07 June 2012

Hanged, Drawn and Quartered

Time was when those who used the English language, including us Filipinos, were so much more colourful in the way they expressed themselves. For instance, not too long ago, if you were guilty of having done something unpleasant, the recipient of your action may threaten you idiomatically with the expression “I will have you hanged, drawn and quartered!”

Let us digress for a while to the concluding moments of the 1995 box office hit “Braveheart” – which I will simply assume you had the good sense to watch even on DVD – and the various facial contortions that Mel Gibson as William Wallace was doing in front of the camera. No, he was not having an Immodium moment.

Instead, with those facial expressions Gibson attempted to convey the pain of somebody who was being hung, drawn and quartered.

If you were paying attention to the movie’s plot, then you will recall that Wallace, a Scottish rebel, was hunted down by the English on the grounds of treason. Fancy word, treason!

Remember that the setting of the movie was during medieval Europe, when the prevailing mode of government across the continent was the absolute monarchy. This form of government was one for which all functions of governance – executive, legislative and judiciary – resided on and were exercised only by one person: the king.

To simplify, whatever the king said was law; and everyone else had no recourse but to follow.

This is not to say that medieval kings were infallible. On the contrary, the strength or weakness of a king was based on a web of loyalties that he and those who supported him were capable of enforcing throughout the realm.

Since loyalty to the king was what kept him in power in the first place, it goes without saying that treason – or disloyalty to the king – was regarded as the highest of all crimes. He who was accused of treason was thus called a traitor.

From the 14th to the 18th century, the punishment for treason was particularly severe; and for obvious reasons.

First, the traitor was hung from a scaffold. This explains the word ‘hanged’ in the expression. Before he completely asphyxiated and died, however, the rope which hung from the scaffold was cut, allowing the traitor to breathe again.

Do not think for one moment that his troubles were over. On the contrary, they were just beginning. In fact, his respite was only momentary. A rope was quickly tied around his body and he was drawn by a horse to another place where the more severe punishment awaited him.

In the movie, this was when Gibson was making all those facial contortions. The next part of the traitor’s punishment was the removal of his genitals along with the drawing of his intestines while he was still alive. In contrast, an Immodium moment would have felt like utter ecstasy!

There is an unresolved debate about whether the ‘drawn’ part of the expression pertains to the traitor being drawn by the horse or the act of his intestines being drawn out of his torso.

To put the traitor out of his misery, he was then beheaded. In all honesty, the beheading must have been the kindest part of the ritual.

The limbs were then cut off; and the upper body was cut into four parts. This explains the final part of the expression: ‘quartered.’ As deterrence to other would-be traitors, the quartered parts of the body were spiked onto the ends of poles and displayed in parts of the country where there was unrest.

The punishment for female traitors was so much simpler. They were either beheaded or burned at the stake.

As a modern day expression, “hanged, drawn and quartered” means to deal with severely. For instance, a mother may warn her son after giving him his week’s allowance not to spend everything on the first day or she will have him hanged, drawn and quartered.

These days, of course, people tend to be so much less eloquent. They are just as wont to say, “Hell, I’m gonna give you shit!”

Means the same thing...

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