Drawn and quartered

(July, 2013)

News item:

Soccer fanaticism in Brazil reached dangerously high levels when a mob attacked and murdered a referee following an argument with a player. Their argument turned into a fist fight and the referee fatally stabbed the player with a knife he had been carrying throughout the match. The spectators then rushed onto the field and proceeded to tie up, beat, and stone the referee to death, after which they quartered his body and put the severed head on a stake and stuck it in the middle of the field.

A suspect has been arrested. 

Medieval English kings didn’t mess around. You messed with them, they made a mess out of you. High treason wasn’t something let off lightly. The drawing and quartering began with the guilty part trussed up, tied to a board and dragged by a horse through the streets to the place of execution. Sometimes a priest followed, chastising, or a crowd would join in with stones and whips. Once at the gallows the traitor would be hanged till not quite dead, then revived. His genitalia would be lopped off and the entrails removed slowly through an incision in the gut, after which they were burned so he could watch. Then the victim was beheaded, and his heart cut out and also burned. The quartering was an anticlimactic chopping the headless corpse into four pieces, The pieces and the head were then parboiled, put on stakes and displayed in various places around the city as proof that treason does not pay. That would have been the birds’ favorite part. The people were most fond of the disemboweling, apparently, as that is when the victim would howl most vividly.

This didn’t happen often. High treason was a relative rarity, and even when it did, the guilty were often spared the supreme penalty. Simple beheadings were a sign of royal favor. The king liked you, even if you tried to kill him. You had to be some kind of real bastard to be drawn and quartered.

Even then, however, the full sentence could not always be carried out. As often as not, the crowd was cheated when the victim died before decapitation. I think Guy Fawkes managed to leap from the gallows and break his neck. Some one else managed to spit in the Royal Disemboweler’s face who then decapitated him in a fit of piqué. You can imagine the crowd’s disappointment.

Drawing and quartering was not purely part of the English legal tradition. In fact, I imagine a survey of legal systems all over the world would find examples, both judicial and extra-judicial. I know that as far back as twenty-three centuries ago the Chinese meted it out to especially deserving characters. Being practical, the Chinese would dispense with the preliminaries and go straight to the quartering. The limbs were each attached to a chariot or ox cart. I imagine the latter was slower. This is how my hero, Lao Ai, met his end. He was sundered into four parts in one messy moment, and then his grandparents, parents, uncles (and their spouses), siblings (and their spouses), grandchildren and children were all executed by some means or another. Zu zhu, they called it, “family execution”. We know of it as the nine familial exterminations, or execution to the ninth degree. Basically the idea being to annihilate the guilty party’s entire extended family. The fact that his blood aunts were excused is a fluke of Chinese patrilineal kinship. When a woman married she becomes a member of her husband’s family. Which came in handy when a no good nephew managed to get himself convicted of high treason.

Had the ancient Chinese been hip to mitochondrial DNA the aunts would never have been passed up. No matter how thorough your zu zhu, wiping out scores of people for the behavior of one rotten apple, some of that apple’s genes were carried on through those aunts. The family survived, genetically anyway, and the joke was on the emperor. Perhaps some of Lao Ai’s characteristics are hanging about even today.

Actually the simple dismemberment by quarters was refined by one legendary reformer in the third century B.C. He codified into law a five pointed judicial dismemberment that had a horse (or ox) for each limb, plus one for the head. It was so effective it was used on him when  he ran afoul of the bureaucracy and the emperor had him executed. His family was done away with as well, out to the ninth degree. If his mother had any sisters, though, some genes slipped by unnoticed. Who knows what they developed into later. Maybe another troublemaker. We can only hope.

In medieval England, however, there was no such extended familycide coded into law. It might have happened on occasion, but to ninth degree? Unlikely. I can’t see how it would have been managed. Unlike China, where the offspring tended to stay near the family village, in England primogeniture meant that the younger sons had to go far afield to make their fortune. Some might try looting some foreign land, but most would marry daughters who could cough up a hefty dowry. A crazy quilt of family relationships resulted, the nobility all related to each other somehow. Try executing someone to the ninth degree and you could have half of Europe wanting revenge. Best to just draw and quarter the traitor and leave the extended family out of it.

But then our poor Brazilian referee wasn’t somebody, he was just another nobody. Just some kid with a knife refereeing a futbol game. He orders some guy off the field for some egregious foul, the guy says he ain’t going. An argument ensues, then a tussle, out comes the knife, down goes the player. The knife victim’s family and friends pour onto the field, grab the referee, and apparently tie him to a stake, stone him to death, machete and chop off his limbs, then his head, which they mount on the stake as a triumph, I imagine, and a warning to others with knives and perhaps to referees in general. Barbaric but effective. On the other hand, they forfeited the game. Xangô can be cruel, but just.