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How Were Executioners Chosen in Medieval Europe?

By Kevin Hellyer
Updated May 23, 2024
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Before France's long-standing penal code was reformed in 1791, justice was carried out swiftly and surely by a unique class of blade-wielding public servants, a practice dating back to the early 13th century.

In medieval and early modern Europe, you didn’t just become an executioner overnight. You generally had to be born into the profession, and although executioner families were well compensated, they were essentially social outcasts, feared by the rest of the community. The title of executioner was typically passed down from father to son, and everyone in the family business helped out. Daughters of executioners usually married sons of executioners, perpetuating each family's reputation in the profession.

The executioner's tale:

  • Carrying out the king's justice was only part of an executioner's job description. In medieval and early modern Europe, executioners ruled over all things morally problematic, from maintaining latrines and cesspools to keeping stray dogs, lepers, and prostitutes in line. If torture was called for, it was delivered. If unofficial fines needed to be imposed, this was done.

  • Executioners rarely wore hoods or dressed all in black, contrary to what literary references and pop culture might suggest. Hoods were worn only if an executioner’s identity needed to be shielded from the public. But in most cases, since everyone knew who the executioner was, there was no point trying to hide his face.

  • Executioners traveled around the region performing their duties, patrolling the margins of society. An executioner was “someone whose touch was so profane that he could not come into contact with other people or objects without profoundly altering them,” according to historian Paul Friedland.

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