Review: Frances Larson’s ‘Severed’

SEVERED: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found. Frances Larson. Liveright. 317 pages. $27.95.
SEVERED: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found. Frances Larson. Liveright. 317 pages. $27.95.

Beheading really is not at all funny, though at times it does lend itself to a certain macabre humor, as at the beginning of Severed, in which Frances Larson describes the strange travels of the head of England’s self-styled Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. It was sliced off in 1661, three years after his death, “impaled on a twenty-foot pole and mounted on the roof of Westminster Hall for the whole of London to see,” found its way “into private circulation,” then was “transformed into a curiosity, a precious relic and a business opportunity.” Finally, “in 1960, during a small, private ceremony, Cromwell’s head was buried in its old oak box somewhere beneath the floor of the ante-chapel at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.”

If that sounds a bit to you like a skit from Monty Python, you can be forgiven. Larson takes it rather more seriously: “The story of Oliver Cromwell’s head is extraordinary, not simply because it survived intact for three centuries, but because it was recast in so many different guises over the years. … It was variously thought of as a trophy, a precious relic, a memento mori and a data set. Its value shifted with the changing attitudes of the times, and it is emblematic of thousands of human heads that have furnished the worlds of justice, science and leisure over the centuries. In this way, it neatly links many of the stories in this book, simply by virtue of its pedigree and longevity.”

Doubtless people have been chopping off other people’s heads since time immemorial, and they do it unto this day: The gruesome and heartbreaking murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl by the Taliban in Pakistan in 2002; that of an American engineer, Nick Berg, by terrorists in Iraq in 2004; and “a spate of similar beheadings, by a number of militant Islamic groups in Iraq, that were filmed and circulated online,” most recently those of the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and the American aid worker Peter Kassig. These beheadings, Larson notes, “were ‘made for TV.’” The “whole procedure is a piece of theatre designed to create power and cause fear, just as with state executions stretching back to the thirteenth century.”

The somewhat uncomfortable truth is that although these videotaped executions do indeed “cause fear,” they also arouse curiosity and prurient interest. “One survey, conducted five months after Berg’s death,” Larson writes, “found that between May and June, 30 million people, or 24 percent of all adult internet users in the United States, had seen images from the war in Iraq that were deemed too gruesome and graphic to be shown on television. … Americans were seeking these images out: 28 percent of those who had seen graphic content online actively went looking for it. The survey found that half of those who had seen graphic content thought they had made a ‘good decision' by watching.” They found it, to be blunt, entertaining.

We can easily sneer at this, but the historical record shows that people — not just some people but many people — have long been drawn to executions and beheadings as a form of public amusement: “There have always been people ready to watch executions, and ready to enjoy the spectacle. … Individual responses may differ — some will laugh and jeer, others will studiously take notes, some will faint or vomit or cry … but the lesson of history is that it is within our capacity as humans to witness decapitations and other forms of execution, and more than that, to enjoy them as popular public events.” Especially in centuries past, people flocked to executions and evaluated them with a critical eye: “Decapitation was the executioner’s masterpiece, and the crowds around the scaffold were quick to judge his performance.”

Nowhere does this seem to have been more true than during the Reign of Terror, when the newly invented guillotine “seemed to rule France and was said to have removed people’s heads at a rate of one per minute.” The terror “demonstrated well enough that the only thing more horrifying than a severed head is a society that finds it mundane.” To wit, certain artists made a handy living “by selling cheap, simple line drawings of recently severed heads. … A portrait de guillotine was fast to produce and supposedly unmediated by the creative pretensions of the artist. … Guillotine portraits followed a conventional format: in each case, the executioner’s hand was shown holding the head aloft by its hair, while the recently sliced neck dripped with blood beneath.” Apparently the masses loved it and the aristos, too — at least those whom the guillotine hadn’t greeted.

The accounts of executions are the most vivid and interesting parts of Severed, but there is much more to it than that. Larson, who has an honorary research fellowship in anthropology at Durham University in England, writes about shrunken heads “made, around one hundred years ago, by the Shuar, who live in the tropical rainforest of the Andes and the Amazonian lowlands in Ecuador and Peru”; “trophy heads” taken by, among many others, American soldiers in the Pacific theater of World War II; Christians who “offer prayers to the heads of saints, which are found in churches across Europe and are often kept in richly jewelled reliquaries”; the “craze for human skulls” in 19th-century Europe and America, spurred by the fad for phrenology, a pseudo-science claiming “that a person’s character could be read by studying their head,” and so forth.

She does all of this skillfully and manages to find the human dimension in what is, when you get right down to it, a thoroughly nasty business. She also — and thank heavens for that — can find the occasional dash of humor in it: “Claus Fluegge, the executioner of Hamburg, performed a remarkable feat in 1488 when he beheaded seventy-nine pirates non-stop. When the senate asked him how he felt on completing this coup, he replied, ‘I am feeling so well that I could easily go on and do away with the entire Wise and Honorable Senate.’ The senators, apparently, were not amused and Fluegge’s insolence cost him his own head.”

Jonathan Yardley reviewed this book for The Washington Post.