Massey (2008 Congress)

Jeff Massey
(Molloy College, Rockville Center, New York)
Imputrible!  On the Care and Feeding of Severed Heads”

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 43rd International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, 2008)
Session on “Bark at the Rune:  Transforming the Medieval Werewolf”
Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Jeff Massey

2008 Congress

A magical greyne enables a decapitated Christian child to continue singing praises to God after his dismemberment at the hands of an angry Jewish mob.  A heroic Jewess decapitates a drunken and lusty Assyrian general and uses his miraculously preserved head to rally her people to rebellion.  An unfaithful ex-wife is forced repeatedly to kiss the embalmed head of her deceased lover even as her lycanthropic ex-husband kisses his new wife.  A Parisian saint continues to preach after his own beheading, carrying his haloed head under his arm as he walks to his voluntary entombment.  And finally, an over-proud knight learns humility from an otherworldly green man who shrugs off his own decapitation and laughingly threatens a similar cut in return.

These myriad medieval moments of miraculous decollation — and they are but a few of the many extant — reveal an impressive range of reactions to postmortem severed heads, leading one to ask:  Was the undead severed head — the seat of reason and spirituality in the Middle Ages — a site of terror, awe, or reverence?  In this survey of the beheading topos in medieval fiction, I categorize and analyze the manner of extra-mortuary preservation of human heads in magical romances, cephalophoric saints’ lives, fairy tales, and mythical histories, ultimately suggesting that the manner of capital preservation predicates its reception.

In short:  I will present a modern collation of medieval decollations.  Tasteless puns and graphic illustrations surely follow.