Heads Will Roll: Decapitation in the Medieval and Early Modern Imagination

(Leiden: Brill, 2012)

Edited By Larissa Tracy and Jeff Massey

The final cut, the fatal blow: Beheading is one of the most pervasive modes of execution — whether real or imagined — in human history. From the iconic image of Judith sawing off the head of the tyrant Holofernes, to the animated head of the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, to heads severed on English block and under French Guillotine, to modern photos of captured soldiers beheaded by terrorists, decapitation crosses boundaries of time, culture, and genre while providing spectacular, if ghastly, performative affirmations of power and authority. Modern viewers were horrified when news organizations released footage of Al Qaeda beheading hostages, enacting “time-honored warrior traditions that are theologically sanctioned.”[i] Beheading made headlines again when two men on opposite sides of the world — one on a bus in Canada and one on a beach in Greece — both committed grisly murders by decapitating their victims.[ii] Even more recently, a graduate student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) beheaded a female fellow student with a kitchen knife in front of a room full of people.[iii] These bizarre scenes might seem shockingly surreal products of Hollywood, if not for the very real — indeed, terminal — consequences suffered by the brutally decapitated victims. Regina Janes writes that all such beheadings “horrify the rest of us, populating our prisons, our films, and our fictions. Horror or comedy: decapitation owes its current characteristic shudder to the placement of violence within the modern ideology of the body.”[iv] But public horror at beheading, and its effect on the audience, is not simply a modern phenomenon — decapitation, and the visceral response to it, pervades literary, artistic, and historical accounts in antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the early modern period. Although the modern imagination continues to conceive of beheading as a feature of some monstrously constructed “Dark Age”, audiences have been captivated by the spectacle of the severed head for centuries before and after the medieval period, with no greater, or lesser, fascination.

As a partial corrective to such misunderstanding, this collection samples the multi-valenced motif of decapitation from a multitude of medieval and early-modern perspectives and literary sources, analyzing decapitation and the severed head in terms of cultural mores and expectations both past and present.


[i] Dawn Perimutter, “Mujahideen Blood Rituals: The Religious and Forensic Symbolism of Al Qaeda Beheading,” Anthropoetics 11:2 (Fall 2005/ Winter 2006): 2.

[ii] “Bus passenger beheaded seat mate, witness says”; “Man who beheaded bus seat mate defiled body, police tape says”; “Greek man held after girlfriend beheaded”, CNN.com (accessed August 8, 2008).

[iii] Carolina Sanchez, “Man Pleads Guilty to Killing Virginia Tech Student,” CNN Justice (December 21, 2009) <http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/12/21/virginia.tech.death/index.html> (accessed April 2010).

[iv] Regina Janes, Losing Our Heads: Beheadings in Literature and Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2005), ix.

Table of Contents

Preface — Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, George Washington University
I.               Introduction — Larissa Tracy and Jeff Massey
II.             Non potest hoc corpus decollari: Beheading and the Impossible —
Nicola Masciandaro, Brooklyn College, CUNY 

III.           Execution and Hagiography

“Like a Virgin”: The Reheading of St. Edmund and Monastic Reform in Late-Tenth-Century England — Mark Faulkner, St John’s College, Oxford

A Crowning Achievement: The Royal Execution and Damnation of Eadric Streona — Jay Paul Gates, John Jay College of Criminal Justice CUNY

Decapitation, Martyrdom, and Late Medieval Execution Practices in The Book of Margery Kempe Christine F. Cooper-Rompato, Utah State University

 IV.           Continental Narratives of Punishment and Othering

Talking Heads in Hell: Dante’s Use of Severed Heads in Inferno —
Dwayne C. Coleman, University of Central Arkansas

Severed Silence: Social Boundaries and Family Honor in Boccaccio’s “Tale of Lisabetta” — Mary Leech, The University of Cincinnati

The Headless Giant: The Function of Severed Heads in the Ahistorical (Aventiurehafte) Dietrich Epics Tina Boyer, Wake Forest University

 V.             English Romance and Reality

“To be a ‘Fleschhewere’”: Beheading, Butcher-Knights, and Blood-Taboos in Octavian Imperator — Renee Ward, Wilfrid Laurier University

 The Werewolf at the Head Table: Metatheatric “subtlety” in Arthur and GorlagonJeff Massey, Molloy College

“So he smote of hir hede by myssefortune”: The Real Price of the Beheading Game in SGGK and Malory — Larissa Tracy, Longwood University

VI.           Early Modern Practice and Imagination

“At the time of his death”: The Contested Narrative of Sir Walter Ralegh’s Beheading— Andrew Fleck, San Jose State University

“Killing swine” and planting heads in Shakespeare’s Macbeth — Thomas Herron, East Carolina University

“Tucked Beneath Her Arm”: Culture, Ideology, and Fantasy in the Curious Legend of Anne Boleyn — Thea Cervone, University of Southern California

VII.         Answering the Call of the Severed Head — Asa Simon Mittman, California State University, Chico