The Head Collectors

There’s a wonderful news story on the BBC site today about the king’s head. After years of speculation, scientists now believe an embalmed head discovered in France is almost certainly that of Henri IV.

“The human head had a light brown colour, open mouth and partially closed eyes,” said the scientists, led by forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier. “The preservation was excellent, with all soft tissues and internal organs well conserved.”

King Henri IV was one of France’s favourite monarchs. He converted to Catholicism to end France’s wars of religion, declaring “Paris is worth a Mass”, but was later killed by a Catholic fundamentalist. He built the Pont Neuf bridge and the Place des Vosges in Paris. Henri was the first of the Bourbon line of monarchs, which included his grandson Louis XIV, the Sun King.

His head will now be reinterred in the Basilica of Saint Denis after a national Mass and funeral next year.

(My good friend Andie points out the irony of Henri’s head’s resting place: St Denis was, according to legend, martyred by beheading – but he then picked up his head and walked for miles, preaching as he went…)

The fact it was Henri IV caught my attention: he’s one of the most important figures in arguably the best period of French history, tied up as he was with the Huguenots and the ever-charming Catherine de Medici. It’s all fascinating, and made even more so (not to mention sensationalised) by Dumas’ book, La Reine Margot.

After the excitement faded (I’m a medieval geek. It comes with the territory), I re-read the article on the BBC site, and I kept going back to this line:

A head, presumed to be that of Henri IV, has passed between private collectors since then.

Yes, it’s creepy – a bit creepy even for me. Skulls don’t bother me: I grew up in a medical household with a couple of skeletons knocking around the place… but an embalmed head just comes across as being a bit, you know, yuck. And what would you do with it, anyway? Use it as a paperweight? Bring it out as the surprise guest at the end of your dinner parties? Put it on a mantelpiece and lick it every time you pass (and yes, Gary, I can well imagine you doing that)?

Then I started thinking about these “private collectors” – ironically, they made me think of nothing so much as “The Club Dumas” – possibly my favourite book. Who are they, anyway? What exactly are they collecting: weird stuff, relics of the French monarchy or… well, bits of the dead? And what are they collecting them for?

I love the idea that maybe there’s a whole subculture of pickled-head collectors. And that they get together and have conventions: attend talks on preservation, compare collections – perhaps do the odd swap…

And here’s another thought for you: if you could have (or call dibs on) any head, living or dead, to keep on your mantelpiece – licking optional – who would you pick?

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