Finding Fantasy Inspiration in the Executioners of Medieval Europe

I’ve gotten a lot of questions in the last few months leading up to the release of my debut novel, but one of the most common ones is What inspired you to write this story? The answer is usually ‘It’s complicated’ (don’t sue me, Facebook, my estate is comprised of a modest artisanal skull collection and two delinquent cats and I guarantee it will not be worth it.) Most of my stories start as a vague primordial soup of concepts, and it’s only when lightning hits that something heaves itself out of the waters and demands to breathe.

For The Merciful Crow, that lightning struck circa October 2014. I’d had a handful of ideas floating around, but nothing really solidified until, in the midst of idly scrolling through Tumblr, I followed a link to an article on the lives of medieval executioners in Europe. There were many things that struck me, but none so much as the very particular rules and rituals governing their existence: who they could speak to, what things they could claim, how they were barred from the communities that depended on them. The more I read, the more clearly the facets of my heroine’s life began to carve themselves; and now I’d like to show you some of those facets, with the inspirational blade that struck them.

One of the most overt parallels is the ostracization of historical executioners and that faced by our heroine, Fie. For background, Fie belongs to a caste known as the Crows, who are not quite executioners, but may as well be: they are immune to a fast and terminal illness called the Sinner’s Plague, one that is believed only to initially infect people as divine punishment. The Crows are expected to remove the infected, mercy-killing them if need be, and give them funeral rites. Like executioners of old, they may not hand out the sentence, but it’s their duty to carry it out.

How often did people welcome the executioner? In Paul Friedland’s Beyond Deterrence: Cadavers, Effigies, Animals and the Logic of Executions in Premodern France, the answer is basically never:

“And yet, despite their comparatively privileged position, they were nevertheless thoroughly and universally abhorred by rich and poor alike. Countless examples testify to the fact that executioners and their families were harassed when they attempted to mix with the nonprofane. As late as 1781 a near riot erupted in Rouen when the executioner and his family tried to attend a theatrical performance.”

The nature of the job of executioner was seen as so profoundly unclean that they were considered inherently contaminated, and as such, were ostracized by the cities they served. According to Friedland, executioners in well-off areas amassed uncommon wealth and status, even securing their own family sepulcher in the churchyard like upper nobility. However, they were still forbidden from living within the walls of their cities; the executioner was only allowed to stay overnight in the pillory house if they’d performed an execution that day. While these historical executioners were allowed to maintain a permanent home, the Crows spend most of their lives on the road, mostly barred from settlements unless they’ve been summoned to deal with an outbreak of the plague.

Shockingly enough, beheadings weren’t quite as lucrative as you might think, and executioners had to support their families on more than the grudging respect of their community. They survived through what might be considered a progenitor, morbidly enough, of the gig economy: the basse oeuvres, or lower works, a peculiar collection of odd jobs and claims. Many worked not only as executioners but as torturers, which required them to have an unusually thorough knowledge of the human body, and some were allowed to practice lesser degrees of medicine. They also were legally entitled to extract money from other outcasts, such as lepers and sex workers, and according to Strassa Edwards (A Short History of the Executioner), they had first dibs on other, stranger domains:

“…they also included a variety of basses oeuvres with peculiar perks, such as the exclusive right to clean cesspools (and any valuables contained therein), the right to claim stray animals, and ownership over animal carcasses (and hence their profitable hides) that might litter the streets.”

Most important to their survival, though, was the droit de havage, a right only shared with royalty: a tithe of sorts, which merchants were compelled to pay in order to support the executioner and their family. Typically an executioner couldn’t touch merchandise they wanted, as doing so would ‘contaminate’ the item; various executioners used items like a long spoon, a painted stick, or an open bag to collect their goods. Sometimes, though, the merchant would be… reluctant to part with what the executioner wanted. Cue a showdown:

“If a merchant refused the executioner his due, the latter was instructed, upon first refusal, to pretend to touch the produce with his hand; the mere threat of contamination was thought enough to make the merchant rethink the matter…” (Friedland)

The Crows don’t have the right to claim whatever they want in payment, instead taking what a town or family offers as ‘viatik’—from the Latin viaticum, the practice of leaving coins on the dead to pay for their journey to the afterlife. However, like the executioner’s threat to merchandise, they have a way to signal the offered viatik is insufficient, which is very intuitively called the Money Dance. Instead of removing the (highly contagious) dead plague victim, they dance as their chief negotiates for higher payment; anyone who lays a hand on them is at risk of infection, meaning the plague leaves when the Crows say it does.

The diary of Franz Schmidt, the executioner of Nuremberg from 1578 to 1617, illustrates another aspect of life that executioners shared with Crows: inheriting the family trade. The Crows are restricted to containing outbreaks of the plague; an executioner’s son could only hope to carry on the tradition himself. According to Edwards, one scion of the Sanson dynasty of executioners snuck into school, only to be thrown out once his family was recognized. And not all executioners began the trade by choice! Professor Joel F Harrington, author of The Faithful Executioner, a history of Franz Schmidt’s life, recounts in an interview how Schmidt’s father accidentally fell into the role:

“His father was a woodsman and they lived in Hof, in northeastern Bavaria, where there was a tyrannical prince that everybody hated. The prince uncovered a plot against his life and was going to have three locals executed. They didn’t have a standing executioner and the prince, in a crowd, said to Heinrich Schmidt, Frantz’s father: You! You are going to hang these guys!

Heinrich replied, I’m not going to do that. The prince said: You hang them or I am going to string you up instead, as well as the two men standing next to you. So Heinrich did it. And once he did it there was no other job. Nobody wanted to have anything to do with him. He and his children were condemned to the occupation.”

Harrington doesn’t shy away from how dreary Schmidt’s life was, but he also lays out how, in Bavaria’s era of widespread and casual violence, the executioner gave the laws of the land a lethal weight. Imagine if Heinrich Schmidt had told the prince go on then, try to string me up; perhaps he didn’t understand that in that moment, the prince’s authority was effectively standing on the gallows as well. Or perhaps he did, and chose instead to uphold that authority for the sake of preserving some measure of peace, even at the cost of his own social standing.

That idea resonates with me on a personal level, though from the opposite side of the legal process. My mother and stepfather worked as public defenders, which is far from the easiest and most enjoyable way to practice law. Yet the Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees the right to counsel in criminal prosecution. That means if you’ve been charged—rightfully or wrongfully—with a crime, but cannot afford a lawyer, you will be provided with one as a matter of principle. This frequently meant defending people who had done terrible things, which was a difficult thing to explain to a child, and doing it for a public employee’s salary, which was a difficult thing to explain to the accountant. But one part was clear enough: that our society depended on upholding the rights of its citizens, even when it was the hardest thing to do.

That principle is what ties them, the executioners of old, and the Crows together: that often, a civilization relies on the jobs it also finds the most distasteful. Executioners were legal consequences incarnate, charged with giving the law teeth, even when it was miserable, gruesome work. Public defenders are charged with ensuring that those jaws don’t close on the innocent, that those teeth don’t sink further than they need to in the guilty, and that money doesn’t make the difference between the two.

The Crows too serve a key purpose in their society, one that frightens other citizens, one that reminds them that justice of a bloody kind will be served. And like the executioners, they are ostracized for being that reminder, and resented for the payment they are owed. But the other half of the job is granting relief to a suffering human, and giving them funeral rites when no one else will. It’s that first lightning strike, that spirit of an executioner’s grim necessity tempered with cold mercy, lives on in the proverb written into the book: One way or another, we feed the crows.

 


SOURCES

Friedland, P. (2003). Beyond Deterrence: Cadavers, Effigies, Animals and the Logic of Executions in Premodern France. Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, 29(2), 295-317. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41299274

Edwards, S. (2014). A Short History of the Executioner. Retrieved from http://theappendix.net/posts/2014/06/a-short-history-of-the-executioner

Zasky, J. The Faithful Executioner: Joel F. Harrington on the life of sixteenth-century executioner Frantz Schmidt. Retrieved from http://failuremag.com/article/the-faithful-executioner

Vastomsky, S. (2018). The Executioners Who Inherited Their Jobs. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/executioners-who-inherited-their-jobs-180967947/

Harrington, J. (2009). God’s Executioner. Retrieved from http://berlinbooks.org/brb/2009/12/gods-executioner/

Harrington, J. (2013). What Life Was Like for an Executioner’s Family. Retrieved from https://longreads.com/2013/09/12/what-life-was-like-for-an-executioners-family-in-the/

Born and raised at the end of the Oregon Trail, Margaret Owen first encountered an author in the wild in fourth grade. Roughly twenty seconds later, she decided she too would be an author, the first of many well-thought-out life decisions. Her debut novel The Merciful Crow is available now from Henry Holt and Co.

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