Book of da Week: Severed by Dr. Frances Larson

Severed by Dr. Frances Larson
Severe?

You no doubt enjoy your bonce and many other people may do, too. However, without your skull you’re as about as alive as a dead thing – a fitting tribute to dead things everywhere, we believe. The excellent Dr. Frances Larson agrees, which is why she wrote a brief modern (i.e. circa 500 years) history about the human fascination with the skull.

You need yours. We need ours. Skulls have powered the greatest minds in history. Einstein had one and so does Adam Sandler, but some skulls are greater than others. Upon death, however, what was contained within the skull becomes an irrelevance, but the fascinating history behind each brain basket is arguably what drives our fascination. One day our thoughts and feelings will part from our brain – the skull will remain for thousands of years after. So what type of legacy do skulls leave behind?

Severed

Many folks may find this a squeamish or taboo subject, but it’s an interesting one to consider. Without your skull, you are nothing. It has to be attached to your body. There’s no taking it off for a day to take a well earned rest – you won’t complete that pressing project if you do that. Indeed, the thing has to remained attached to you.

The brilliant Dr. Larson approaches the subject with dark humour, irreverence, but always insightful knowledge. Indeed, it seems in the past society was eager to contemplate the human skull – in a frenzy, British citizens dug up Oliver Cromwell and stuck his head on a spike in the heart of London. There it remained for hundreds of years before passing into the hands of chancers eager to cash in on a piece of history.

Tales such as this make up the medical book, but it’s our take of dark humour shouldn’t be taken as a guide to what is an excellent historical record. Humans, simply put, have had a bizarre fascination with the human head for as long as historical records last. It is only in recent decades we have become squeamish to anything but one’s head being connected to one’s spinal cord.

As Dr. Larson points out, we’re rather appalled by decapitations by certain nations, whilst certain recent events also have the power to shock. We can recall, in Sid Watkin’s book Life on the Limit, how F1 driver Helmuth Koinigg was found in his car decapitated after hitting a barrier. A nearby marshal went to pick up his helmet, only to find Koinigg’s head inside. Such tales are shocking, but only until the recent past were regular decapitations not a regular occurrence.

Medicine

In part, our social mores have dictated the change. In the past, medical advances were something the public actively ignored. As detailed in the excellent Blood and Guts, hospitals were feared, despised, and considered a place of certain death for a long time.

What Dr. Larson does, though, is move away from medical understanding. It doesn’t take much intelligence to realise the head is an important part of the human body, which is why, over the millennia, it’s become an area of total fascination.

Taboo in the modern era, it’s nevertheless enthralling reading to head back into the past and learn about what has shaped this fascination, even if now we’re rather more keen on smacking on the stubble or make-up and presuming ourselves to be above reality.

2 comments

  1. There is a story here in New Zealand about how a soldier’s severed head was circulated around Taranaki during the 1860s, by a group known as Pai Marire, as a way of whipping up opposition to the British colony. The soldier had fallen in battle, but the news that his body was found headless was kept from the soldier’s widow (briefly). The main issue for the colonial authorities was how to get the head back for proper interment with the rest of the body. It was finally recovered by the simple expedient of a settler riding into the kainga (village) where it was at the time and asking for it. Actually, there was quite a bit of this sort of thing going on at the time. A few years later, a member of the colonial militia was killed in battle and partially dismembered before the colonial forces could recover the body. ‘We have only got his legs,’ the commander wailed in a letter to the Minister of Defence in Wellington, adding a request for weapons which, without the slightest hint of actually realising what he was saying, he appended to the same sentence: ‘send some arms.’

    • Excellent, thanks for the story! I’ve been reading quite a bit of medical history recently and it’s fascinating to see how the times change and public attitudes alter. Us bloody Brits, though. Mel Gibson seems to particular have a thing against us – Braveheart, the Patriot. Braveheart is, of course, highly historically accurate.

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