Executioners in Germany

Executioner's MaskI’m back and finally ready to post something on this blog again! Sorry that it took me a while to get into gear again…

My trip to Germany was sponsored by my Lutheran university’s “Reformation Heritage Seminar,” a semester of lectures and presentations and then nearly two weeks in the former East Germany visiting various Luther(an)-significant sites that ranged from the tiny town of Wittenberg (where Martin Luther taught and posted  his 95 theses) to Buchenwald, where Lutheran Pastor Paul Schneider took a stand and was executed.

However, one of the more personally exciting moments during the trip was completely unplanned and unexpected. At the last minute, one of the professors in charge of the trip decided to build in a lunch stop at the medieval town of Rothenberg. As we walked toward the town square before being set loose, our German bus driver said casually, apparently having been told by a fellow tour member that I have macabre interests, “oh, there’s a museum of medieval crime and punishment here, too.”

My heart started to beat faster and I realized that there would be no lunch for Dru that afternoon.

You see, the fantasy novel I’ve been dedicating years of hard work to, King’s Monster, has an executioner as a protagonist. And while I’ve read a lot about English and French executioners, I’ve only read one book about a German executioner (A Hangman’s Diary: Being the Authentic Journal of Master Franz Schmidt, Public Executioner of Nuremberg 1573 – 1617), so having an opportunity to learn more about German executions was very exciting to me.

Unfortunately, the fact that this was only a lunch stop meant I had to race through the surprisingly extensive museum much faster than I’d have liked. I returned to the bus with a bulging plastic bag and was greeted by my friends, almost all bearing bags from the Christmas-ornament shops in town, with cheerful cries of, “Oh, Dru, what did you buy?”  “Um,  Criminal Justice Through the Ages and  a bunch of postcards of torture devices.”

“Oh. That’s … unusual.”

The museum is, however, quite remarkable (and made an interesting contextual counterpoint to Buchenwald), and many of the items have cards in both English and  Japanese as well as German, which seems unusual, considering that even many of the displays in Buchenwald, which you’d think many more English-speaking tourists would visit, weren’t translated.

The mask above was worn by executioners. The card by it said,

People in the old times strongly believed that a person who was sentenced to death and led to the execution could give a curse through their facial expression. For this reason the executioner always wore a mask to protect himself. At first the criminal was blindfolded and the executioner wore a mask which covered his face. In its simple form the mask was made from cloth into a coned hood with holes for the eyes, nose and mouth. A rare form of this mask is one made of iron. In later times a big hat with a wide brim was worn because it always changed the face of the wearer. Even with this mask, the executioner asked the condemned person for his forgiveness because he was still afraid of the curse.

Mask wearing is, I think, mostly Germanic, because my books on English and French executioners don’t emphasize an executioner’s mask — sometimes one was worn, but more often it seems that it wasn’t. The curse of the deceased, however, seems to be a widespread fear, and indeed my King’s Monster protagonist falls afoul of exactly such a curse when his request for forgiveness is denied by one of his victims.

Executioner's CloakAnother odd bit of executioner’s garb in the museum was this peculiar red shaggy cloak. I couldn’t find anything about it, although the book I bought noted that “the executioner often had to wear particularly conspicuous clothing” as a result of the social stigma and taboos surrounding his profession. I didn’t put my executioner into a cloak like this, but he does wear a red cap and red jerkin with a badge on it and is very concerned with clothing as a sign of social status and employment — which is, I have to confess, an echo of the work I did on my dissertation, which addressed early Anglo-American sumptuary laws and rules of etiquette related to clothing.

The museum also contained a number of executioners’ swords, but the glass in front of them precluded my getting any really great photographs, though I have a few bad ones I’ll keep on file as references.  Germany also used a “sword of justice,” carried while passing judgment, and it was sometimes difficult to tell the difference between swords of justice and executioners’ swords. One way to tell, in some cases, was that executioners’ swords have broad blades and blunt ends — they are hacking weapons intended to take off a head or hand, not stabbing weapons intended to pierce the vitals. If you’ve read Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, you’ll recognize this as being the same description as Terminus Est, although I don’t believe any real executioner’s sword ever had mercury running through it….

Finally, I wanted to include this image of a rare female executioner:

Female ExecutionerThe card by it said, “Iudicia Widmann was an executionieress in Nuremberg (mother of J. M. Widmann, born 3 .12. 1645.) Copper engraving from 1672.”

I haven’t been able to find much more about her in any of my execution/executioner books. My guess is that she probably took over the role from an incapacitated or dead husband and held it for her son until he was of age — but that’s just a guess.

So I was quite happy to have added some research for my novel to the other educational opportunities offered by this trip — I also picked up some original German-language yaoi, of course, although it’s such a pity to own it and not be able to read a word of it….

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