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Frantz Schmidt was a family man, a respected city official, and a pious Christian. He was also a consumate professional who worked in an occupation that required that he flog, maim, hang, behead, drown, and bury alive various criminals:

June 5, 1573. “Leonardt Russ of Ceyern, a thief. Executed with the rope at the city of Steinach. Was my first execution.” So begins the sixteenth-century journal of Nuremberg’s Frantz Schmidt (1555-1634), who during 45 years of professional activity personally put to death 361 individuals and tortured, flogged, burned, or disfigured hundreds more. Legally empowered to torture, maim, and kill suspected or convicted criminals, the professional executioner is one of the more evocative and charged symbols of pre-modern Europe’s otherness. A ubiquitous and integral part of the European social fabric well into the modern era, these human “weapons of justice” were simultaneously viewed with suspicion and disdain by the very communities they served, formally marginalized as members of the “dishonourable trades”, a delimited menagerie that included slaughterhouse workers and gravediggers. And yet “Meister Frantz”, as he was popularly, endearingly known, remained a revered member of the local establishment, widely respected for his piety and steadfastness.

The dichotomy begs to be reconciled, or, at least, interrogated: How did early modern executioners square their unsavoury occupations with aspirations to social respectability and Christian morality? Was Schmidt a rare anomaly, or was he an indication of something of broader social significance underway, perhaps laying a foundation for modern rationalizations of the use of state violence?

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