What Was It Like to Be an Executioner in the Middle Ages?

What Was It Like to Be an Executioner in the Middle Ages?

The medieval era is a time in history that inspires fascination for its profound dichotomies. Amidst tales of gallant knights, romantic stories of courtly love, and grand narratives of conquest, there exists a darker underbelly that teems with tales of injustice, brutality, and death. In this macabre theater of human life, one figure remains enigmatic yet omnipresent, the executioner.

What Is the Cruelest Execution Method from Medieval Times?

The Middle Ages were notorious for their brutal methods of execution, many of which were designed not only to kill but also to inflict maximum pain and public humiliation as a deterrent to others. One method stands out as particularly cruel and inhumane: drawing and quartering.

Drawing and quartering were reserved for individuals convicted of high treason in England. The process was long, public, and immensely painful. The condemned person was initially drawn, tied to the back of a horse, and dragged through the streets to the place of execution. This alone could cause severe injuries.

The second step involved hanging, but the executioner would typically ensure the person did not die but was on the verge of death. Following this, the individual was emasculated and disemboweled, with their entrails burned before their eyes.

The final part of this gruesome spectacle involved quartering. The condemned were beheaded, their bodies divided into four parts, often by tying each limb to a different horse and forcing them to pull in different directions. The severed head and quarters of the body were often displayed publicly as a warning to potential traitors.

This brutal method of execution exemplifies the extremes of medieval justice and the cruel part an executioner was often forced to play. The drawing and quartering punishment were so gruesome that it continued to evoke horror and disgust long after the Middle Ages, being officially abolished in England only in 1870.

Medieval Executioner Facts: Role and Perception

Contrary to modern conceptions, medieval executioners were not just cold-blooded killers. Instead, they were official state employees who carried out lawful sentences. Their job was to enforce the end of justice — capital punishment. As a result, they occupied a paradoxical role in society, feared and reviled, yet necessary for maintaining law and order.

The social stigma surrounding executioners was intense. They were often shunned and forced to live on the outskirts of town. This ostracization was so severe that it frequently extended to their families, who, like their executioner kin, were often barred from many forms of regular interaction with the community.

What Was It Like to Be a Medieval Executioner?

Being a medieval executioner was a life filled with contradictions. On the one hand, executioners held an essential role in maintaining law and order by enforcing the most severe punishments decreed by the court. On the other, they were typically feared, despised, and ostracized due to the nature of their job.

Their daily work involved the stark reality of death. They were responsible for carrying out various forms of execution, from beheading and hanging to burning at the stake. While the work was gruesome, it required high skill and precision to ensure a swift and ‘merciful’ death. They often had duties beyond executions, such as torturing prisoners to extract confessions or administering lesser corporal punishments.

The attire of a medieval executioner, particularly the mask or hood, was a key aspect of their role. It provided a layer of anonymity, shielding them from potential retribution and enabling a degree of separation from their grim duties. Yet, it also contributed to their image as a figure of fear and dread.

Despite the financial compensation and job security, being an executioner came at a high social cost. They were usually forced to live on the margins of society, often segregated from the rest of the community. The social stigma extended to their families, creating a generational cycle of exclusion and ostracization.

In sum, life as a medieval executioner was a paradox. They were at once a symbol of the state’s power and authority, yet shunned by society for the very role they performed. It was a profession of stark realities, grim duties, and societal isolation.

Did Executioners Use Swords?

Yes, swords were one of the primary tools used by executioners in the Middle Ages, particularly for beheadings. The method of execution often varied according to the crime, the condemned person’s social status, and the local customs, but beheading with a sword was generally considered a more “honorable” form of execution.

The sword used by an executioner was different from a typical war sword. These swords were usually heavier, broader, and somewhat shorter. The blade was straight and double-edged, designed to deliver a clean and efficient cut. The sword’s effectiveness largely depended on the skill of the executioner — a clean, single-stroke beheading was considered a sign of a competent executioner.

In some regions, such as Germany, executioners used a specific type of sword known as a “decapitation sword.” These swords often bore inscriptions like “When I Raise This Sword, So I Wish That This Poor Sinner Will Receive Eternal Life.”

While the axe eventually supplished the sword as the primary tool for beheading in many regions, the image of an executioner wielding a large sword remains a potent symbol of medieval justice and the grim role of the executioner in it.

Famous Executioners in the Middle Ages

Though shrouded in stigma and dread, the executioner’s role did not preclude a certain level of infamy or even renown. Some executioners of the Middle Ages have been recorded in history, often remembered for their chilling efficiency or occasional dramatic flair. Here are three famous executioners from that era.

  1. Franz Schmidt: Schmidt served as the official executioner for the cities of Bamberg and Nuremberg in Germany during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Over his 45-year career, Schmidt is estimated to have executed around 400 individuals and administered non-lethal corporal punishments to many more. What sets Schmidt apart is the detailed diary he maintained, providing invaluable insights into his life and work. His records humanize him, presenting him as a deeply religious man who took his grim duty seriously.
  2. Jack Ketch: A notorious figure in 17th century England, Jack Ketch was infamous for his botched executions. His most notable failure was the execution of James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, where it allegedly took several axe blows to complete the beheading. His reputation was such that his name entered popular vocabulary, and “Jack Ketch” became a synonym for the devil.
  3. The Sanson Family: For seven generations spanning over two centuries, the Sanson family served as royal executioners in Paris. They presided over some of the most notable executions in French history, including the beheading of King Louis XVI during the French Revolution. Charles-Henri Sanson, the most famous member, was known for his professionalism and efficiency. Despite the grim work, the Sansons were unusually respected for executioners, partly due to their unwavering service to the state.

These figures highlight the dual nature of the executioner’s role in medieval society: feared and reviled, yet inherently compelling. Their deeds, however dark, hold a macabre fascination that continues to echo through history.

Renaissance Executioner: Changes in Perception and Duty

As the Middle Ages transitioned into the Renaissance, the role and perception of the executioner underwent some subtle changes. Although still feared and ostracized, there was a gradual shift in societal attitude toward them. This change largely resulted from a more structured legal system and a broader philosophical shift towards rationality and humanism.

The Renaissance executioner was seen more as a necessary functionary of justice than a sinister figure of death. Additionally, they began to acquire a form of celebrity status, particularly those in larger cities. Some executioners became infamous, with their reputations known far beyond their localities. Yet, the stigma remained, and they were still largely excluded from the normal fabric of society.

Medieval Executioner Clothing: The Tools of Terror

The executioner’s attire contributed significantly to their terrifying image. A standard medieval executioner’s garb included a hood or mask, long leather boots, and often a robe. The clothing served multiple purposes — practical, symbolic, and psychological.

The leather boots and robe were practical for an often messy occupation. The material was easy to clean and maintained a semblance of respectability. But more than that, the hood or mask was arguably the most symbolic and psychologically influential part of an executioner’s attire.

Why Did Executioners Wear Masks?

The masks worn by executioners served a twofold purpose: anonymity and intimidation. Anonymity was essential to protect the executioner and his family from potential retribution. This concealment of identity allowed them a modicum of normalcy when they were not performing their grim duties.

The mask was also a tool of intimidation. The depersonalization and dehumanization that came with the mask turned the executioner into an almost mythical dread figure. The sight of a masked figure wielding the tools of execution — the axe, the sword, or later, the guillotine — had a potent effect on the populace. It served as a vivid reminder of the ultimate consequence of breaking the law.

Executioner, Law, and Order: The Final Arbiter of Justice

The executioner played a crucial role in a society where the rule of law was often enforced harshly. They were the last link in the chain of law and order, carrying out the state’s ultimate sentence. The presence of an executioner in a town or city was a tangible sign of the ruling power’s authority and the stark reality of its justice.

But the role of an executioner wasn’t only about meting out punishment. They often had other responsibilities, such as administering non-lethal corporal punishments or acting as a town’s torturer. Despite the gruesome nature of these tasks, they all served a single purpose: enforcing the law and maintaining order.

Were There Any Female Executioners?

Though a relatively rare phenomenon, there were indeed female executioners in history. It wasn’t common due to the physically demanding nature of the job and societal norms of the time, but exceptions did exist, usually when a woman was thrust into the role due to family ties. The most notable examples come from the Sanson family in France, who served as royal executioners for generations.

Marie-Jeanne Sanson is one such example. She was forced to step into the role temporarily when her husband, Charles Sanson, became incapacitated due to illness. She carried out the duties of the executioner in his stead, including several high-profile executions during the French Revolution.

Another prominent example is Marguerite Joseph Sanson. She acted as an assistant to her husband, Charles-Henri Sanson, who was Charles Sanson’s grandson. Marguerite-Joseph was known to have assisted in numerous executions, including that of Queen Marie Antoinette, in 1793.

On the darker side of the spectrum were women like Ilse Koch, also known as “The Witch of Buchenwald.” Although not officially an executioner, Koch was a concentration camp overseer during the Nazi regime and was infamously brutal and sadistic.

The existence of female executioners is a stark reminder of the pervasiveness of capital punishment in history. While it is unusual, it underscores the fact that the task of enforcing the harshest penalties of the law fell on the shoulders of both men and women, usually those in positions of low social standing or in dire circumstances.

Were Medieval Executioners Paid Well?

The role of the executioner in the Middle Ages, despite its essential function in maintaining law and order, was often associated with significant social stigma. The remuneration for such a grim and ostracized occupation is a matter of historical inquiry and can vary depending on the location and period.

Executioners were typically compensated in two primary ways: a basic salary from the state or local authority and perquisites or benefits. The basic salary was often meager and not reflective of the gruesome nature of the job. However, it was typically consistent and provided a reliable income.

The second form of remuneration was significant perquisites. Executioners had a legal right to claim the clothing of the condemned. Since the individuals executed were often from higher social strata involved in political strife, the clothes could be of considerable value. Moreover, they were also allowed to take the rope used for hanging as their property, which could then be sold. Such ropes were considered medicinal properties, and a ready market existed for them.

Moreover, executioners were given rights to certain levies or taxes in lieu of their service in many places. This included ‘Gallows Meat,’ a levy paid to the executioner by the community to dissuade him from taking his due (the clothes and other belongings) from the condemned person.

While the earnings from these perquisites could sometimes add up to a considerable sum, it’s essential to consider that this job was associated with intense social ostracism. The remuneration, no matter how seemingly lucrative, often came with the price of social exclusion, something that executioners and their families had to live with daily.


Being an executioner in the Middle Ages was no ordinary occupation. It was a job shrouded in fear, dread, and social ostracism. It required a particular kind of individual, capable of withstanding the role’s physical gruesomeness and emotional toll, along with the social stigma that came with it.

As we look back on this grim yet compelling figure, we gain insight into the complexity of medieval society and its justice system. In his mask and boots, the executioner carrying the tools of death stands as a stark reminder of the extremes of medieval law and order, a symbol of a bygone era’s social norms and values.