Head to head: Wilkinson with Cromwell's skull
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Barbarism begins at home: a macabre history of severed heads

Far from being a benighted practice from popular fiction – the sort of thing that you might find in an H Rider Haggard novel – it turns out that beheadings went hand in hand with western empires.

Severed: a History of Heads Lost and Heads Found 
Frances Larson
Granta Books, 336pp, £20

When did you last see an image of a freshly severed human head? It used to be possible to get though life without ever encountering one. Now this most horrific represen­tation of human degradation – in which the victim’s suffering advertises the killer’s pride in his own depravity – is likely to jump out at you without warning from your social media feeds.

It happened to me earlier this year when I found myself browsing through Kurdish solidarity campaigns on Facebook. Here’s a petition, here’s a meeting, here’s some new piece of information – and then an image I saw for maybe a quarter of a second before reflexively closing the browser window: the head of a Kurdish woman, drenched in her own blood, held aloft by the hair.

Alongside this was another that purportedly showed the woman when alive, smiling and making a V sign in her olive peshmerga fatigues: the female fighter known as Rehana. Although it later emerged that the beheading photograph showed a different woman entirely, that seemed beside the point. Somewhere near Kobane, a brave, beautiful woman had still been reduced to an object and a bloody trophy to be used for political ends by – let’s call him what he is – a degenerate barbarian.

I can’t get the picture out of my mind, which, of course, is what both the poster on Facebook and the perpetrator want. Here, “Witness what is being done to us” and “Witness what we will do to you” come together in a single image. What was truly horrible, though, was that the murdered woman remained beautiful, her eyes closed, her brutalised face at peace. If a dead countenance, disconnected from its human passions, represents some form of truth, can that truth still be beautiful?

These are some but by no means all of the themes explored in the impressive Severed by the Durham University research fellow Frances Larson, biographer of Henry Wellcome and historian of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. On almost any other subject you would applaud the author’s foresight – well done for reading the zeitgeist, Sunday Times bestseller guaranteed – except that in the climate of horror brought on by the seemingly endless YouTube beheadings, readers could be forgiven for reaching in panic for the new Robert Galbraith instead. This would be an injustice because Severed is an eloquent and provocative exploration of what the detached head means, one that reaches beyond today’s desert atrocities into the core of human culture.

Far from being a benighted practice from popular fiction – the sort of thing that you might find in an H Rider Haggard novel – it turns out that beheadings went hand in hand with western empires. Larson’s first step is to describe in intricate detail a peculiar behavioural feedback loop wherein western explorers’ fascination with shrunken heads and other Amazonian fetishes led the “savages” – who were exceptionally canny – to increase production of the said heads by means of war and kidnapping. (Bad news for Paddington Bear: market forces operate in darkest Peru, too.) These supposedly authentic tsantsas, or shrunken heads, freighted with confirmations of cultural superiority as well as unknowable talismanic energy, were in reality just so much grisly tourist tat: I Went Up the Jungle and All I Got Was This Shrunken Head.

If you think we liberal moderns are beyond all that, consider the reliquaries in Larson’s beloved Pitt Rivers Museum. “Visitors may . . . think of them as gruesome trophies of an untouched savage people,” she writes, “when what they are actually seeing are the gruesome trophies of a western fascination with the idea of an untouched savage people.”

Severed does not consist solely of mea culpas for imperialist perfidy. It is worth emphasising Larson’s range, her splendidly ironic detachment and her incorrigible fas­cination with the bizarre and illuminating anecdote. We learn how Oliver Cromwell’s detached head was paraded from dinner party to dinner party atop a spike for hundreds of years after his execution; we see Canon Horace Wilkinson, a Suffolk vicar, brandishing it like an ecclesiastical Bez as late as 1949. (It was finally buried in 1960.)

In the Frankenstein horrors of the French artist Théodore Géricault – who painted severed limbs and heads that he had borrowed from morgues – and early transplant medicine, we find that art and science share grotesque, death-fixated roots. We read how, in 1488, the Hamburg executioner Claus Flügge despatched 79 pirates in a single day and remarked: “I am feeling so well that I could easily go on and do away with the entire wise and honourable Senate.” Its humourless members put Flügge to the chop instead.

Severed is as enthralling and entertaining as a book on such a subject could ever be. Time and again, Larson reminds us how much better medical writers are at this stuff – how much calmer and more penetrating – than the imprecise generalist could ever be. Evidently cutting up human bodies as a student teaches you a certain forensic stoicism. Her book deserves a wide audience but I fear it won’t get one. The subject matter is too close to home and it is coming closer.

Andrew Harrison is the editor of Esquire Weekly

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Karen Bradley as Culture Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The most politically charged of the culture minister's responsibilities is overseeing the BBC, and to anyone who works for - or simply loves - the national broadcaster, Karen Bradley has one big point in her favour. She is not John Whittingdale. Her predecessor as culture secretary was notorious for his belief that the BBC was a wasteful, over-mighty organisation which needed to be curbed. And he would have had ample opportunity to do this: the BBC's Charter is due for renewal next year, and the licence fee is only fixed until 2017. 

In her previous job at the Home Office, Karen Bradley gained a reputation as a calm, low-key minister. It now seems likely that the charter renewal will be accomplished with fewer frothing editorials about "BBC bias" and more attention to the challenges facing the organisation as viewing patterns fragment and increasing numbers of viewers move online.

Of the rest of the job, the tourism part just got easier: with the pound so weak, it will be easier to attract visitors to Britain from abroad. And as for press regulation, there is no word strong enough to describe how long the grass is into which it has been kicked.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.