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Losing face? The symbolism of facial mutilation

22 Nov, 2012
Facial mutilation is a repugnant crime, but its medieval use as a punishment may have had some symbolic significance. Penny Bailey explores a Wellcome Trust-funded project on the history of facial disfigurement as a punishment.
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In August 2010, ‘Time’ magazine’s front cover featured a photograph of a young Afghan woman, Bibi Aisha, whose nose had been hacked from her face by her in-laws as punishment for fleeing her abusive marriage.

The world was appalled. At Swansea university, historian Dr Trish Skinner was struck by references to the ‘medieval’ nature of the act. “It got me wondering whether facial mutilation really was a typically ‘medieval’ act, and how we tend to apply this term to modern cases without really considering what separates us from the Middle Ages.”

With a Wellcome Trust fellowship, she now plans to examine the comparison more closely by looking at punitive facial mutilation in the Middle Ages: what crimes it punished, what theories of government, justice and religion underpinned the penalty, and what the people of the time thought about the practice.

An important strand of the project will explore what medical recourse people had if they were wounded or mutilated. There were two kinds of medieval medic: ‘learned’ physicians, concerned with analysing humoral imbalances and the effects of the elements or seasons on the body as per the classical texts, and surgeons (often barber-surgeons), who did the urgent, bloody, practical work of setting bones and sewing up wounds. Skinner will be exploring the extent of the overlap between the work of these two types of practitioner (which medical history has tended to see as entirely separate).

Empire in the East

The emperors of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire had to look as ‘godlike’ and perfect as the heavenly authority they represented, making facial mutilation an ideal political weapon. In 695, Justinian II’s political opponents cut off his nose, displacing him from the imperial throne for ten years; when returned, he wore a gold prosthesis. And a century later, Empress Irene had her nine-year-old son Constantine blinded so that she wouldn’t have to relinquish power to him.

The choice of mutilation in each case is interesting. While blinding and nose-cutting were both disfiguring, blinding had the additional pragmatic advantage of severely disabling someone, so they couldn’t effectively lead an army or wield a weapon. Why did Justinian’s enemies not blind him and prevent his return to power?

The answer may lie in the deeper symbolic meanings that different body parts had in the Middle Ages. “There was a real sense that the eyes are the window to the soul,” says Skinner. “Lips could be cut or slit for blasphemy, and the nose had very, very strong associations with betrayal in medieval times. I’ve also found later associations between the nose and penis in the literature.”

Justinian’s missing nose may therefore have acted both as a symbol of emasculation and as a warning that he would betray the people’s trust in him if allowed to rule. “Facial mutilation as a punishment wasn’t just about looking awful or disabling someone physically, it meant much more than that. That’s why you have to be very cautious drawing very simple comparisons across time.”

Kingdoms in the West

The Western Roman Empire had disintegrated by the fifth century and barbarian tribes had taken over its former territories, forming Europe’s first kingdoms. The new rulers were determined to assert their royal authority, and nose-cutting and blinding were common, widely recorded penalties for treason – specifically for rebellion against the king.

How did their new subjects respond? With apparent equanimity, on the whole, it seems. “The reports of many chroniclers and clerics of the time are very matter-of-fact. They say things like: ‘So-and-so’s son-in-law challenged him and was blinded.’ That’s the end of the matter.” Whether this means such acts were widely accepted as normal, Skinner has yet to determine.

One writer did express a degree of concern that might resonate with us today. Gregory of Tours, a Frankish bishop living in seventh-century Gaul, chronicled the events he witnessed, including cases of facial mutilation, in ten volumes of early Frankish (Merovingian) history.

“It’s a really intelligent text to read,” says Skinner. “Gregory thinks about what he sees going on, and he lets you know when he thinks things are right or wrong. As a bishop he doesn’t like the tortures and mutilations he witnesses. But he sees it’s justified sometimes.” He appears to condone the penalty when three rebels who attempted to assassinate King Childebert II had their noses cut off and were set free to be ridiculed. “They’re expected to survive and act as an example to deter other people from treason.” Elsewhere, however, Gregory sees facial mutilation as an indication of the ruler’s excessive cruelty, condemning King Chilperic for ordering all ‘criminals’, regardless of the crime, to have their eyes torn out.

His mixed feelings made him unusual for his time. “Gregory sometimes seems to share our modern horror of facial mutilation, but I’ve yet to find anyone else who is as explicit in their condemnation.”

Crime and punishment

To complicate the issue further, at the same time it was being used as a punishment for treason, facial mutilation also became a punishable crime. To curb the violence endemic in their kingdoms and establish public order, Europe’s new kings turned for help to the Empire they had helped bring down.

“All of these peoples had invaded somewhere that already had a tradition – more or less – of Roman law,” says Skinner. “And one of the things they all seem to think they have to do, if they’re going to look like legitimate kings, is to mirror that tradition and issue written laws, rather than continue their own traditions of tribal courts.”

The first of these early law codes appeared in the Frankish Kingdom in the fifth century – setting out fixed financial penalties for specific misdeeds. “One of the crimes in these law codes that comes up again and again is deliberately injuring somebody else. They go into absolutely amazing detail about which bit of the body it is you’re injuring – face, head, skull, hair, down to literally fingers and toes.” Mirroring our modern notion of justice, the state began to step in and impose a solution, to ‘keep the King’s peace’.

Yet while his subjects could be fined for it, facial mutilation remained a punishment a king could lawfully order for high treason or attempts on his life. This contrast has prompted medieval historians to debate the motivations behind these purportedly ‘anti-violence’ laws. Did they really represent the king’s view of justice? Or were they simply an assertion of power?

An eye for an eye

The tensions inherent in medieval notions of crime and punishment, justice and law, echo across the centuries to today. In Afghanistan, Bibi Aisha’s in-laws argued that, in the tradition of their Pashtun tribe, a dishonoured husband was said to have ‘lost his nose’. Her punishment in kind was therefore a ‘just’ one, endorsed by tradition and tribal ‘law’.

But the state intervened – as it did in medieval times to stop people taking the law into their own hands – and the punishment became a crime. Bibi’s father-in-law was arrested, and the provincial police chief made a statement to the global media, declaring the act to be “against Afghan-ism, against Afghan and sharia laws”, and spoke of bringing the perpetrator “to justice”.

What that justice would involve remains to be seen. Sharia law sanctions eye-for-an-eye retributive justice – ‘qesas’ – for intentional injury or murder (qesas can’t be used to punish other crimes, including unintentional bodily harm). A prominent example is the case of Majid Movahedi, who in 2009 was sentenced by an Iranian court to be blinded in both eyes for throwing acid in the face of a woman who rejected him. (His victim was to carry out the sentence herself, dropping five drops of sulphuric acid into each of his eyes – but she pardoned him at the last minute.)

If ordered by a sharia court, the blinding of Movahedi or cutting off the nose of Bibi’s father-in-law would – by definition – be legal. But that wouldn’t settle the question of whether it would be just. Is it right to cut off someone’s nose for having done so to someone else – or to blind someone with acid for having thrown acid in someone else’s face?

On some gut level, the punishment does seem to fit the crime, and it’s understandable that a victim might feel that no other penalty could really be adequate. On the other hand, it’s hard to feel entirely easy about the idea of judicial mutilation, whatever the crime. Movahedi’s sentence, when first announced, was condemned by media and human rights organisations around the world as ‘barbaric’ and ‘medieval’.

The latter comparison isn’t entirely accurate: punitive blinding and nose-cutting in the Middle Ages seem to have been a less precise match between crime and punishment, normally used for treason. It may be, however, that the symbolic meanings of body parts in the Middle Ages imbued such punishments with a sense of inherent legitimacy. Skinner’s research will shed further light on how notions of crime and justice underpinning facial mutilation have evolved or persisted over the centuries.

This feature also appears in issue 72 of Wellcome News

Image: A barber having cut a customer’s nose off, 1895. Credit: Wellcome Library.

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