In the current battle between the civilized West and the medieval Middle East, news accounts are quick to point out the barbarous behavior of ISIS toward its enemies. One of the most unspeakable crimes committed by these monsters is the beheading of their enemies.
There’s several dimensions to this issue. In the case of beheading, it seems that there’s been a change in attitudes toward the practice. A few hundred years ago beheading must have been regarded favorably in the West. First of all, we know this from the history of western art. Two of the most frequent subjects of European art, when its focus was on religion, were the stories of David and Goliath and Judith and Holofernes.
Countless paintings and sculptures were made of the combat between the heroic Israelite champion David and his giant Philistine opponent Goliath. Many of these art works depicted the immediate aftermath of the conflict, David holding the severed head of Goliath. This beheading was apparently seen as a positive event by Christians.
One of the great heroines of the Old Testament and Christianity was the widow Judith. She offered herself to the Assyrian leader Holofernes and after catching him in a weak moment decapitated the fellow, turning an Israelite defeat into victory. This was the subject of European art works for centuries.
The English used beheading for even fairly mundane crimes during the late medieval as well as for more serious offenses. Henry VIII wanted to be shet of his wife Anne Boleyn. She was accused and convicted of adultery and treason and lost her noggin to the axe on 19 May 1536.
Perhaps the most consequential English beheading was that of King Charles I in 1649. It was a seminal event in the English Civil War and after the Stuarts, in the person of Charles II, returned to power, three of those that had signed the king's death warrant and died in the interim were disinterred, hung and beheaded. Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell was one of them. His head was displayed in public on a pike for eighteen years afterward.
The last English beheading was of Simon Fraser,11th Lord Lovat, in 1747, although the punishment was a part of UK law until 1973.
At some point, however, beheading must have lost its lustre. Maybe after the French Revolution, since the Guillotine, a mechanized head removal device, was invented then to speed the process along. In the case of judicial capital punishment, beheading was never popular in the American colonies, hanging being the preferred method. In fact, killing without intentionally disfiguring the victim became the norm. This was reflected in the shock and dismay displayed by Americans when it was revealed that native Americans routinely dismembered US cavalrymen killed in battle, cutting off their arms, legs and genitalia. Even now Yankees are upset by the desecration of their fighting men while being little disturbed by members of either side being blown to smithereens by artillery, bombs or even atomic weapons.
As in all funereal practices, it's basically a scientific fact that nothing that's done to a corpse can be felt by the former owner, no matter if it's believed that the individual is on his way to paradise or the depths of hell. Beheading then is an affront to the sensibilities of the living. That's why the bad guys do it. To offend the survivors, and intimidate them. It seems to be working.