Research Stream


Carly Osborn
University of Divinity


Sacrificial Stages: Public Executions in Early Modern Britain

A study of the spectacle of violence in executions: What is the script? Who is playing a role? How do bodies become emotion-laden symbols and metaphors even as they are physically torn apart?

The_Manner_of_Execution_at_Tyburn crop2.jpg

My project involves reading records of public executions to explore the ways in which those executions resemble theatrical spectacles and religious rituals. Such links are important because they are all sites at which communal emotion is focused and catharsised.

I have found that these spectacles draw from longstanding mythical and ritual scripts of imagining the community as a body, and purging it of a physical pollutant. The corporeal metaphor invokes and directs emotion as a bodily process: disgust is felt within the body, towards other bodies, and acted upon with physical violence that obliterates some bodies and exalts others. Flesh and blood are central to both the rhetorical foundation and the grisly action of these conflicts, and collective emotion is both the furious beginning and catharsised end of each execution-performance.

Image: The Manner of Execution at Tyburn", 17th century, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.