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In the collection of the Regional Museum in Olkusz, there is a well-preserved medieval sword. It is called an executioner's sword, because local legend claims that it was used for an execution carried out in the square in Olkusz. Scientific research does not, however, confirm such a hypothesis with regard to the presented exhibit.

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In the collection of the Regional Museum in Olkusz, there is a well-preserved medieval sword. It is called an executioner's sword, because local legend claims that it was used for an execution carried out in the square in Olkusz. Scientific research does not, however, confirm such a hypothesis with regard to the presented exhibit.
According to them, this sword was a war weapon with a light blade, mainly used for piercing. Decapitation (beheading) would have been extremely difficult to achieve with a single swing of this weapon. Executioners' swords had a handle suitable for two hands; they were heavy and not very long; they were sharpened over the entire length of the blade at the same width and had a blunt-ended tip. Even a tool that was specially shaped for "separating the head from the body" could not ensure the full effectiveness of the sentence, which was only assured by the invention of the guillotine.
Therefore, the sword from Olkusz could not have been the tool used to behead a wretch in the market square in Olkusz. It was used on the battlefield, not for executions. According to Ewart Oakeshott’s medieval sword typology, it is described as type XVIa. It has a blade narrowing towards the tip, with a double-sided fuller up to 1/3 of its length. Signs made of yellow metal were placed on it, and it had the sword-bearer's stamp on its handle (a long-sword with a simple cross-guard and a circular pommel). It is well-balanced, which allowed for a longer fight, and was long enough to effectively reach an opponent.

Elaborated by Jacek Wilk (The Antoni Minkiewicz Regional Museum of the Polish Tourist and Sightseeing Society in Olkusz), editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums, © all rights reserved

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The hangman’s sword: a legend or an artefact?

Although, in the opinion of specialists, the term “hangman” does not reflect the actual purpose of the weapon, according to legend, it was used to punish two gargoyles who, while wanting to rob the church of the Blessed Virgin (part of the Augustian abbey partly destroyed in the 19th century), violated the stability of the building.

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Although, in the opinion of specialists, the term “hangman” does not reflect the actual purpose of the weapon, according to legend, it was used to punish two gargoyles who, while wanting to rob the church of the Blessed Virgin (part of the Augustian abbey partly destroyed in the 19th century), violated the stability of the building.
According to reports, it hung in the hall of a non-existent city hall, whose traces were discovered recently by archaeologists during excavations carried out on Olkusz market (still no traces of Great Scales were found, where local guards weighed ore extracted in nearby workings (see mining weight  which is in the collection of the Małopolska’s Virtual Museums).
After the demolition of the town hall in the 19th century, the sword became the decoration of the magistrate’s meeting room.


 

Elaborated by Editorial team of Małopolskas Virtual Museums,

Licencja Creative Commons

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

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Executioner’s profession

An executioner, also known as “the master of lesser good” or by the more dignified name, “master of holy justice”, though instilling fear and disgust, also enjoyed a certain amount of respect resulting from the common belief in the necessity of his work. In view of the need to administer sanctified justice, it was believed that carrying out his unpleasant duties did not burden his conscience with sin. According to the letter and spirit of the law, every craftsman and townsman could interact with an executioner, and even dine at the same table without damaging their reputation. In practice, however, respected townspeople avoided close personal contacts with the master of lesser good, and touching him during the execution was equated with a loss of dignity.

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An executioner, also known as “the master of lesser good” or by the more dignified name, “master of holy justice”, though instilling fear and disgust, also enjoyed a certain amount of respect resulting from the common belief in the necessity of his work. In view of the need to administer sanctified justice, it was believed that carrying out his unpleasant duties did not burden his conscience with sin. According to the letter and spirit of the law, every craftsman and townsman could interact with an executioner, and even dine at the same table without damaging their reputation. In practice, however, respected townspeople avoided close personal contacts with the master of lesser good, and touching him during the execution was equated with a loss of dignity.
The master of execution was a well-paid official, because, in addition to a weekly wages, he charged extra for each and every simple act, even for the announcement of the verdict. Each request for torture, flogging or beheading was paid for separately. It was not unheard of that one master provided services to several cities and in each of them received a salary. This was the case in Lublin, Sandomierz and Opatów, which had the same executioner.
Executioners had their own guild and, just like other craftsmen, they went through years of education, in other words, completed an apprenticeship. The most famous training centre for executioners in Poland was in Biecz. The choice of location was not accidental, because the city outskirts were abundant in robbers, who served as practice subjects for the difficult art of decapitation.
Due to his excellent knowledge of anatomy, an executioner would sometimes fill in for a doctor. His services were much cheaper than a visit by a medic, but no less effective. Executioners were regarded as experts in skin diseases, such as boils. In addition, they set broken and sprained limbs and performed simple surgical and dental operations.
An executioner personally performed the most important duties requiring special skills — he cut off heads with an axe or — something which was more frequent in Poland — with a sword. A sloppy beheading by an executioner was, in fact, subject to punishment. All other duties were performed for him by the tormentors (the knackers). In the presence of the master, they were in charge of torture during the investigation, as well as carrying out sentences such as: cheeking, branding, cutting off nostrils or hands, quartering, tearing apart with horses and burning at the stake.
They also constructed gallows and were responsible for a whole range of matters seemingly unrelated to the responsibilities of an executioner. Knackers, on behalf of the executioner, cleaned the moat and town hall latrines, banished beggars and streetwalkers from the city, in addition to catching and killing animals roaming the streets. It should be added that the executioner and his henchmen had the exclusive right to cull stray dogs and cats, which were protected by the law. If anyone else dared to kill a stray animal, he was subject to infamy. Up to this day, the name for a catcher of stray dogs in Polish is the same as the word for an executioner's assistant: hycel. The general disdain with which society treats them has not changed either.

See: the Executioner’s sword

Elaborated by Adam Spodaryk (Editorial team of Małopolskas Virtual Museums), 
Licencja Creative Commons

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

Bibliography:

Aleksander Brückner, Encyklopedia staropolska, t. 1, Warszawa 1939, szp. 569–571.
Zygmunt Gloger, Kat, [in:] Encyklopedia staropolska, t. 3, Warszawa 1902, p. 25–26.
Jan Kracik, Michał Rożek, Hultaje, złoczyńcy, wszetecznice w dawnym Krakowie, Kraków 1986.
Hanna Zaremska, Niegodne rzemiosło: kat w społeczeństwie Polski XIV-XVI w., Warszawa 1986.

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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”.

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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.

Bibliography:
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.

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