We are squeamish these days about detaching people's heads. It is true that Isis has tried to revive the tradition of the ceremonial public execution, and that their gruesome videos attract many viewers.
However, it seems significant that even the hard men of al-Qaeda – the Yemeni branch, at least – recently issued a statement indicating their disapproval.
Such misgivings are relatively new. Revolutionary France detached people's heads in public by the crate-load. What is less well known is that the French did not stop publicly executing people until 1939. In these islands, public beheadings appear to have begun in the early Middle Ages, and Frances Larson notes that, for centuries, we even had a wonderfully named Keeper of the Heads, whose sole job was to tend the skulls stuck on spikes on London Bridge.
Larson writes in the style of a flaneur. A connoisseur of severed heads from days spent in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford – home to a well-known collection of stuffed, shrunken heads – she wanders among the skulls with assurance and not a hint of a shiver, alighting on those that most interest her and arranging them in themes. The book is more of a clever, sometimes playful, conversation than a conventional study.
Humans, she writes, long ago turned the removal of the head into a potent ritual, which evidently draw on a deep instinctive feeling in us all that power as well as life resides deep in the recesses of the skull. Public decapitations always had a strong element of theatre to them and everyone was expected to know and play their part. Executioners could be treated brutally by the mob if they failed to make a clean job of it, for example.
As for those about to lose their heads, they were also expected to stick to a script. Larson notes than when Louis XV's former mistress, Madame du Barry, made a huge fuss on the scaffold and begged to be spared death for a little while, she greatly confused the crowd. By failing to make a dignified exit, she had not just spoiled the show but had tampered with the magic, somehow.
An obsession with skulls, and with what they appeared to signify, lasted well into the 19th century, Larson writes. Partly, it was thanks to the vogue for the cod science of phrenology and, later on, to the popular connections drawn between race and the shape of the skull. As a result, some universities, especially in America, amassed huge collections of these macabre objects. Larson says skulls remind us of our fragility and she urges us not to turn away from them. I read her book with interest, but I still feel like turning away, all the same.