from Tomás Nevinson
I was brought up the old-fashioned way, and could never have dreamed that I would one day be ordered to kill a woman. You don’t touch women, you don’t beat them, you don’t do them any physical harm and you avoid all verbal violence, although in that regard they themselves don’t always hold back. More than that, you protect and respect them and give way to them, shield them and help them if they’re pregnant or with a child in their arms or in a pushchair, you offer them your seat on the bus or in the metro, you even safeguard them when walking down the street, keeping them away from the traffic or from the effluvia that, in the olden days, used to be tossed over balconies, and if a ship founders and seems likely to go under, the lifeboats are for them and their little ones (who belong more to them than to us men), at least the first spaces. When a group of people are about to be shot en masse, the women are sometimes spared and allowed to leave; they are then left without husbands, without fathers, without brothers and even without adolescent let alone grown-up sons, but they are allowed to go on living, mad with grief like tormented ghosts, for whom, nevertheless, the years pass and thus they grow old, chained to the memory of the world they have lost. They are obliged to become the depositories of memory, the only ones left when it seems no one is left, and the only ones who can tell what happened.
Anyway, this is what I was taught as a child, but that was then, and it wasn’t always followed to the letter. Yes, that was then and was applied in theory but not in practice. After all, in 1793, a queen of France was guillotined, and before that, countless women accused of witchcraft were burned to death, as was the soldier Joan of Arc, to give just a couple of well-known examples.
Yes, of course, women have always been killed, but it’s something that goes against the grain and causes great unease, it isn’t clear whether Anne Boleyn was given the privilege of being put to the sword rather than beheaded with a crude, bungling axe, or indeed burned at the stake, because she was a woman or because she was the Queen, or because she was young and beautiful, beautiful according to the tastes of the time and according to reports, although reports are never to be trusted, not even those of eyewitnesses, who see and hear only vaguely, and who are often wrong or else lie. In engravings of her execution she is shown on her knees as if she were praying, her body erect and her head held high; if they had used an axe, she would have had to rest her chin or cheek on the block and adopt a more humiliating, more uncomfortable posture, to have grovelled if you like, and this would also have offered a clearer view of her backside to those who could see it from where they were standing. It’s odd that she should be so concerned about comfort or composure in her final moments in this world, and even about elegance and decorum; of what possible importance could this be to someone who was about to become a corpse and disappear beneath the earth, and in two separate pieces. These depictions also include the swordsman of Calais, as he is called in various accounts, so as to distinguish him from any ordinary executioner – brought over ex profeso because of his great skill and, possibly, at the request of the Queen herself – and he is always shown standing behind her and out of sight, never in front of her, as if it had been agreed and decided that she would be spared having to see the coming blow, the trajectory of the heavy weapon which, nevertheless, advances swiftly and unstoppably, like a whistle once it has left the lips or like a sudden strong gust of wind (in a couple of the images she has her eyes blindfolded, but not in most of them); so that she would not know the precise moment when her head would be cut off with a single clean two-handed blow and fall onto the dais face up or face down or on one side, on the neck or the top of the head – who knows, she certainly would never know; so that the movement would catch her by surprise, if there can be any surprise when the person knows why she has come and why she is kneeling there, without a cloak about her, at eight o’clock in the morning on a still-cold English day in May. She is, of course, kneeling to facilitate the executioner’s task and not call into question his skill: he had been so good as to cross the Channel and offer his help, and he probably wasn’t particularly tall. It seems Anne Boleyn had insisted that one blow with the sword would be enough because she only had a little neck. She must often have put her hands about it as proof.