Off with their heads : decapitation, gender, and power in medieval English literature

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This thesis focuses on opposite-sex decapitations in Medieval English Literature. It aims to demonstrate that beheading is a kind of violence that is always symbolic and never only about the death of its object. Indeed, narratives of decapitation present their executions as a preferred vehicle for dealing with the anxiety of a hegemonic power. In the first half of the thesis, an analysis of the adaptations of the biblical stories of John the Baptist and Judith show how Christian texts used the interpretation of the violence of beheading to further Christian propaganda. A beheading committed on the story’s heroes, then, is used to position the hegemony in question as victimised and righteous; alternatively, a beheading committed by its heroes is interpreted as non-violent and justifiable. Chivalric texts that include decapitations present a ruling class which fantasises about beheading as a way to sever from its social body the members who do not conform to the standards that have made a hegemony in the first place. The fact that all these decapitation narratives are made by opposite-sex pairs shows the malleability of beheading as a literary trope, and the insignificance of gendered differences in the face of the preservation of the status quo. Far from being subtle or uncommon, the beheading narrative was a tool of Christian conversion, a manifestation of patriarchal power, and a symptom of a system in crisis. In Off With Their Heads, I argue that the beheading narrative developed and crystallised itself in the stories adapted and produced in the Middle Age, creating tales that intertwined themes of gender and power with episodes of violent executions, showcasing the way in which power can be distributed for the benefit and maintenance of established, institutional hegemonies.
Date of Award13 Jun 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorIan Richard Johnson (Supervisor) & Katie Louise Garner (Supervisor)


  • Decapitation
  • Gender
  • Medieval
  • Power
  • Violence
  • Christianity
  • Chivalry

Access Status

  • Full text embargoed until
  • 11 May 2028

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