|"The cruel death of Calas," from the Calas Chapbook|
This is not a subject I have thought much about, at least not until yesterday, when I read a review in the TLS of what seems a fascinating book, The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by the American historian Joel F. Harrington. The book concerns executions in Nuremberg, as gleaned from the diary of Master Franz Schmidt, who kept a record of the executions he had carried out until his death in 1634. According to the review, executions took various forms, all of which were laid down in the so-called Carolina of 1530 (named after the Emperor Charles V), the first body of German criminal law. The lawyer Goethe would have been quite familiar with this code. We know from his diary that Master Franz "hanged seventy-one offenders, beheaded forty-eight, and broke eleven with the wheel, a procedure requiring both strength and dexterity as the executioner lifted a heavy cartwheel and dropped it onto the limbs of the malefactor ..." The review, by Richard J. Evans, is fascinating, if stomach-turning, reading: "Harrington provides a richly detailed and utterly absorbing account of a world of violence, pain, and suffering into which it would be difficult for the modern reader to enter through less sympathetic accounts."
|1774 edition of Beccaria's work|
Of interest in this connection is the case of Master Franz of Nuremberg, who, despite his successful career, "was anything but a sadist." It turns out that he succeeded, according to the reviewer, "with the support of the prison chaplains, in abolishing the traditional punishment of drowning infanticidal women in a sack in the local river." Master Franz argued that beheading, being more visible, was more of a deterrent to the crowds attending executions.
Picture credit: Tesori in soffitta