The Faithful Executioner had been on my shelf for a few years, purchased on a whim and then forgotten. Thanks to dramatically cutting screen time and learning to read books again, I’ve had a chance to rediscover the books I’d bought and then forgotten about in the haze of screens and overwork. I’m glad I found this one again. The book tells the story of Meister Frantz Schmidt, an executioner in 16th century Nuremberg who, in the course of a 40 year career executed hundreds of men, women, and children (the youngest was 13), and flogged, tortured, and maimed countless more, all while keeping a journal of his professional accomplishments.
The author dives deep into the journal, recounting the various punishments that Meister Schmidt meted out and (mostly) impassively wrote down and then using the dry prose of the journal along with the rest of the historical record to paint a picture of the bizarre world of 16th century Germany where criminals were broken on the wheel, thieves were hung (unless they happened to have the right friends), executioners were highly regarded for their healing talents, and the rules of honor and shame meant that an entire lineage could be permanently tainted because a man was picked out of the crowd and forced by a noble to execute a criminal.
For me, the book offered a new perspective on a world that we usually only hear about through the stories of kings, politics, and grand warfare — the everyday life of common people doesn’t usually make it into the history books. Hearing about the world from the ground level was interesting and much more compelling than I expected.