14.09.11, Tracy and Massey, eds., Heads Will Roll

Main Article Content

Regina Janes

The Medieval Review 14.09.11

Tracy, Larissa and Jeff Massey. Heads Will Roll: Decapitation in the Medieval and Early Modern Imagination. Medieval and Renaissance Authors and Texts, 7. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, NV, 2012. Pp. xviii, 352. ISBN: 978-90-21155-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Regina Janes
Skidmore College

Medievalists can be defensive. Because studies of decapitation leap in a single bound over the thousand years from Caligula and John the Baptist to the Tudors, the editors complain that decapitation in the Middle Ages is slighted: "why bother rehearsing its effects in literature and the social record" (7)? Surely the issue is not "why bother" but how to cope. As the editors and these essays demonstrate, in no period do the changing meanings and practice of decapitation display more richness and complexity or wind through more antithetical aspects of thought and action than the multiple cultural contexts that constitute the Middle Ages. The writer who wants ever to get beyond the Middle Ages had better not enter that dark forest where magic happens. All the more crucial, then, is it that medievalists themselves initiate a synthesis to inform and enlighten the ages that follow. For students of other dramas than decapitation, Jeff Massey also identifies an exceptionally early interlude in "The Werewolf at the Head Table: Metatheatric 'Subtlety' in Arthur and Gorlagon."

Three issues strike the curious non-medievalist reader (writing this review) at once. First, research into the law, practice, and prevalence of decollation in the Middle Ages seems urgent. Studies are cited that show decollation as a non-aristocratic punishment in the cities of medieval Italy, but not elsewhere. The comparable English practice in Chester, Halifax, and Wakefield, while relevant, is not cited. In the Second Shepherds' Play, the Master's Mak the sheep-stealer worries about his head, not his neck (hanging). The social, political, and technological changes coincident with the move from the lord's sword to the Halifax gibbet, a pre-guillotine decapitating machine, deserve taking up. Second, there is a curious absence in these European accounts of the mingled pathos and horror characteristic of Japan's Tale of the Heike. There severed heads are seen simultaneously from the perspective of the triumphant and the sorrowful, with an empathic delicacy lacking in contemporaneous western examples. This observation seems gratuitous, but the practices represented in this volume are so various that any absence is noteworthy. Third, brilliantly addressed in Asa Simon Mittman's concluding essay, how is so protean a practice to be theorized? As these essays demonstrate, the violent practice of decapitation emblematizes justice and injustice, shows a warrior's prowess and also shames him, entails death but does not inhibit the speech of cephalophoric saints or deny renewed life to green giants, produces grisly relics preserved, usually by women, for their sentimental, amorous value, and offers occasions for fantasies of martyrdom and rebirth. The ideological versatility of medieval decapitation is distinctive, deriving from multiple religious and cultural sources. Modern decapitations are moralized otherwise.

Let me develop this point a little. The Introduction begins with a lurid enumeration of twenty-first-century decollations of students and bus passengers in Canada, Greece, and Virginia Tech. Thomas Herron opens on Macbeth with heads rolled by a Mexican drug cartel. Asa Simon Mittman expands the geographical range to every continent and quotes the New York Times on three Kurds decapitated in Iraq, their heads placed on their backs. We live, it is argued, in a beheading time. Well, we do and we don't: Mexican drug cartels and Kurd-decapitators have their reasons, and those reasons certainly resemble the power struggles of Macbeth. The monopoly of an economic or political good is contended for; control of force is dispersed, with weapons widely available and wielded; praise or horror of the action depends, as Mittman observes, on the situation of the commentator; the purpose is power through terror. U.S. soldiers collecting body parts are in danger of prosecution, while the impulse to collect suggests that the trophy desire runs deep. Yet modernity's more lurid local decollations are unauthorized by any current ideologies. Relegated to madmen and criminals, they remain unexplained in the preferred medical or moral terms we deploy to account for them. Whether the Middle Ages possessed such aberrant decapitators remains to be seen--one may have been unearthed in the essay on Margery Kempe; a Gawain story suggests resistance to careless decapitations and uncontrolled violence, and saints beheaded by pagans always challenge decollation, often by speaking up or walking away, head in hand. Still, other medieval decapitations seem well masked by an ideological position. We seem to have decapitators of a new type, drive-by decapitators, as it were. We also lack sentimental, amorous head savers. Women no longer preserve the heads of their murdered lovers, like Boccaccio's Lisabetta, or of their executed husbands and fathers, like Sir Walter Ralegh's widow and Sir Thomas More's daughter, even when they are so unfortunate as to have the opportunity to do so. Happily, like Isabella, medievalists have begun to embrace their heads so as to explain them to the rest of us.

Nicola Masciandaro riffs on the impossibility of decollation, deftly tying medieval with modern theory. (Like death, beheading is impossible: it is not where it is; where it is it is not.) In the first three essays, decapitation coincides with enhanced narrative value. Deaths become decollations only as a narrative develops mythic proportions in later accounts. In "'Like a Virgin': The Beheading of St. Edmund and Monastic Reform in Late-Tenth-Century England," Mark Faulkner juggles two kinds of miracles from two lives of the late 980s. First, the martyred king is re-headed: his uncorrupted body and head reattached by a faint red line allegorize the effects of monastic life on the corrupt souls who also hope to be renewed. Second, the head, hidden by cruel Vikings, is both saved and saves itself. A wolf guards it, Christians seek it, and the head secures its finding by calling out "Heer, Heer, Heer" in English. "Hic, Hic, Hic," the manuscript explains (36). Abbo insists on the miraculous violation of the physiology of speech, for Edmund's head spoke without assistance from vocal chords or the heart's arteries, while Aelfric prefers the miracle of the wolf's not eating but guarding the head.

In contrast to this unjust decapitation miraculously reversed, Jay Paul Gates' "A Crowning Achievement: The Royal Execution and Damnation of Eadric Streona" displays decapitation bent to positive rhetorical, political ends. Rewritten as a decollation, the earl's death turns an ominous account of conqueror Cnut's brutality into a celebration of his justice. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1017, Eadric is merely killed, leading a list of four other aristocrats; in the Encomium Emmae Reginae (probably 1041-1042) he is beheaded alone at the king's order by the king's commander, an executioner with a name.

Christine F. Cooper-Rompato's "Decapitation, Martyrdom, and Late Medieval Execution Practices in The Book of Margery Kempe" provides singularly rich variants of decapitation fantasy. While Margery Kempe toys with martyrdom by decapitation and on balance prefers not to, her husband imagines a random man threatening to behead him unless his wife agrees to sex. Margery prefers her husband be slain rather than they return to "vnclenness" (86). Supposing random, motiveless violence and horror of violent men bearing swords, his fantasy also plays with the decapitation fertility motif, cutting down the barren fig tree.

In Dwayne C. Coleman's "Talking Heads in Hell: Dante's Use of Severed Heads in Inferno," the cephalophoric heads belong not to saints but to sinners, and God is the unnamed executioner: Bertran de Born in Canto 28 and Ugolino in Canto 33. Christian charity ought to give Mahomet pride of place among the schismatics, but Dante opens the canto echoing Bertran's sirventes and closes with Bertran's head carried like a lantern. Arguing that Dante repents his earlier praise of the poet, as Colemand does, requires ignoring the allusion he has already pointed out and Dante's rhymes, "lanterna/lucerna." Bertran's poetry, like his head, Dante separates from the body that separated father and son, but it still gives light and leads the way.

Boundaries crossed, genres revealed and juxtaposed, race, class, and gender subtly intertwined mark the remaining essays. Mary E. Leech, "Severed Silence: Social Boundaries and Family Honor in Boccaccio's 'Tale of Lisabetta'" introduces the amorous, sentimental, beloved, severed head (revisited by Keats in "Isabella and the Pot of Basil") caught in a web of moral and class transgressions. Of all the boundaries traversed in Boccaccio's tale, none is more striking than the severed head bathed in kisses and tears by Lisabetta who crossed over into her lover's room and into the wilderness to recover his head with her own hands. What enables and what is the valuation placed upon a woman who transgresses the boundaries of repulsion in this way? Lisabetta's triumph is affirmed by her story's having already passed into song, and the pleasure the ladies take in discovering the song's origins in Lisabetta's story.

Antithetically, a once beloved severed head turns into penitential punishment in Jeff Massey's "The Werewolf at the Head Table: Metatheatric 'Subtlety' in Arthur and Gorlagon." An adulterous wife must kiss her dead lover's embalmed head on a platter whenever her husband kisses his new wife as they feast. Others have noted the theatrical quality of this undervalued, Arthurian werewolf romance. Massey provides the evidence from physical examination of the manuscript that it was intended for dinner-theatre performance, so from a romance an interlude emerges, like the spectacular prop of the dead lover's head relished on the feast table. Especially deft is Massey's fitting this gratuitously grisly tale into the tragic Arthurian tradition through the figure of the third unnamed queen, Guinevere.

Tina Boyer's "The Headless Giant: The Function of Severed Heads in the Ahistorical (Aventiurehafte) Dietrich Epics" shows the giant in transition and a displayed head rebuking, rather than aggrandizing. A decapitated guardian of the wilderness, this giant faintly echoes Gilgamesh's decapitated Humwawa, his head cast before the shocked gods. In Ecke, the giant becomes a questing chivalrous knight, doomed still to lose his head, but whose head humiliates the ladies who sent him to his death. Thrown at them to their shame rather than presented to honor them, it explodes in blood and brains. Beheading a giant is required of a hero, but the hero no longer approves of his own success at beheading and, of course, blames the women for the killing he performed.

Similar doubts about the glory of successful beheadings animate Renée Ward's "'To be a "Fleschhewere"': Beheading, Butcher-Knights, and Blood-Taboos in Octavian Imperator" and, more explicitly, Larissa Tracy's "'So He Smote of Hir Hede by Myssefortune': The Real Price of the Beheading Game in SGGK and Malory." Ward recapitulates a romance in which the hero, an emperor's abducted son, raised by a butcher, slaughters his giant as a butcher slaughters a pig, split from crotch to chin, limbs sliced off, the head removed. If the hero imitates a butcher, the butcher is marked as a liminal, boundary-crossing figure, linked with Jews and Muslims, converting a Saracen princess to make her an appropriate wife for his son, outwitting the Sultan for his magic horse, and triumphantly knighted as the end of all. In this assimilation, is the butcher being elevated by his knighthood, his métier affirmed, or is the knight being lowered to the level of butcher?

Tracy contrasts the beheading game's cheerful resuscitations with Sir Gawain's accidental decapitation of a woman intervening to save her man from the sword. Caught between her husband and the knight, her head is culled by Gawain rather than her husband's. The beheading game links sexuality and the sword, so as to control adultery, but Tracy argues that Malory abandons the magically restored heads of the beheading game to supply training in violence control. The headless lady demonstrates the need to control aspects of chivalry, and her head is a rebuke rather than a trophy.

Andrew Fleck, "'At the Time of his Death': The Contested Narrative of Sir Walter Ralegh's Beheading" observes that the focal point of a decapitation is not the beheading, but the speech. Published in English only in 1648, first appearing in Dutch pointed against the Spanish, Ralegh's speech denied the charge of atheism and, Fleck argues, marks the beginnings of a small public sphere in the interest his last words excited through manuscript transmission. Ralegh's wife is said to have preserved her husband's head in a red leather bag; it was buried with their son at his death in 1666. Nothing is said of the attribution of "A Passionate Man's Pilgrimage" to Ralegh, the finest poem on the impossible occasion of one's own decapitation.

Thomas Herron, ''Killing Swine' and Planting Heads in Shakespeare's Macbeth" addresses the Irish connection for the murderous Scots in Macbeth and interprets beheading as planting and renewal--anticipating the Marseillaise where blood waters the furrows. Thea Cervone, "'Tucked Beneath Her Arm': Culture, Ideology, and Fantasy in the Curious Legend of Anne Boleyn" suggests how valuable a full-length study of the Anne Boleyn legend would be, from a wicked Herodias in the sixteenth century through the disillusioned court lady of Sarah Fielding (admitted to heaven at once in Henry Fielding's Journey from This World to the Next, 1743) to the friend of biblical translation and reform in Hilary Mantel. Stronger on current representations of Boleyn than those from the sixteenth to nineteenth century, this essay leaves Boleyn's alleged legend floating unfixed in time or texts. Asa Simon Mittman, "Answering the Call of the Severed Head" sums up superbly. Rejecting castration as fetishization by psychoanalysts, he insists that the head is not just another separable part, but the one whose partibility challenges our desire for totality. So later ages want the middle ages, their age of faith, to have only one meaning, and that a spiritual one. As Mittman concludes, however, decapitation is "impossible to comprehend but not to enact...a spectacle polyvalent, utterly arresting, and ultimately affirming of embodied existence" (327).

Unlike most collections, authors here happily refer to each other throughout. There are fifteen beautifully reproduced full-color illustrations, placed together at the end, of manuscript pages, illuminations, reliquaries, and statues. There are remarkably few infelicities. Some syntax wrenches: "much like the lady who lost her head intervened on behalf of her lord" (225). Bugs Bunny seems to have been set loose on manuscripts, making insertions with a "carrot" (183 n1, doubtless an automatic Word "correction" not caught in proofreading), and there turns up an occasional "I wonder whom [sic] Charles thinks will prevail" problem. The principle of inclusion for the bibliography is not entirely clear. The editors enumerate a number of valuable studies of medieval violence that are neither cited by other authors nor listed in the bibliography, but would be profitably included.

Article Details

Author Biography

Regina Janes

Skidmore College