Medieval Monday: Executioner

What Was It Like to Be an Executioner in the Middle Ages?

by: Emma Bryce

Forget the image of the hooded executioner swinging an ax; much of what we think we know about these medieval figures isn’t true.

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One afternoon in May 1573, a 19-year-old man named Frantz Schmidt stood in the backyard of his father’s house in the German state of Bavaria, preparing to behead a stray dog with a sword. He’d recently graduated from “decapitating” inanimate pumpkins to practicing on live animals. If he passed this final stage, Schmidt would be considered ready to start his job, as an executioner of people.

We know the details of this morbid scene because Schmidt meticulously chronicled his life as an executioner, writing a series of diaries that painted a rich picture of this profession during the sixteenth century. His words provided a rare glimpse of the humanity behind the violence, revealing a man who took his work seriously and often felt empathy for his victims. But what’s more, Schmidt wasn’t necessarily all that unusual; historical anecdotes reveal that the prevailing stereotype of the hooded, blood-spattered, brutish executioner falls far short of the truth.

So then, what was it like to do this work hundreds of years ago in Europe? And how did “executioner” become a legitimate job title in the first place?

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Use the Medieval Monday Index to discover other topics relating to daily life in the Middle Ages.

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Medieval Monday: Bizarre Trends

12 Bizarre Medieval Trends

by: Frances White

From pigs on trial to hairless faces, discover what went viral in the Middle Ages.

Every age has a tendency to look back at older generations and judge the customs, beliefs and traditions of the time. However, it is fair to say that there are few periods in history that we regard as strangely as we do the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages have been stamped an unlucky time to be born and popular consensus is that people were poor, food was dull, everything was dirty, and for the vast majority of it the population was dropping like flies. What we don’t hear about is that people created some of the most peculiar, bizarre, hilarious and astounding trends in human history. Let’s take some time to embrace the medieval period and all of its lovable eccentricities.

1. Animal court

Life in medieval times could be tough, and this didn’t just apply to humans. Just like their two-legged owners, all manner of animals from livestock to insects were put on trial if suspected of breaking the law. There are records of at least 85 animal trials that took place during the Middle Ages and the tales vary from the tragic to the absurd, as described in the book “The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals,” by E. P. Evans (E. P. Dutton and Company, 1906).

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By far the most serial offenders were pigs, accused and convicted of chewing off body parts and even eating children. Most were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging or being burned at the stake. In 1386, a convicted pig was dressed in a waistcoat, gloves, drawers and a human mask for its execution.

It wasn’t just pigs that felt the sting of the law, though, In 1474 a court found a rooster guilty of the “unnatural crime” of laying an egg; unwanted rats often found themselves on the receiving end of a strongly worded letter, asking them to leave the premises; and curiously enough, there was a trial of dolphins in Marseilles in 1596.

However, not all of the trials ended in brutality. One donkey, which found herself the victim of unwanted sexual advances, was proclaimed innocent after a strong recommendation from a convent’s prior, declaring her to be a virtuous and well-behaved animal.

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Use the Medieval Monday Index to discover other topics relating to daily life in the Middle Ages.