The death penalty in medieval Nuremberg

The death penalty in medieval Nuremberg

The death penalty is running out of favour. The legal argument is, among others, that erroneous judgments are irrevocable. Moral arguments include the sanctity of human life. Economically, the death penalty leads to high costs. These arguments are not new.

The faithful executioner

All these issues are discussed in an interesting historical account by Joel Harrington of the life of Franz Schmidt, an executioner between 1573 and 1618 in the city of Nuremberg. In The Faithful Executioner Joel Harrington uses the diary of Nuremberg’s executioner to describe the development of a system of justice. An important part of that system was the death penalty, implemented in a variety of ways but invariably in a public display to shock spectators and to reaffirm divine and temporal authority.

The Middle Ages were violent times. Crime was rampant, travelling dangerous and law and order arbitrary at best. Individual lives were not as sacrosanct as in modern (western) times, but there was certainly ambivalence towards the act of mutilating or executing other human beings. The sort of execution depended on the crime: hideous crimes were reciprocated by cruel executions, others were less violent. But it was always important, according to Harrington, that the court condemnation, the death procession and the execution went smoothly. In his words, they constituted three acts in a carefully choreographed morality play.

The efficient executioner

A good executioner also needed to be a proficient interrogator. The system relied on confessions more than anything else, and although torture was an important instrument to obtain information from suspects, a good executioner knew the effectiveness of intimidation and emotional pressure. The crude system may have helped to establish state (city) power. Nuremberg executed more people than any other city in the empire and maintained an active police network. The executioner was in the top 5 per cent of earners in the city. It is not known whether the system was effective in reducing crime, nor how many innocent people succumbed under the interrogations, but it was certainly cost effective. The legal process was swift and punishments were fairly cheap. The condemned men and women were flogged, mutilated, expelled or brought to death, but they were not incarcerated. The cities lacked the means to imprison large numbers of people for longer periods of time.

Morals, economics and justice

Medieval Nuremberg cannot be directly compared to present-day nation states but it is interesting to read that moral and economic arguments played a role in Middle Age justice as they do nowadays. It is also interesting to read that legal arguments of due process, appeals, protection of suspects hardly mattered. Apparently, mistakes were not deemed to be a large problem. Indeed, individual lives were not as sacrosanct as today (and an execution was ‘only’ the end of your life on earth). In particular, the efficiency of the legal process seemed to be the main idea of justice. Its simplicity may still provide some guidance in the review of a penal system today. Both from a legal and an economic perspective.


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