Book Review: Epitomes of Evil: Representations of Executioners in Northern France and the Low Countries in the Late Middle Ages (Hannele Klemettilä) — by SaraLouise S. Howells

Hannele Klemettilä, Epitomes of Evil: Representations of Executioners in Northern France and the Low Countries in the Late Middle Ages (Studies in European Urban History 8), Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2006. viii+388 pp (PB) €65,00. ISBN: 978-2503522784

In Epitomes of Evil: Representations of Executioners in Northern France and the Low Countries in the Late Middle Ages, Hennele Klemettilä examines a group of people who were integral to the newly formed penal system and who served as agents of the ‘civilizing process’ of Europe. Although attitudes toward executioners and their profession were understandably hostile, they served an important social function as physical agents of the courts.  Moreover, actual executions were infrequent. Why were medieval people so openly opposed to executioners but not to agents of vigilante or martial law? Through this anthropological monograph, Klemettilä searches for signs that reflect their distaste for executioners.  She believes that these subtle clues, often overlooked or misunderstood by modern viewers, allow for understanding of the medieval collective conscience. As a new cultural historian, Klemettilä probes beyond the typical archival sources (e.g., court records, chronicles, theological writings, journals, memoirs) and into popular sources (e.g., mystery plays, drama, poetry, pictorial material, proverbs, practical manuals, encyclopedias).  Although many scholars would disagree, she believes that historians overlook these latter types of sources in favor of more traditional written documents.  Klemettilä states that by surveying both “masterpieces” and the “mass produced” scholars can sample a broader range of people, rather than only those who interacted with hangmen strictly as clerks of the judicial system.

In death studies, one often focuses on the deceased.  Klemettilä instead offers an in-depth investigation of the professional death-bringer, where others, such as Christine Raynaud and Ruth Mellinkoff, mention the hangman in passing. Additionally, her study examines themes of perceptions of violence, cruelty, death, punishment, and the marginalized. In addition to an introduction and conclusion, six thematic chapters examine the hangman in record, as a person, and as a character.  Together, these themes do not create a cohesive narrative, but rather are each formatted as an overview with subheadings and a summary.  While Klemettilä assumes familiarity with seminal works by John Huizinga and Norbert Elias, among others, as well as with signs as a subject of critical and anthropological inquiry, this work remains accessible to those in other fields.

In order to situate the reader, chapter two provides a brief overview of the society in which the hangman operated in order to introduce medieval perceptions of violence, death, punishment, blood taboo, and public spectacle.  Chapter three examines the various names used to identify hangmen in both official and popular documents.  Even though a hangman’s official title was executeur de la haute justice, a pejorative term, bourreau[1], often appears. The surnames recorded for executioners denote boorishness, violence, or mental instability.  Klemittilä discusses these real or imagined psychological traits further in chapter seven. Klemettilä believes silences are just as important as insults, arguing that deletions of the executioner in chronicles of public execution indicate that medieval people were so repulsed by the hangman that they tried to textually negate his existence.  She further associates silence with societal shame, grouping the hangmen with the perceived ignoble “others” such as prostitutes, gravediggers, and homosexuals.

The remaining chapters address the depiction of the hangman in the arts, including both drama and painting. The author interprets symbols which she believes marks the hangman as an abhorrent member of society. Ill-fitting and tattered clothes point to his poverty and moral laxity, while nudity suggested depravity. His motley and outdated garb stood in stark contrast to the pristine martyr whom he dispatched, furthering the polarity between them. Chapter five examines the executioner’s physical features, such as a hooked nose or dark skin, with comparable interpretations. Chapter six surveys the self-referential language used by hangmen characters in poetry and plays.  Where artists depict the hangman as sinister, dramatists portray them as crass, ignorant oafs.  While the media are different, the message of good versus evil is the same.  Although the author champions the use of visual evidence in exploring various representations of the hangman, she relies on basic observation and iconographic analysis of the image.  By ignoring issues of patronage, function, material, artistic tradition or creativity, and/or audience, the author unintentionally dilutes the scene to a photographic representation in order to connect the found sign with historical events, sumptuary laws, heraldry, and mores.  A further frustration is that the plates are in black and white, which makes it difficult to see the correlation between color and the hangman’s dress.

While Klemettilä’s conclusion is a recapitulation of previous chapters, it introduces the author’s theoretical divergence from Elias’ The Civilizing Process.  Instead, she interprets the repeated negativity against the hangman as propagandistic and a way for medieval people to express their anxieties about violence, the restructuring of society, and other marginalized groups. Overall, her methodology and source breadth makes this book not only an interesting read, but also valuable for anyone interested in the nameless or outcasts of history.

SaraLouise S. Howells


SaraLouise Howells is a PhD candidate at the Pennsylvania State University in medieval art history.


[1]No direct translation is offered in the text, but Klemettilä uses this term to refer to stuffing or padding.

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