Imagine during medieval times, a thief was caught and about to be punished by death in front of the town. There’s the platform, there’s the crowd ready for a public spectacle of death. The thief is tied and his neck is bared to guillotine’s blade that is about to fall. Then here comes a man whose face was covered in a crimson hood, holding the rope that that with a pull would end the life of the condemned. The executioner! Why someone would choose to be the carrier of doom for the persecuted is beyond us, but have you ever wondered how these executioners got into their job?

At least from what we have seen in movies, the typical image of an executioner was someone who would heartlessly and remorselessly take someone’s life with a swing of his ax or with a rope fixed into a noose. The truth is, the public executioners were part of a dedicated professional that while shunned and reviled in some places, could also carry a measure of respect in others. They had specific rules to abide by, and failing to do so could result in their own death. One of the most interesting aspects of this profession is how they were chosen for a job nobody really wanted.

How One Could Become An Executioner

How did they get the job in the first place? As it turned out, many European Medieval executioners were former criminals. Of course, with the nature of the job, it would be hard to find someone who would willingly apply for the role, so you had to find people that you could force into it, or someone desperate enough to take it because he was to be executed himself. It was even mentioned in the book Boddel og Galgefugl by Hugo Mathiessen:

“In the year 1470, a poor thief stood at the foot of the gallows in the Swedish town Arboga and was waiting to be hanged. The public attending the spectacle had pity on the sinner, and when he, to save his neck, offered to become executioner in the town, it was agreed. He was pardoned, and the red-hot iron was used to brand his body with both thief and executioner mark.”

Midvinterblot, painting by Carl Larsson.

As if having your business card branded on your body with a hot iron wasn’t enough, in the 17th century, Scandinavia had a bit more extreme practice for the executioners that they would recruit. They would cut off one or both of their ears so that they could be identified in the crowd. Sometimes they would put markings all over their face to brand them as executioners.

Burdens of Being One

Biecz executioner (Poland).

Many people obviously didn’t want to be an executioner. Aside from the presumption that executioners lacked any conscience, the job came with a reputation that made most people shun you in public. An unusual occupational hazard is that the executioners were believed to be doomed and damned in the afterlife for all the blood they spilled. As a result, Executioners were not allowed to live inside the city or town that they were serving. They were denied citizenship and barred from entering churches, pubs, and other public establishments. The family and children of the executioners(if he managed to marry) could also receive this rather unwelcoming treatment from society. In short, you were also doomed for life here on earth. Although in France, executioners were absolved of their sins while performing their duties when the sentence was carried out on the orders of the church.

Contrary to popular belief, not all executioners wore hoods.  Sometimes they did when it was feared that the family or friends of the prisoner would exact retribution against the executioner. Most often, they were not only maskless but stripped to the waist,(to show off their physique and not end up with their clothes drenched in blood)  Prior to death sentences carried out with the ax, the executioner might get in a few practice swings on the chopping block first to the delight of the assembled crowd.

On the Brighter Side

It wasn’t all downside, executioners could earn a good amount of money from performing their duties. According to an article written by Interesly, “For beheadings and hangings, he received five shillings. In addition, he was given everything the convict wore below the belt.” This was approximate to the amount of money that a skilled tradesman could earn in 25 days. There was also this German executioner named Frantz Schmidt in the 17th century who performed more like a doctor than an executioner. Due to their exceptional familiarity with human anatomy, they were often called to treat various ailments. Schmidt ended up treating 15,000 people and executing only 394 throughout his five decades of career. He was granted Nuremberg citizenship and had his family name cleared, too. Maybe he was trying to hedge his bets in the afterlife, saving lives even as he was compelled to take them.