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.”