Colourful executioner’s clothing

Pop culture, based on medieval art, created an image of an executioner wearing a red or black hood. This representation, although consistent with the reality of the Middle Ages, is a simplification. Wearing a hood and covering the face was not a rule, and certainly was not used for the purpose of granting the executioner any anonymity; they were formal city officials. But the frequent presence of red elements in an executioner’s clothing is indeed factual. Zygmunt Gloger reports that:
“Executioners would dress in short, red clothes in line with the German model, which may be inferred from Jan Ostroróg’s complaint in the 15th century that their clothing does not stand out; it was probably not a reference to the cut of the cloth but the red colour, associated with the knighthood, i.e. the Polish nobility”.

We do not know the exact account of the appearance of urban torturers, but it is known that the clothing of an executioner was regulated by the town authorities. It was common practice for a torturer to be ordered to wear a piece of clothing distinguishing him from other townspeople. The Kraków headsman had to wear a specially-marked outfit with three pieces of white, red and green cloth sewn onto the sleeves. Unfortunately, we do not know the source of this information, and thus the time from which it comes. Interestingly, the same colours, although in a different order, served to distinguish the master headsman in Frankfurt-am-Main.

As the enforcers of justice, executioners sometimes received a special garment from the authorities, which constituted a kind of uniform. That was the case in Brunswick, where, in 1584, the councillors gave the main executioner an expensive garment with the embroidered coat of arms of the city.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, “The martyrdom of St. Catherine”, 1506, Drezno, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

In 16th-century Central European painting, in the scenes depicting the Passion of Christ and the martyrdom of saints, it was common to represent the main executioner wearing a colourful, striped garment, similar to the clothes worn by the landsknechts — German mercenary soldiers. During the war, executioners were needed and paid well, but during peacetime they became a marginalized liability to society. Spoiled soldiers robbed and raped, often forming numerous rogue packs. This fact explains the associations between the loathsome and dreadful profession of an executioner and landsknechts, who evoked similar feelings. In addition, it seems likely that, for lack of any other occupation, demobilized soldiers sought work as local executioners. It is known that within the ranks of the landsknechts, there were full-time enforcers who brought their undisciplined comrades to justice. Perhaps it was they who decided to work as “masters of holy justice”.

See: Executioner’s sword

Elaborated by Adam Spodaryk (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums), 
Licencja Creative Commons

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland.

Marek Borucki, Temida staropolska, Warszawa 1979.
Zygmunt Gloger, Kat, [in:] Encyklopedia staropolska, t. 3, Warszawa 1902, p. 25–26.
Edmund Kizik, Kolorowy ubiór kata, [w:] Kaci, święci, templariusze,red. Błażej Śliwiński, Malbork 2008, p. 191-204.
Jan Kracik, Michał Rożek, Hultaje, złoczyńcy, wszetecznice w dawnym Krakowie, Kraków 1986.