- ResponseThe Constancy of Cruelty and Power
I’d like to thank the Forum contributors for their careful and constructive remarks. Given the reservations expressed by them, it would be entirely legitimate to ask why the Journal of Women’s History would allow such a piece to see the light of day. Susan Stuard rejects the contention that nasal mutilation has a constant, underlying meaning across time, suggesting that disfigured faces were more commonplace in medieval society and thus less shocking; Bonnie Effros criticizes the use of “random examples cherry-picked from a distant era”—in fact they are anything but; whilst Lora Wildenthal is concerned that a focus on nose-cutting as “emblematic of wider suffering” masks or even detracts from the wider issue of violence against women. I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify and respond to these issues in turn.
At the heart of the unease appears to be my juxtaposition of medieval and modern, public punishment and private vengeance. The core thread linking these, I argue, is a practice which—whether targeted at a male or female victim—is tied to the timeless theme of the defense or performance of male honor through the subjection of other males and of women, and the expression of this through removal or mutilation of the most visible and central facial feature. The historian Jürgen Frembgen’s 2006 article on modern cases of mutilation in Pakistan makes this link clear.1 Crucially, Frembgen states that such mutilation, when carried out on a woman, is most often “considered to be an individual decision and a domestic affair,” neatly sidestepping the issue of what is and is not “legitimate” behavior, a dichotomy that causes Wildenthal concern, and leads Stuard to raise the question of whether public and private mutilations were so qualitatively different as to resist comparison. Nevertheless, Frembgen reaches a similar conclusion on the purpose of the punishment: in mutilating his wife or daughter, “a dishonoured man . . . imprints his power on the surface of her body.”2 And it is this issue of power over another’s body that perhaps the article did not bring out fully enough. For the common—and constant—feature behind the threat to mutilate the nose, or its actual execution, whether in medieval Byzantium, England, or Sicily, or modern Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan, is a claim to punish, whether or not that claim is widely accepted. Stuard suggests that on that basis, the Byzantine political mutilations of emperors are a quite different matter, for they damage a figure already in power. How, then, do these cases fit on the continuum of betrayal that I argue underlies [End Page 85] nose-cutting? I believe that the motivation was to reduce the emperor to the same status as those who had been found guilty of treason (such as the iconodule monks) or of heinous sexual crimes (as laid out in the Ecloga), depriving him of all honor and, crucially, any claim to rule. It is no coincidence, I think, that the Byzantine cases cluster in a specific period when the very depiction of the (saintly) human face and body was the subject of such intense and vicious debate, and that nose-cutting later went out of fashion in favor of political blinding, whose symbolism has been effectively analyzed by the historian Geneviève Bührer-Thierry.3
But did nasal mutilation automatically signal shame and humiliation, as the paper argues? Bonnie Effros thinks not, citing the celebration in medieval texts of self-mutilating female saints (of dubious authenticity) and the rather more reliable evidence of the Edix Hill leprosy victim’s careful burial. The progressive disfigurement brought by disease, however, and the “contusions, injuries, and diseases” highlighted by Susan Stuard, are not a fair comparison with the sudden and traumatic loss of a nose at the hands of others. Whilst the Edix Hill burial may (or may not—we have no idea, after all, what sort of life this person led) disprove the idea that lepers were automatically shunned from their community, it does not help in deciphering deliberate mutilation.
The gendering of the practice in early medieval Europe comes under scrutiny as...