Saturday, August 10, 2013

Crime, Torture and Punishment in the 16th Century

Peter Marshall reviews this new book on torture and execution as practiced in Nuremburg, Germany for the Literary Review:

This is a marvellous book about a fascinating subject. It is, in a sense, a portrait of a serial killer. Frantz Schmidt was employed between 1578 and 1618 as the official executioner (and torturer) of the prosperous German city of Nuremberg. Over the course of his career he personally despatched 394 people, and flogged, branded or otherwise maimed many hundreds more. His life is also a tale of honour, duty and a lasting quest for meaning and redemption.

The penal regimes of pre-modern European states were harsh and violent, heavy on deterrence and the symbolism of retribution. Towns such as Nuremberg needed professional executioners to deal with an ever-present threat of criminality through the public infliction of capital and corporal sentences. Punishing malefactors with lengthy periods of incarceration was an idea for the future, and would probably have struck 16th-century people as unnecessarily cruel. Methods ranged from execution with the sword (the most honourable) to hanging (the least), and from the relatively quick and merciful to the dreadful penalty of staking a person to the ground and breaking their limbs one after the other with a heavy cartwheel. This was not a world of mindless violence: the punishments Schmidt imposed were carefully prescribed by the city authorities, down to the number of 'nips' (pieces of flesh torn from the limbs with red-hot tongs) convicts were to receive on their way to the gallows.

This gruesome regimen can be reconstructed because, over the course of 45 years, Schmidt kept a personal journal - not a diary in anything like the modern sense, but a usually terse and impersonal chronological record of all the punishments he had inflicted, including some details of the crimes behind them. The journal is not a new discovery (a version of it was printed as long ago as 1801), but Joel Harrington, drawing on a previously unused, near-contemporary copy, is the first historian to realise its full potential. The source lends itself to a social history of crime and punishment, but Harrington also attempts something more interesting and ambitious: to enter imaginatively into the world-view of its compiler and construct a rounded portrait of a personality and a life. Cleverly, he weaves Schmidt's own words wherever possible into his historical narrative, placing them in italics to let us identify what he has reported and what the author has conjectured or imaginatively inferred (invariably pitched pleasingly between excessive caution and undue presumption). It is a virtuoso performance. Harrington is able to draw on a range of ancillary documents, but this is the best example of making a single, apparently unpromising historical source sing since Eamon Duffy breathed life into a set of dusty English churchwardens' accounts in The Voices of Morebath.

Macmillan, the U.S. publisher, provides some excerpts and other material here. A couple of years ago, I corresponded with Professor Frank W. Barlow of Mount Holyoke College, who is at work on a biography of Richard Topcliffe. I really doubt that Topcliffe would have kept such an impersonal journal of his work of pursuing and torturing Catholic priests. From all that I've read of Topcliffe he took personal satisfaction in capturing priests like St. Robert Southwell and may have even enjoyed inflicting pain.

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