Saturday, December 7, 2013

Crime and punishment in Goethe

"The cruel death of Calas," from the Calas Chapbook
Gretchen, as we know, faced beheading at the gallows or scaffold, which, according to Wikipedia, is "an enhanced execution site for public executions." Such an execution is a bit daunting for the modern imagination, as even the current forms of capital punishment in America are not public, nor are they intended to be as "cruel and unusual" as they were in Europe before the 19th century. Again, according to Wikipedia, the last public beheading in Hanau took place in 1860. Interestingly, the district of Hanau where this took place is called "Wolfgang."

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
"The Right to Punish" is the title of a chapter in Franco Venturi's Utopia and Reform in the Enlightenment. As Venturi writes, "utopias and reforms polarized the attention of the spirits and minds of the 1760s." (See my earlier posting on the subject, especially as it concerns Goethe.) It was a book by Cesare Beccaria that drew attention throughout Europe to "the problem of the existence of crime itself and with the ways to repress it." (For Becarria's writings, see this site.) Venturi's subject is the intellectual climate. He doesn't go into the gory details to be found in Harrington's new book, yet, not only did people in the 18th century have an immense historical memory of executions, but gruesome executions were still carried out in that century. The most famous example was the case of Jean Calas of Toulouse, who was tortured on the wheel in 1762. So, Goethe's Faust, describing Gretchen's vision of the gallows, documents a contemporary practice.  This site claims that Goethe was a "witness" to the trial of Susanna Margaretha Brandt, but, according to Harrington, the trials took place in secret. So, Goethe perhaps only witnessed the beheading in Frankfurt.

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

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