In Front of the Red Fortress

My Name Is Red (photo: Anca Dobre)

I wrote the following lines, those related to executions and executioners, starting from the picture in which I appear together with my friend and colleague of historical reenactment Jan, from the Order of Mercenaries from Aserculis in Sibiu, in August 2019. Jan specializes in roles of executioner, and you must always get along with an executioner, especially if he is also a mercenary. As Jan himself joked, for money, a mercenary would do (almost) anything. Beyond a professional friendship doubled by artistic consideration, the documentation for this text was a real challenge. I learned some information from an extremely interesting book, The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, written by Joel F. Harrington. Reenactment must take into account the most scientifically credible sources, at least that is the view adopted by Nomen Est Omen. Last but not least, the title refers to the Sibiu Fortress, and the subtitle of the picture is borrowed from Orhan Pamuk.

In the Middle Ages, executions had the role of shocking the audience (in a moralizing context) while reaffirming divine and temporal authority. The fragile balance between the two aspects could only be maintained by an executioner with meritorious professional activity, willing to apply violence in a ritual and regulated way, on behalf of the state. This job involved extensive training, consisting of physical training, maintaining fit and willing for the object of the activity and training to acquire the skills needed to apply punishments, executions or mutilations. The disciples began by slicing pumpkins, then animals, and then passing on to their fellows. A famous case of malpractice is that of Count Henri de Chalais, from 1626, whose beheading required 29 strokes… Bad luck! Duke James Scott, executed in 1685, was a little luckier, requiring only five strokes. His words “I told you (that the ax is not sharp enough)”, uttered before the last stroke, remained famous. Returning, there were a number of privileges by which this (vocational) profession was rewarded, such as exemptions from taxes, duties or gifts, to which were added the tips given by convicts to avoid misses and implicit reduction of suffering, but there were also substantial shortcomings. Executioners were not welcomed into the church or into people’s homes and were marginalized by society. The main punishments consist of hanging, beheading, burning, breaking on the wheel and various tortures or ill-treatment. Finally, the “horror theater,” as historian Richard van Dulmen called the extensive spectacle of executions, contained three carefully choreographed acts, namely the sentencing process, the public procession, and the execution itself.


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