Sow Gelders and Gravediggers

The story accounted in Joel F. Harrington’s fine book, ‘The Faithful Executioner’ is one of a highly trained professional who suffered terribly by being socially excluded by his profession,.

Harrington writes of how executioners were, though highly trained, grouped with gravediggers, tanners and butchers. they were mostly seen by their fellow citizens as amoral, mercenary, on a par with vagrants, prostitutes, theives, gypsies and Jews, and were often believed to be ilegitimate and/or ex criminals.  they were forced to live in the unprotected, poor suburbs outside the fortified town walls, or in unclean areas within them such as near the butchery, graveyard, etc.

A further list of undesirables includes barbers, beggars, street cleaners, court servants, archers, shepherds, sow-gelders, privy cleaners, millers, night watchmen, actors, chimney sweeps and tollkeepers.

Some of these are obvious enough, though I thought shepherds were noble enough, and in 18th century England, butchers and millers were highly paid, and I thought respectable. Millers worked incredibly hard, as they could never be away from their mill, and had to be on hand in case of storms, so never any time off.

The exclusion led to professional executioners bonding with each other, with intermarriage, and a number of dynasties formed,; they even had theri onw initiation rites like the better known guilds and professional societies.

But how did the subject of this book become one of this group?

His uncle had been attacked by a neighbour’s dog, and he had thrown the dog back , causing its owner’s death. Though never convicted of any crime, he was socially ostracised and could no longer work in any respectable trade, so forced into becoming an executioner.

When the ruler of their town ordered a man to be executed, there was no one to do it, so he had the power to order any bystander to officiate. He chose the grandfather of Franz Schmidt, then a taylor, and his family was doomed to continue the profession.

BTW. How on earth can anyone geld a sow? Or has something been ost in translation here?

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