Principalities & Powers

Processions of the Damned

"Well, fellow, who are you?" demands the Earl of Warwick of a character who appears on stage for the first time at the end of George Bernard Shaw's play Saint Joan. "I," huffs the man who has just burned Joan of Arc at the stake, "am not addressed as fellow, my lord. I am the Master Executioner of Rouen: It is a highly skilled mystery."

In the more civilized times of the late Middle Ages, the art and science of putting people to death was indeed a highly skilled mystery, much like the manufacture of stained glass or the embalming of mummies, and both rulers and ruled took pride in the craftsmen whose profession it was to mete out torture and death to convicted criminals. Contrary to Hollywood myth, executioners seldom wore hoods or masks, for the simple reason that no one saw anything wrong, shameful, or disreputable in how they made their living. Indeed, whole families spawned generations of professional executioners (the Sanson family of France was the best known). The only occasion that I know of on which an executioner wore a mask was at the judicial murder of King Charles I of England in 1649, and both the headsman who wielded the ax and the more brutal killers who engineered the king's decapitation had good reason to be both ashamed and afraid of what they were doing. But ordinarily, when real criminals and traitors mounted the scaffold, it occurred to no one to hide or try to minimize the...

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