Medieval executioner - Medieval jobs

Public Executioners were the people that inflicted capital punishment during medieval times. Executioners received other names related to the physical punishments they carried out, such as hangman (hanging) and headsman (beheading).

An executioner was usually presented with a warrant that authorized or ordered him to execute a sentence (which protected him from being accused of murder). 

Contrary to popular belief, medieval executioners were rarely hooded (hoods were only used if their identity and anonymity were to be preserved) and were usually not robed in all black.

Working as an Executioner

Although medieval people used capital punishment far more frequently than we do today, executions were rarely numerous. Because of this, many executioners were professional specialists who traveled a circuit or region performing their duty. It wasn’t uncommon for executioners to also administer non-lethal physical punishments or apply torture.

The pay from the rare executions was not enough to live off, so many medieval executioners were also knackers in charge of removing and clearing animal carcasses (dead, dying, injured) from private farms or public highways. Sometimes, executioners also taxed lepers and prostitutes and controlled gaming houses, or cleaned latrines and cesspools.

In western Europe, executioners were often shunned by their neighbors, but many British ones were widely known and respected by the public. The profession sometimes ran through a family. 

Still, executioners were typically consigned to society’s fringes — and even forced to live at the edge of the town literally. 

15th century scene of an execution – British Library MS Harley 4379 f. 64
A 15th century scene of an execution – Source: British Library MS Harley 4379 f. 64.

Medieval Punishment

Because the medieval legal system was firmly rooted in Christian theology, executions were not about revenge but fundamentally about atonement for the crimes committed. The execution was considered an opportunity for a criminal to confess and repent and earn himself a “good death.”

Throughout most of Europe, hanging was the punishment of thieves. Murderers, rapists, and those who committed aggravated theft suffered breaking with the wheel. Heretics, sodomites, witches, and arsonists were burned, while women charged with offenses against religions or morality, such as adultery or infanticide, were drowned.

Decapitation was used for a wide range of offenses, including manslaughter, robbery, incest, infanticide, or major fraud. However, the most gruesome executions were reserved for traitors and assassins (their crimes considered particularly serious because they were thought to be threats against the pillars on which society was built) and included being hung, drawn, and quartered.

When a criminal reached the scaffold, they often had the opportunity to speak, ask the crowd to pray for them, or forgive the executioner. This public spectacle of repentance ended in an ideal death that involved accepting the punishment and willingly submitting it with courage and humility. 

Guillaume Sans, lord of Pommiers, is executed in Bordeaux on the orders of Thomas Felton, the city's English seneschal. Jean Froissart, Chronicles, fol. 1. Flandres, Bruges 15th Century.

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