Tuesday, 26 January 2021

History Book Review: A Hangman’s Diary: Being the Journal of Master Franz Schmidt, Public Executioner of Nuremberg, 1573-1617

Translated by C. V. Calvert and A. W. Gruner

Edited and with an Introduction by Albrecht Keller and an essay “A Brief Account of Criminal Procedure in Germany in the Middle Ages”, by C. V. Calvert

This is a diary of the executioner of the city of Nuremberg in Germany. It begins with an essay by C. V. Calvert followed by a brief introduction to the diary itself. If you’re interested in medieval justice, the essay is invaluable, explaining the various people who worked at the prison, what a cell looked like, the various punishments meted out and for what crimes. The language used is occasionally archaic, for example the translator uses ‘incendiary’ where we would be more familiar with the term ‘arsonist’. The introduction goes over some information about the city of Nuremberg and the text itself.

The journal is edited, with occasional notes in brackets explaining that information has been cut (generally items in lists, for example with thieves, where 2 or 3 thefts are given details and others left out for space). There are also some notes referring the reader to other passages (when someone is let off and is later executed or if two people are accused and executed on different days).

The diary entries alternate between terse single lines, “A thief hanged” and long passages giving tantalizing details of the crimes for which people were punished. The diary is a bit frustrating in that you’re never given motivations for the crimes, and in some places I dearly wanted to know more of what went on.

On the whole it was a quick, interesting read.

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