A Rollercoaster of Emotions: The Risks of Historical Research

My research into ballads about public execution has recently been the focus of an hour-long documentary program on ABC Radio National’s program, ‘Into The Music.’ It’s still streaming for a couple more days – catch it here:


In the interview I describe some of the different types of execution methods that one could expect to witness in the early modern period. One listener told me afterwards, ‘I like how you giggle when you get to the really gruesome bits.’ And it’s true: whenever I start to talk to others about the extraordinarily distressing things that fill my daily readings I can’t help but laugh. It’s a nervous laugh, I know, because I can’t let myself possibly believe that people actually did these sorts of things to each other. The level of violence – and violence that is so creative it would make even Tarantino pause to take notes – that I read about every day is cartoon-esque in its extremity. It’s like watching Tom and Jerry (or Itchy and Scratchy for you younger readers). I can’t let myself believe it’s true because the sympathy I would feel for the victims’ pain would be crippling. And for a historian, and particularly a historian of the emotions, that’s probably an odd position to be in.

I’ve become either the best dinner party guest in the world or the worst, depending on what you like to hear about while you’re eating. I know about all sorts of ghastly torture methods now, and take great delight in regaling slack-jawed listeners with tales of horrifically botched executions, or particularly gruesome execution methods. Like, for example, being ‘broken on the wheel’: after being drawn to the execution site, sometimes dragged along the ground behind a horse, sometimes on a cart, while usually having his fleshy bits torn off with red hot tongs, the condemned was tied to a wooden framework. The executioner would then use a cartwheel to smash the limbs in between each joint. After which the dislocated limbs of the still-living criminal would be ‘woven’ through the spokes of another cartwheel which would be hoisted up on a pole so that carrion could eat the flesh of the slowly-dying condemned. Here’s a picture in case you don’t believe me:


This was the execution of Peter Stubbe (or Stumpf, or Stumpp) in 1589, and here is more background on his crimes. As you can see from the woodcut, Stubbe was not actually displayed on the wheel apart from his severed head. Instead his decapitated body was burned in between his daughter and mistress (a distant relative), who were burned alive for committing incest with him. But notwithstanding the incest, Stubbe was primarily executed for (wait for it) being a werewolf. And that’s where I start to giggle again…

Sometimes it’s more a sense of bewilderment that I feel when I read about certain executions in the past. For example, I remember reading in the journals of Pierre de L’Estoile, a legal clerk in sixteenth-century Paris, about the execution of a prisoner in 1587. This is how L’Estoile tells it:

Saturday 6th February, an Angevin named Le Ber, prisoner in the Conciergerie of the Palais, warned that, by decree of the Court, he was condemned to be hanged after lunch for the murder by ambush he committed about fifteen years ago, cut his own throat in his cell, and his corpse was drawn on a hurdle behind a cart to the city dungheap and there hung by the feet.

This makes no sense to a modern reader until you understand that suicide – or ‘murder of the self’ as it was known – was considered the most heinous of crimes because it left no possibility of repentance, thus guaranteeing the offender eternal damnation. So given how appalling the crime was, it needed to be punished. As Paul Friedland explains in his fascinating new book: ‘If a crime had been committed, it had to be punished, and punishment took the form of the established penal ritual, regardless of whether the criminal was human or animal, dead or alive, present or represented.’ (p. 112) In fact, lots of corpses were executed in the early modern period – the important thing was that the crime was expiated from the community with the appropriate ritual. And being hung upside down at the city dungheap was the most shameful of possible ways of hanging, which explains why such effort went into punishing Le Ber’s corpse in this way. What still troubles me, however, is why Le Ber chose to commit suicide rather than confess, receive absolution and then be executed. Maybe he knew he was to be broken on the wheel…

But sometimes I do get sad. I study ballads, after all, and the combination of words and music is probably the most potent force humans have for arousing emotions and coaxing tears. One of the most affecting execution ballads of all is the famous ‘Mary Hamilton’ which tells the story of a lady-in-waiting to a Scottish queen who is executed for killing her baby, fathered by her mistress’s husband, the king. The reference in the last verse to the ‘four Maries’ has led many to believe that it describes the story of a lady-in-waiting to Marie Stuart, known in English as Mary, Queen of Scots:

Last night there were four Marys;

Tonight there’ll be but three:

There was Mary Beaton and Mary Seton

And Mary Carmichael and me.

However, Rosalind Marshall has shown that while Mary, Queen of Scots had four ‘Maries’ as ladies-in-waiting, none was a Hamilton. Whatever its status, fictional or otherwise, the ballad’s popularity down the centuries is due to its ability to arouse sympathy for an unfortunate woman, placed in an impossible situation. And when the ballad is being sung by one of the greatest chanteuses of all, the inimitable Joan Baez, a stiff upper lip is no defense. Have a listen to this: http://youtu.be/oh9_jdmcAhY and just be sure to have the tissues nearby.

Sometimes it’s tough work being a historian of emotions.


Posted by Una McIlvenna

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