The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century

New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013; Paperback: Picador, 2013

Awards

One of History Today's Best Books of 2013

One of The Telegraph's Best Books of 2013

Alternate monthly selection for Book of the Month Club & History Book Club (June 2013)

Excerpted in Slate, Publisher's Weekly, and Longreads

Synopsis:  

Based on the rare and until now overlooked journal of a Renaissance-era executioner, The Faithful Executioner takes us deep inside the alien world and thinking of Meister Frantz Schmidt of Nuremberg, who, during forty-five years as a professional executioner, personally put to death 394 individuals and tortured, flogged, or disfigured many hundreds more. But the picture that emerges of Schmidt from his personal papers is not that of a monster. Could a man who routinely practiced such cruelty also be insightful, compassionate—even progressive?

The Faithful Executioner vividly re-creates a life filled with stark contrasts, from the young apprentice’s rigorous training under his executioner father to the adult Meister Frantz’s juggling of familial duties with his work in the torture chamber and at the scaffold. With him we encounter brutal highwaymen, charming swindlers, and tragic unwed mothers accused of infanticide, as well as patrician senators, godly chaplains, and corrupt prison guards. Harrington teases out the hidden meanings and drama of Schmidt’s journal, uncovering a touching tale of inherited shame and attempted redemption for the social pariah and his children. The Faithful Executioner offers not just the compelling firsthand perspective of a professional torturer and killer, but testimony of one man’s lifelong struggle to reconcile his bloody craft with his deep religious faith.

The biography of an ordinary man struggling for his soul, this groundbreaking book also offers an unparalleled panoramic view of Europe on the cusp of modernity, a society riven by violent conflict at all levels and encumbered by paranoia, superstition, and abuses of power. Thanks to an extraordinary historical source and its gifted interpreter, we recognize far more of ourselves than we might have expected in this intimate portrait of a professional killer from a faraway world.

 

 

 

 

Reviews

 

“Fascinating . . . Engrossing . . . Harrington brings out the sheer strangeness of the past . . . In The Faithful Executioner, Mr. Harrington has not only rescued the life of an individual from disgust and condescension but also, by focusing on a career in killing, brought a whole world back to life.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Remarkable . . . [A] fascinating exploration . . . this is a surprisingly modern, even topical story that poses difficult questions about capital punishment and what Harrington calls ‘the human drive toward retribution.’”
The Washington Post

“[A] vividly drawn portrait . . . Harrington succeeds in deftly taking us beyond Schmidt’s biography to address broader questions. Finely researched and crafted.”
History Today

"This is a marvelous book about a fascinating subject… It is a virtuoso performance… A brilliant microhistory, a triumph of technique and a wonderful read."
Literary Review

 

 “Fascinating . . . One of the pleasures of reading history is to be transported somewhere, even if we aren’t sure we want to go.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education

“Who can imagine how an executioner feels about his trade? Joel F. Harrington has written a considered and fascinating book that helps us hear the voice of one such man, a professional torturer (and healer) who, astonishingly, kept a diary. Exploring both sixteenth-century Nuremberg and the world about the city, he re-creates the social context for the flamboyant displays of cruelty that later centuries find so hard to comprehend. Both the executioner and his victims are rescued from our condescension and restored to their own moral universe—which is not as far from ours as we like to suppose.”
—Hilary Mantel, Man Booker Prize–winning author Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

"This is a sympathetic, intelligent and surprisingly tender book"
- -The Times

 

 “Equal parts enlightening and enjoyable.”
The Daily Beast 

"Master Frantz was not an introspective diarist, but Harrington brings out with great interpretative acuity his vision of the moral values with whose enforcement he was charged.  He 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."
-- Richard J Evans, Times Literary Supplement

 

 “Surprisingly poignant . . . A whole teeming world of Reformation Germany comes alive.”
Kirkus Reviews

“A fascinating read.”
Publishers Weekly

“This is a precious story that Harrington has drawn from the journal and archival records, a braiding of Schmidt’s words with a re-creation of Schmidt’s world, a story that is at once inclusive and atmospheric, deeply intimate and rare . . . It is a wonder-making world, made manifest by an artful historian’s hand.”
Barnes & Noble Review

 

"Harrington does an excellent job at recreating the thoughts and fears of a man whose job is one of the most loathed and caricatured"
--Daily Telegraph

 

"A vivid window on a fascinating age"
--Scotsman

 

"Vividly drawn… Finely researched and crafted"
--History Today

 

"A surprisingly moving story of brutality and redemption"
--Telegraph

 

"Macabre but fascinating"
--Mail on Sunday Event

 

 “A book as entertaining and revealing as it is improbable and outrageous. Joel F. Harrington has told a marvelous yarn, giving us not just the compelling biography of Meister Frantz but his world.”


—Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943–1944

“In an astonishing feat of historical reconstruction, Joel F. Harrington uniquely draws us into the emotional world of a man paid to kill professionally—into his troubled sense of achievement and shame. This compelling book is brilliant reading for everyone interested in new ways of thinking about the past as well as crime and punishment today.”
—Ulinka Rublack, author of Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe

“The Faithful Executioner masterfully conjures the heavy stench and bustle of a sixteenth-century southern German city—waterlogged roads, smoky marketplaces, blood-lusty masses laden with bizarre superstitions—via the Lebenslauf of a curious figure: Meister Frantz Schmidt, Nuremburg’s state executioner from 1578 to 1617. With the help of Schmidt’s private journal, Joel F. Harrington revivifies both the detailed and the abstract with enviable scholarship and style. This is social history at its very best: weird, riveting, addictive.”
—R. Jay Magill Jr., author of Sincerity


 


  • Other Editions

Published in the U.K. and British Commonwealth by The Bodley Head (London, 2013) and Vintage paperbacks (London, 2014);

Translated into German as Die Ehre des Scharfrichters.  Meister Frantz oder Ein Henkersleben im 16. Jahrhundert. (Munich: Siedler, 2014);

Dutch as Dagboek van een beul: Meester Frantz Schmidt van Neurenberg (1554-1634) (Amsterdam: Bezige Bij, 2013);

Danish as Bøddel af Guds nåde - En skarpretters dagbog 1573-1617 (Copenhagen: Lindhardt & Ringhof, 2013);

Norwegian as Den fromme bøddelen: Liv og død, ære og skam på det turbulente 1500- tallet, trans. Eivind Lilleskjæret (Oslo: Cappelen Damm, 2014);

Chinese as 忠實的劊子手 從一位職業行刑者的 內心世界,探索亂世凶年的生與死, trans. Zhongyu Jue (Taipei/Beijing: Locus Press, 2013);

Japanese as 処刑人の忘れられた日記から明らかになる、16世紀の世界 死刑執行人』-残された日記と、その真相- trans. Masamichi Higurashi (Tokyo: Kashiwa Shobo, 2014);

Romanian by Editura RAO forthcoming in 2014;

Polish by Wydawnictwo Poznański (forthcoming);

Estonian by Aripaev (forthcoming);