Archive for April 1st, 2017

1464: Johann Breyde, via Schandbild

Add comment April 1st, 2017 Headsman

On April 1, 1464 mayor of Cologne Johann Breyde was chopped into quarters … with ink.

This startling image does not depict an actual flesh-and-blood execution. It is, instead, an outstanding (and conveniently for our purposes, dated) instance of an artifact from medieval Germany, the Schandbild. Such “defamatory pictures” often supplemented a Schmahbrief or “defamatory letter” — intended, as the names suggest, to impugn publicly the target over a debt, a broken promise, or some other private breach of faith.

Something like 100 of these defamations survive from late medieval and early modern Germany (approximately 1400 to 1600), many of them fantasizing about their debtors’ executions in bloodthirsty scenes that also gesture to the place that ritual, spectacle, and dishonor held on the real-life gallows. Here are a few of the more piquant examples; many more await at a wonderful Pinterest gallery here.

The purpose of defamatory letters and pictures was to bring low the reputation of their target in the eyes of a wider community — leveraging social pressure either for revenge, or to force the defamed to repair the breach.

Matthias Lentz, one of the (regrettably few) historians working on these underappreciated objects, notes* that there are even surviving contracts from Germany, Bohemia and Poland enumerating an “explicit understand about injuring a person’s reputation and bringing dishonour upon a defaulting individual … a clause called Scheltklausel that laid down the practice of publicly scolding a defaulter.” For every Schandbild or Schmähbrief there must have been a dozen other potential swindlers quietly forced by the threat of public infamy to make good their contracts.

Per Lentz, the earliest known instance of an explicit contract dates to 1379, “wherein a ducal councillor accorded a nobleman, in eventuality of the former violating the terms of the contract, the right to denounce him as a fraud by ‘posting his name on the pillory [of the councillor’s home town], or wherever he likes'” — again, linking the “mere” text to the instruments of official corporal punishment.

Nor was it uncommon for the Schmähbrief, if things got to that point, to fantasize about the debtor’s bodily suffering in brutal terms that would like invite an investigation for terroristic threats were the modern debt collection call center to deploy them in its harangue. One quoted by Lentz captioned his illustration thus:

It is customary to judge thieves and traitors according to their offences, the first is sent to the gallows, the second broken on the wheel. As I have not got power to carry out the above-mentioned acts, it is my intention to use the painter to have them painted hanging from the gallows and being tortured on the wheel.

Still, Schandbilder und Schmähbriefe meant to intimidate not physically, but socially.** It was in this capacity that the iconography of the pillory and the scaffold entered the frame: ’twas an infamy to be exposed upon them for a public crime — serving as “an indictment of those who knew the criminal … [and] a punitive stigma over his or her relatives and friends.”† Posting a slur on the repute of a prominent person — for the targets were most always people of rank, who would feel an injury to their status — taxed this same, essential, civic currency.

This is why we should let his shameful picture hang here with his coat of arms, until he has given me compensation recognized by respectable people for those unwarranted things that he and his people did … and ask all those who seek charity, who see him painted hanging, that they let him hang. (Source)

By consequence the execution imagery was strictly optional, one iconographic choice among many. From the too-few examples that survive to us it is plain that creditors delighted in their symbolic chastisement, issuing all the obloquies a grievance could devise, untethered from the confines of possible or the … sanitary.


The Schandbild frequently evinced a scatological fixation.

* Quotes form Lentz’s “Defamatory Pictures and Letters in Late Medieval Germany: The Visualisation of Disorder and Infamy” in The Medieval History Journal, vol. 3, no. 1 (2000). Lentz also has several German-language journal titles on the same topic.

** Not necessarily true of their Italian cousins, pitture infamanti. These were a similar sort of thing, but were issued not privately but by the city-states themselves against absconded offenders — a sort of quasi-execution by effigy. Many of these were painted for public spaces and removed with the passage of time so we have lost exemplars, including the products of masters — the Medici, for example, commissioned Botticelli to grace Florence with pitture infamanti of the Pazzi conspirators, which were whitewashed in 1494.

A characteristic pose for these pictures, also used in Germany, had the “victim” hanging upside-down by one foot, conjoining “metaphors of inversion” (as Robert Mills puts it) to the disgrace of the gallows. This posture is commonly thought to have inspired the “Hanged Man” tarot card.


Left: a pittura infamante study by Florentine Renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto; right: the “hanged man” card from a tarot pack.

*† Maria Boes, “Public Appearance and Criminal Judicial Practices in Early Modern Germany,” Social Science History, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Summer, 1996)

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Broken on the Wheel,Executed in Effigy,Execution,Fictional,Germany,Gruesome Methods,History,Italy,Not Executed,Pelf,Politicians,Public Executions,Scandal

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