The huge stores of human remains in our museums are an uncomfortable reminder of the oppression and inequalities of our past.
Like many books on a niche subject, Severed explores heads from different angles, using history, culture and science. It’s split into fairly long chapters on Shrunken Heads, Trophy Heads (war), Deposed Heads (execution), Framed Heads (art), Potent Heads (religion), Bone Heads (skulls), Dissected Heads (medical) and Living Heads. It seems there’s a long-standing fascination with the human head once it’s been removed from the body.
Obviously it covers the well-known guillotine and the French obsession with it during the revolution. It’s worrying to think it was created to reduce the spectacle; an efficient machine to remove head but to reduce the gore and horror that could be seen, and revelled in, by the crowds. I didn’t know that Madame Tussaud was an actual person and her original wax museum was filled with portraits cast from heads fresh from the guillotine.
It does serve as a reminder of the awfulness of Europeans throughout history (and I’m including those who colonised America in this, they weren't innocent either). From creating an artificial demand for shrunken heads, so much so that people (or sloths!) were killed to order, to the degrading way bodies of the poor were treated, this is a side of history many would like to forget.
We hear a lot about the Victorian obsession with classification of the natural world but not that it extended to the human race as well. Thousands of skulls were collected and studied in an aim to work out what made some people better than others. To classify races and keep a record of indigenous peoples practically wiped out by the rabid colonisation of the world.
I found the most uncomfortable reading was that surrounding the experimentation on recently guillotined heads to see if they were still alive in there. There’s something really unsettling about this, and if it were true, what horrible tortures were committed during the period.
On a more positive note, it redresses some of the bad rep of medical students, showing a huge amount of respect, and even tenderness, for their cadavers. There are no tales of pranks, but shows how people come to terms with cutting up a human being, how it’s not always an easy thing to live with, even if the end goal is something worthy.
Once a fragment of the human body is preserved and kept above ground for any length of time, rather than being returned to the earth in the normal way, it develops an identity of its own and tends to resist its own burial.
It’s a grisly but fascinating look at human history, I was probably less engaged in the parts about saints and the severed head in art. Not to say there weren’t interesting bits but I felt these chapters were too long for the material contained. There’s a fair bit of repetition across the chapters and the final one, “Living Heads” seemed to be a bit of a mish-mash of some areas already covered as well as a little bit on cryogenics and scientific experimentation.
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Also reviewed @ Booking in Heels
Book Source: Purchased