. We see combinations of bathing or washing in bathhouses (in- aswell as outdoors) or bathtubs. In 1511 Lucas Rem, a famous 16th century merchant and diary writer, according to his diary allegedly bathed 127 times (!) from the 20th of may to the 9th of june. Sources does seem to indicate though, that bathing was for the spring and summer, while washing, atleast in public places or outdoors, probably declined somewhat during the winter months…

“A fool with two bathing women”, Hans Sebald Beham (1541)

Also, scented soaps for face and hand-washing (made by the ‘rebatching’ process where cut-up soap is mixed with scenting agents) starts to appear in 16th and early 17th century housewifery texts. The 16th century Spanish Manual de Mugeres suggests some scented soap recipes and Francis Bacon (1521-1626) recommends a saucy bath in oil and herbs for the best result:

First, before bathing, rub and anoint the Body with Oyle, and Salves, that the Bath’s moistening heate and virtue may penetrate into the Body, and not the liquor’s watery part: then sit 2 houres in the Bath; after Bathing wrap the Body in a seare-cloth made of Masticke, Myrrh, Pomander and Saffron, for staying the perspiration or breathing of the pores, until the softening of the Body, having layne thus in seare-cloth 24 hours, bee growne solid and hard. Lastly, with an oynment of Oyle, Salt and Saffron, the seare-cloth being taken off, anoint the Body.

Woodcut from Brunschwig,

Woodcut from “Buch zu Distillieren” (1500)

The love of bringing nice scents into the cleaning ritual we also witness through Adamus Olearius in his Persian Travel Tales of the early 1600s: “The Germans who dwell in Muscovy and Livonia are very nice in their Stoves; they strew Pine Leaves powder’d, and all sorts of Herbs and Flowers upon the Floor; which, together with the Lye make a very agreeable Scent.”

There is a scented lye-based soap recipe in The treasurie of commodious conceits, & hidden secrets by John Partridge (1573) if anyone wishes to try the 16th century BO for a spin:


To Make Muske Soape Take stronge lye made of chalk, and six pounde of stone chalk: iiii, pounde of Deere Suet, and put them in the lye; in an earthen potte, and mingle it well, and kepe it the space of forty daies, and mingle and [styre?] it, iii, or, iiii times a daye, tyll it be consumed, and that, that remayneth, vii, or, viii, dayes after, then you muste put a quarter of an ounce of Muske, and when you have done so, you must [styre?] it, and it wyll smell of Musk.


“Seated Woman Bathing Her Feet”, by Albrecht Altdorfer (ca. 1480–1538)

Suggested further reading, for the curious:

→ Did people in the middleages take baths?

→ Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England

The Culture of Cleanliness in Renaissance Italy

The naughty nun – a raunchy engraving from 1555

I came over this thrilling little engraving some time ago. After some discussions around this picture I decided to make an image analysis of what we acctually see in this picture and what it represents:


We see a slightly depressed looking nun trying to bribe the housecat with a fish as an exchange for an extremely erected penis the cat is running around with.  In the background we see an amused fool flaunting a pair of male underpants. The quote on the bottom reads “Flaisch macht Flaisch” which translates into either “flesh gives flesh” or “flesh equals flesh”. This depiction is found in the Rijkmuseum in Netherlands, artist unknown and with the description “Nun walks with fish in hand chasing a cat , she wants to trade the fish with a penis that the cat has in its mouth. A jester watches through a window frame”.

Obviously this is a humorous satire with a very naughty message: driven by her carnal desires the nun wants to get her hands on the erected penis and tries to bribe it from the cat. The quote “Flaisch macht Flaisch” can possible be connected to german wordgames: the word “fleisch” can be tied the german word “Fleischeslust”, with the same meaning as “desires of the flesh”, showing that the nun have sexual reasons for hunting the cats prey. Also the german word “Fleisch” could be a slang for, well, the penis. Simply put: the nun wants the bratwurst! But why does she use specifically a fish to bribe the cat? It could either be derived from the catolic medieval practice of eating fish on fridays. Or its simply a clever trick as fish is a wellknown favourite dish for felines.

snusknunnaBut what does the engraving actually mean? Well, when looking at the date of production – 1555 – its quite clear. This is in the middle of the Reformation spreading over Europe. It is obvious that this is a protestant satire – a example of popular protestant criticism of catholic practices. These satires portrayed Catholics in celibacy (cleric, nuns and monks) as secular, perverted and driven by carnal desires. This derives from one of the key pillars of Protestantism: criticism of the celibacy. Protestants claimed that the catholic idea of celibacy was a fraud – celibacy instead resulted in corrupted perverts doing nothing but hunting sexual outlets. The protestant idea was instead that marital intercourse was God given and therefor natural. Celibacy on the other hand was an unnatural concept and not even supported by the bible! Making popular caricatures of Catholics like this woodcut was a weapon in the political war.

Back to the engraving – this is a caricature meant to show the viewer the catholic hypocricy. Lacking martital sexual outlet the nun is perversely obsessed with sex. All the vows of celibacy are soon forgotten as soon as a chance for “meat” is presented. Please also note the rosary the nun is wearing…. what do we see there, instead of a crucifix?

But why is the fool in the background? Often in medieval and early modern depictions the fool is a symbol for mockery, stupidity or someone being fooled. Maybe he is there to show us this is a satire. But why is he smugly wagging his underpants? Is it to show the nun that he is available for action if she doesn’t get a hold of the cats prey? Or is it perhaps to show us that it is the fools private parts the cat is running around with? This is all just up for guessing unfortunately… What do you think?

Why the “Langberg finds” are not knickers

Well, because they are not female, but male underwear. There seem to be alot of misconceptions about these intriguing underpants discovered in Lengberg castle as wall stuffing, and often they are wrongly attributed to sexy lady lingerie. But (un)fortunately, they are not…

This fascinating world of male tangas have already been explored by other bloggers here and here, and I just wanna share with you some extra examples of these fancy underpants that I have found in the wondrous world of early modern art.

I especially like a very exhibitionistic selfportrait by everyones favourite Albrecht Dürer. But apparently this revealing tanga-portrait isn’t the naughtiest selfportrait Mr Dürer offers us… there is one even more daring out there, made 1509, here! (Viewer discretion advised)

Anyhow – back to Dürer’s selfportrait of him in his underwear. Dürer was actually sick when he made this – he sent this drawing to his physician, in which he educationally points out where his pain is situated:

“Do wo der gelb fleck is und mit dem finger drawff dewt do is mir we” (Translation: There where the yellow spot is and the finger points, there it hurts me)


Self Portrait, by Albrecht Dürer (1521)

What sickness Dürer actually had contracted, is unfortunately a mystery.

Holy blue for the private relics

Not only seems this type of underpants be a little extra popular among saints, as my following depictions indicate. Also, surprisingly, the preferred color seems be blue:


The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (1465)


St. Sebastian by master E.S (ca. 1500)


Kettenhemdmartyrium des Hl. Georg (1465)


Bellifortis martial tract of Konrad Kyeser (1414-15)


De heilige Sebastiaan, Lucas van Leyden, 1508 – 1512


“The Peasant Banquet”. Sebald Beham, 1546/1547.


Hans Baldung, Detail of The Crucifixion of Christ (1512)


Jason and Medea, from “History of Troy” by Guido da Columna. (Early 1400s)

Brosamer, Hans - 1540

A couple, by Hans Brosamer (1540)

Bathers from Das Ständebuch (The Book of Trades), 1568

Bathers from “Das Ständebuch” (The book of trades) 1568

Suggested further reading, for the naughty curious: