Heinrich Schmidt, the father of medieval Germany’s most notorious hangman, spent much of his youth in a respectable way. As a young man, he worked as a woodsman in Hof, a village in present-day Bavaria. His profession marked him as an honourable man. Because of his career, he could eat where he liked, live where he liked and expect his children to do the same.
But all of that changed one fall day in 1533. The local lord had arrested three men he suspected of plotting to have him killed. Hof was too small a town to have it’s own executioner. So the lord pulled Schmidt from the crowd and ordered him to do the killings himself. As the historian Joel F. Harrington writes in his new book, The Faithful Executioner, it was a command that would forever change Schmidt’s life—and his son’s too.
Schmidt hanged the men. (He didn’t have much choice. It was either that or be hanged himself.) But by doing so he ruined himself in his neighbours’ eyes. Having performed one execution—a dirty task—he could never be anything but an executioner to them again. He had to abandon his old life and pursue a new, much-loathed, one: hanging, decapitating and torturing criminals full time.
Schmidt’s fall was a reflection of how much of one’s identity and honour were tied with work in medieval Germany. What you did in that society was taken as a reflection of who you were. Conversely, the careers that were open to you were strictly limited by what kind of person people judged you to be.