Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This review was written for Historical Novel Review.
Housing four of the five senses, our brain, and the body’s most elaborate set of muscles, the head naturally ranks as preeminent among our many body parts. It’s no surprise, therefore, that it should have an exceptional impact on human history and psychology. It is this history that anthropologist Frances Larson explores. She focuses on the severed head’s history in the West, with chapters dedicated to 18th- and 19th-century headhunting (by Western procurers), the venerated heads of saints, heads as trophies, the heads of decapitated politicians, and grave robbing by medical students among many others.
Though this book often makes for grisly reading, it is amazingly thought-provoking and never macabre. What could have devolved into freak show is instead elevated to an honest and tremendously insightful study into the severed human head’s history. I had never considered how the boom in head collecting among Western buyers during the 19th century led to a supply problem that could only be met one of two ways: grave robbing and murder. It is insights such as these that make this book highly recommended—for those who aren’t squeamish (there are a lot of pictures…).
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