A wry view of life for the world-weary

Book Review – February 2016 (1)


Severed: A history of heads lost and heads found – Frances Larson

Occasionally the most surprising of subject matters can generate a minor classic. Larson, an anthropologist, has produced a wide-ranging, thought-provoking and, dare I say it, an entertaining review of all matters associated with decapitation.

Not the most obvious subject, for sure, but with beheading the form of execution favoured by some of the Moslem terrorists, it is bang on trend and is, probably, something we should know a bit more about. And whilst we might say that this form of execution is barbaric (as it is – even though our bipedal posture means that our necks are thinner than those of other mammals it still requires consummate skill and luck to sever a head cleanly with one blow) and is of an earlier era, you cannot escape the fact that millions chose to watch the exploits of Jihadi John and co on the internet, beheading Western hostages.

There is something about the head. It is the repository of four of our five senses and holds our brain. It is the part of the body through which we express ourselves and our humanity. Saints and sinners alike have had their heads removed from their bodies. The preserved head of a saint is for some a prized relic – perhaps the most famous is the mummified head of St Catherine of Siena encased in an ornate reliquary in the Basilica San Domenico. The desire to understand genius led to Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert being separated from their heads. The heads of those convicted for treason were regularly posted up on London Bridge as a warning to others.

The guillotine went a long way to industrialising the execution process – contemporary witnesses complained that it was a bit too efficient and was over too quickly, thus preventing the crowd from getting maximum enjoyment from the occasion. The speed of the execution raised philosophical questions about when death really occurred and whether the victim suffered more or less than if a more traditional form of execution had been used. Towards the end of the book when discussing the head in medical surgery Larson gets quite philosophical in trying to determine an absolute test for death.

The book starts off in its prologue with the fascinating history of Oliver Cromwell’s head which, following the Restoration of the monarchy, was parted from its disinterred body and displayed for many years atop a 20 foot pike above Westminster Hall. It was blown down in a storm in around 1685 and it passed into private hands and many a living was made in the 18th and 19th centuries exhibiting it as part of a travelling show or as a conversation piece at a dinner. In 1960 it was finally laid to rest in an unmarked spot in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

What I hadn’t appreciated until I read this book is that the notorious headhunting tribes of the 19th century – the Shuar in South America, for example – were severing heads to order with the going rate of one head equalling one gun. The craze for phrenology and the racist eugenic theories that found currency in that century meant that there was a market for skulls. Museums were inundated with them and many still have them, their rather guilty secret. But the methodology used for measuring was so imprecise and the samples so few to be really representative that no firm conclusions were drawn.

And then, finally, there were the trophy heads, the skulls gathered in battle. The American troops fighting in the Pacific were particularly keen on collecting the skulls of their foes. In August 1944 Life magazine featured a picture of Natalie Nickerson contemplating a gift her boyfriend serving in Papua New Guinea had sent her –  the gleaming white skull of a Japanese soldier. America was revolted!

A great, wonderful book, packed with interesting facts and asides on what is at first blush a gruesome subject.

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