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  • Blaming it on the “Barbarians”Alleged Uses of Nose-Cutting Among the Franks
  • Bonnie Effros (bio)

Patricia Skinner’s compassionate reaction to the searing image of Aisha bibi, and her effort to contextualize the violence the young Afghani woman suffered at the hands of family members who amputated her nose and ears, make a compelling case as to why understanding the Middle Ages may be beneficial today. Even during the centuries of the so-called Dark Ages, stereotyped as a period in which barbarians streamed out of the dark forests of northern Europe to defeat the civilized Romans, contemporaries understood nose-cutting to be a severe punishment.1 Knowledge of the mores of a society in which the removal of noses was sanctioned, according to Skinner’s reasoning, may thus provide insight into the unjust punishment of Afghani women. But are the alleged similarities in attitudes toward facial mutilation sufficient to justify our study of the early Middle Ages for this purpose?2

As noted by Skinner, the historian Valentin Groebner has observed that a person without a nose was perceived as a non-person in the late Middle Ages.3 But given the nature of medieval written sources, which exist in limited number and usually foreground elite (and clerical) priorities, can we confidently make such general observations about the values of the period? At least in the case of the early Middle Ages, it seems safe to say that we have too little evidence to reach a definitive conclusion about the gendered implications of a noseless visage. Archaeological evidence, for instance, suggests that deformity, at least the kind caused by illness, might be perceived otherwise. The sixth- and seventh-century cemetery of Edix Hill (Barrington A, Cambridgeshire) proves instructive in demonstrating the potential flaws of assumptions built upon the views of clerical historians. Rather than one response characterizing the mores of an entire epoch, we must imagine that a multiplicity of attitudes existed. In Grave 18B at Edix Hill, for example, a woman who died prematurely in her teens was laid to rest with great forethought and care. As movingly reconstructed by the historian Robin Fleming, the woman had been severely disfigured by leprosy, a disease that had eaten away much of the bone support beneath her nose and upper teeth. Her family (and perhaps also the larger community of which she was a part), nevertheless, outfitted her grave with a bed and a generous assortment of objects.4 Not only did her ailment not preclude survivors from according her funerary rites typically reserved for elites, but she evidently retained a place of honor among them with the most [End Page 74] lavishly equipped burial in the cemetery. Far from a non-person due to the loss of her nose, the anonymous woman, who must have suffered greatly before her demise, received compassionate treatment even in death from her contemporaries.

Let us turn, then, to Skinner’s argument with respect to nose-cutting in the early Middle Ages. Skinner is correct to observe that Frankish law codes dated to the fifth and sixth centuries fined those who amputated noses with heavy monetary penalties.5 Despite the fact that nose-cutting was a crime that required compensatory remuneration, however, Gregory of Tours testifies in his sixth-century Histories that the act was perpetrated on occasion against those accused of committing heinous transgressions, especially if they threatened royal figures.6 Skinner, however, treads on thinner ice when she addresses Gregory’s account of the nuns’ revolt at the monastery of the Holy Cross in Poitiers in Holy Week of 589.7 As recounted in this well-known and detailed narrative, the high-born inmates, allegedly spurred by the devil and their sinful natures, revolted against their new abbess Leubovera.8 The aristocratic nuns, including two royal inmates, justified their uprising by pointing, among other things, to the abbess’s inferior qualifications. 9 In their opinion, she did not exhibit sufficiently ascetic behavior to exercise authority over them, particularly as compared to her predecessor Agnes, who was supported by the house’s devout founder, Queen Radegund (d.587). Riveted by the case, Gregory characterized the nuns as murderous and insolent; he claimed...


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