There was both a hierarchy of facial features and of their associated senses.
By Dr. Patricia Skinner
British Historian and Academic
What Is a Face?
What is a face and what is it for? Is it the assembly, in regular order and conforming to an ideal type, of features making up a whole? Does it encompass the whole head or simply the eyes, nose and mouth? And does the face function as more than a facade, instead expressing a deeper sense of personhood and identity epitomized by its mobility, the ability to express emotion and connection through the movement of its subcutaneous muscles and nerves? Humans are programmed to look at faces almost from birth. The face conveys the ability not only to recognize a person, but also to make judgments on whether s/he belongs to a particular community and what clues s/he is giving off through her/his expression as to her/his willingness to be included in social interactions. All this information is encoded within scrutiny of less than a second, looking first at the eyes and then working downwards.1 Experiments in cognitive development have concluded that, despite the need for faces to be differentiated in order to recognize individuals, the face that is too different causes confusion: normal interaction demands that all the frontal features (i.e. eyes, nose and mouth) be present in order that the scrutiny is not interrupted by a hole where there should not be one, or asymmetrical halves of the face.
The elements of the face (including the ears and hair) are worth examining in detail, since the value accorded to each, both monetarily in legal compensation, and metaphysically in terms of their function and potential, reveals both a hierarchy of facial features and of their associated senses. Of these sight was by far the most precious. The eye, after all, was a window or portal to the soul—nothing would be more horrifying, according to Miller, than “to think of poking it out.”2 But the eyes are also expressive—they count as an active element in facial expression, whether through dilation of pupils, opening or closing of eyelids, shedding tears or frowning. Miller again: “Eyes represent us at our most vulnerable and most beautiful…”3 Sight was commonly used as a metaphorical device by medieval clerical writers—the eleventh-century chronicler, Bishop Thietmar of Merseberg (d. 1018), for example, refers twice to physical blindness in association with “inner vision,” and Gerald of Wales (d. 1223) comments that a man who had been blinded by the saint for spending a night in the church with his dogs decided to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, “for he did not wish to allow his spiritual light to be extinguished as his eyes had been.”4 We could multiply examples of this clerical topos.
The nose arguably played more of a role in medieval discourse than has been recognized. At the center of the face, the nose provides a relatively immobile structure, a centering tool for assessments of symmetry, a still part of the face to contrast with the mobility and expressiveness of eyes and mouth. Although the Freudian correlation of the nose with the penis does not contribute much to our understanding of its importance in the Middle Ages, a damaged or cut-off nose clearly had profound effects on the person so injured, as legal sources make clear.5 They are, however, all aesthetic: the potential loss of ability to smell or taste, associated with major damage to the nostrils that funnel aromas up to the olfactory receptors, is never referred to.
The mouth, lips and tongue were all susceptible to disfiguring injuries, and mutilating any or all of its parts could inflict speech impediments or even muteness. The aesthetic qualities surrounding teeth, particularly in legal texts, seem to relate to their presence or absence. Occasionally, authors refer to the drawbacks of having bad teeth; Thietmar, for instance, reports that his deceased colleague had not been able to chew food due to an “infirmity” of his teeth, and had been restricted to drinking for nourishment.6 None, however, seem to comment on the spectacle of rotten teeth. As the authors of a recent study on medievalism in modern film-making comment wryly, “when the actors smile, aesthetic anachronisms shine across the screen in their perfectly straight teeth gleaming with the striking whiteness typical of Hollywood stars but mostly alien to the pre-orthodontic milieus of earlier centuries.”7 Silencing of speech through the mutilation of the tongue, while outwardly invisible, may represent one of the worst disfigurements of all in this orally driven society.8
Extending outwards from the circle formed by the face were the ears. Although less horror seems to have accompanied deafness than blindness, the absence of ears and the consequent potential to impair hearing was noted. However, the ear was also connected, in early medieval medical thought, with the testes: a cut-off ear, the repository of sperm, could represent an ersatz—and much more visible—castration.9 Given the small number of mutilations relating to women overall in the sample collected here, it is hard to determine whether ear-cutting was gender-specific. It is, however, suggestive that the majority of cases I have found have been of men, and that in one instance featuring a man and a woman punished together, only the man was mutilated in this way.10
A missing ear, of course, might be disguised by growing out the hair. This too was freighted with symbolism, and some authors use hair practices to interpret the customs of other peoples. Thietmar reports, for example, that among the “faithless” Liutici, haircut from the top of the head was the sign of peace-making and atonement for disagreeing with others in assembly.11 As Robert Bartlett demonstrated in a classic article, and Paul Dutton has commented more recently, hair (head or facial) was a significant element in elite social identity: its owner’s status was often indicated by its presence, abundance, color, or lack.12 Notker the Stammerer, writing in the latter half of the ninth century, tells a convoluted story about the embarrassment caused by red hair.13 In his Ten Books of History, written in stages during the latter half of the sixth century, Gregory of Tours pro-vides evidence for the importance of long hair to the Merovingian kings of Francia. His account of the first Frankish king Clovis (r. 481–511) sees the new king having his opponent Chararic and Chararic’s son tonsured and made clerics, but “As they were threatening to grow their hair again… he had their heads cut off.” Later on King Theodovald (r. 548–555), is described as withdrawing from the political contest; having “no wish for earthly dominion… with his own hands he cut his hair short.”14 The end of Merovingian rule is famously reported in Einhard’s oft-cited ninth-century report: when King Childeric III was deposed in c.751, “his hair was cut and he was shut up in a monastery.” Dutton argues that the Carolingians deliberately cultivated a short-haired, mustached appear-ance partly to distinguish themselves from the long hair encoded within the honor of their Merovingian predecessors.15 A later example of hair removal in a Byzantine context is reported by the eleventh-century author Amatus of Montecassino; Theodwin, disgraced oppressor of the abbey and exiled when he and his master fled to Constantinople, was shaved of his beard and hair, “a great disgrace amongst the Greeks,” and kept his head covered with an otter’s skin.16
Surface and Depth
The relationship between the surface features of the face and the underlying personality has formed the subject of philosophical enquiries, notably by Giorgio Agamben and François Delaporte, and discussion from a theological standpoint by Stephen Pattison.17 Made up of “active” and “passive” elements, respectively the eyes and mouth and the ears, nose and cheeks, the face “is always suspended on the edge of an abyss,” threatening to open up and reveal “the amorphous background,” according to Agamben.
Agamben’s characterization of what lay beneath the skin reflects an ancient tradition: medieval authors, too, drawing upon the works of earlier Church Fathers, contrasted the possibly deceptive outward beauty of the skin with the inside “understood as a vile jelly, viscous ooze or a storage area for excrement.”18 Luke Demaitre comments that medical practitioners viewed the skin as “at best, a screen onto which internal reality was projected and, at worst, an obstacle veiling the secrets of the body.”19 Thus, puncturing or breaking down the skin risked revealing the true nature of what lay beneath: if “pus, running sores [and] skin lesions… were a regular feature of medieval life,” nevertheless deliberately damaging and breaking open the face could still be seen as an act of cruelty and rash-ness, evoking both pity and disgust.20 What came out of a face naturally, however—blood from a nosebleed, vomit, spit—did not hold such horror provided it was not used to insult another (for example, by vomiting over them or spitting at them).21 A nosebleed is carefully set apart in legal sources as a normal event, somewhat unusually given other blood taboos visible in the same texts. (The postmortem nosebleed of Bishop Syrus of Genoa features as a key event in establishing his cult, according to his later vita.)22 Even before it took on major Eucharistic significance, blood was a substance evoking strong responses. Bettina Bildhauer explains, “The idea that spilt blood cries to heaven comes from Genesis 4:10, which states that Abel’s blood, shed by Cain, cries to God for vengeance.”23 The work of Mary Douglas has been influential on medieval historians interested in exploring the leakiness of the female body (and, in the form of involuntary ejaculation, that of men as well), but the face, with its multiple orifices and delicate surface, perhaps presented the most fragile container of all.24
For Agamben, “the face is at once the irreparable being-exposed of humans and the very opening in which they hide and stay hidden.” It is also “the only location of community,” a communicating entity that is more than simply the sum of its outward expressions (what Agamben terms “visages”) or physical resemblance. In his short, dense essay on the subject, he rejects the commodification of the physical face and its co-option into state systems of control, and instead proposes a metaphysical notion of face based upon language and behavior, the essence of person-hood expressed within—but more tangibly beyond—the facial features. Rosi Braidotti comes to similar conclusions about the body as a whole, stating that it forms “an interface, a threshold, a field of intersection of material and symbolic forces…a surface where multiple codes of power and knowledge are inscribed.”25 The views of both commentators have profound implications for how we might understand disfigurement: physical injury here, by definition, is an injury to the visage or surface, potentially limiting the ability to be expressive or be recognized, rather than to the social being to whom it belongs. But the meanings of such visible injuries, constituted by language, penetrate and are inscribed upon the person, and might also affect the ability and/or choice of that person to remain “being-exposed” or “to hide and stay hidden.” The dividing line—if such exists—between the physical surface and “face” as an expression of social status, might be very fragile. With this thought in mind, let us turn to definitions of “face” as a social phenomenon.
Honor and “Face”
The concept of “face” has, in many studies, been used as a synonym for honor, and applied rather uncritically. Richard Watts defines “face” as a “metaphor for individual qualities and/or abstract entities such as honor, respect, esteem and the self, etc.”26 “Losing face” is often used as a popular shorthand for “honor impugned,” whether or not the physical face is implicated in the process of injury.27 Yet modern anthropological and psychosocial studies have pointed out that there is a clear distinction between honor cultures and face cultures, and this distinction is used to form the basis for analysis of medieval texts here. It is fair to say that after its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, the value of sociological and anthropological research has rather receded from the study of early medieval societies, and some historians write with explicit hostility toward such methodology.28 Certainly there has been something of a backlash against the easy assumptions of some anthropologically informed work published in the 1980s and 1990s, by scholars within and outside the Anglo- and Francophone worlds.29 Yet Max Gluckmann’s seminal work on feud, published in 1955, clearly laid a trail for understanding the reciprocal nature of violence in early medieval society,30 and the essays collected by Peristiany in 1966 have an enduring value for understanding the ritual character of honor in close-knit communities, even for studies contrasting other societies with the Mediterranean region that was its focus.31 As Geoffrey Koziol points out, however, social anthropology has moved on somewhat since these studies and “the subject [of ritual] has become more than a little passé.”32 Here, though, I am less interested in ritual per se and more concerned with how the disfigured face was constituted and understood within the culture of early medieval society, and how it functioned as a marker of Honor culture, according to social anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers, is “the value of a person in his own eyes, but also in the eyes of his society”—and it has to be actively claimed through words and actions.33 Cultures of honor, according to psychologists Angela Leung and Dov Cohen, “tend to originate in ‘lawless’ environments” and consist of “a competitive envi-ronment of rough equals.”34 It is interesting to note that they cite the work of William Ian Miller on feuding in saga Iceland to illustrate their point, and indeed they imply that medieval culture was an honor culture par excellence. In short, participants in an honor culture care about theirs. Using disfigurement as an entry point, I suggest that honor remains a useful category to work with, but that it was not the only way in which social interactions were regulated in early medieval society. Lurking alongside “honor,” it is possible to discern a largely unspoken and unwritten culture of “face.” Some definitions are therefore required.
Honor culture, according to social anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers, is “the value of a person in his own eyes, but also in the eyes of his society”—and it has to be actively claimed through words and actions.33 Cultures of honor, according to psychologists Angela Leung and Dov Cohen, “tend to originate in ‘lawless’ environments” and consist of “a competitive environment of rough equals.”34 It is interesting to note that they cite the work of William Ian Miller on feuding in saga Iceland to illustrate their point, and indeed they imply that medieval culture was an honor culture par excellence. In short, participants in an honor culture care about their own reputation and repeatedly test it—horizontally—against that of their peers.35 Moreover, according to Pitt-Rivers again, “The victor in any competition for honor finds his reputation enhanced by the humiliation of the vanquished.”36 Miller highlights the role of mutilation in this humiliating process—victims were meant to live mutilated and shamed, and there-fore were uncompromisingly hostile to their mutilators, just waiting for an opportunity to return the insult.37
Face culture, on the other hand, still links the individual’s status to the opinion of others but, unlike honor culture, face relies upon knowing one’s place within a relatively rigid hierarchy, and paying due and correct deference to one’s superiors—preserving their face as well as one’s own—while ensuring the same from one’s inferiors.38 The contrast here is obvious: a participant in a face culture has as much (if not more) social capital tied up in ensuring harmonious vertical relationships, prioritizing the face of others in order to maintain one’s own, and sensitive to perceived slights from social inferiors.39 What I find tremendously useful about these distinctions is their clarity—while individuals within each of these cultures might not adhere tightly to the rules, the cultural categories outlined offer historians a way into exploring why violence does, or does not, occur, and what its likely outcomes might be.
Studies of early medieval Western Europe have tended to focus on honor as the means by which social capital was gained and lost.40 Studies of the feud, or early medieval laws, or medieval literary tales, have emphasized reciprocity amongst equals, whether violent or within a gift-giving framework, as the glue underpinning early medieval social relations. A fantastically bloody example of how this pervades literature is the feud-fest that is Raoul of Cambrai, an epic poem of the late-twelfth/early-thirteenth century that sets its story in an earlier period. Raoul is essentially a tale of reciprocity without satisfactory resolution. Indeed, a recent study of the poem has commented that it “fails to ever truly end.”41 During the course of the poem, however, the physical face recurs again and again as a site for attacking honor and punishing betrayal, whether it is Raoul threatening to blind and mutilate the barons who fail to heed his summons (line 850), or hitting Bernier’s head and drawing blood (lines 1535–1540), or threats to “pull out the whiskers” of Guerri the Red (lines 1864, 3991). When Gautier cuts off Bernier’s ear, however, the latter cries “If I don’t avenge myself I’ll never be happy again!” (lines 4832–4).42 In this literary text the message is explicit: you get hurt, you respond in kind.
Case Study: The Celtic World
Yet there were territories—particularly in Celtic Europe—where it seems as if social relations were organized, or at least legislated for, in a more fluid, nuanced way. Focusing on face-related injuries and terminology in the sources from these regions, however, it becomes apparent that the restoration of honor between equals does not adequately explain some of the transactions we can see.
The key material to consider here is medieval Welsh law, in which the payment given in compensation for insult and injury, normally termed sarhaed, was occasionally termed wynebwerth, or “the worth of the face.”43 A variant of this, wynebwarth or “shame of the face,” also occurs in some of the surviving manuscripts. Dafydd Jenkins notes a particular association in the Welsh Law of Women between the use of wynebwerth and offenses relating to sexual misbehavior in marriage, but comments that elsewhere it seems as a term to be earlier than, and interchangeable with sarhaed.44 The complex history of the Welsh laws has of course attracted the attention of generations of scholars, and debate still centers on the vexed question of whether, or how, the surviving, mainly thirteenth-century manuscripts or Books, that claim their origins in the laws of King Hywel in the tenth century, truly reflect the earlier medieval legal situation.45
Here, however, the intention is to explore the idea of “face price” (a con-cept shared, as we shall see, with the legal cultures of other Celtic peoples) and to broaden out into a wider consideration of the physical face as a site of honor and shame in medieval Welsh society.46 By exploring visible facial and head wounds in early Welsh laws and literature, we can see a distinction played out within a medieval society along gendered lines (“gender” here expressing unequal power relations, rather than specifically male-female interactions), and suggest that wynebwerth and sarhaed may not be as inter-changeable as has sometimes been thought. The semantic entanglement between the two terms becomes even less helpful when we consider the relationship between the appearance of the physical face, and how facial injury or difference could impact a person’s social standing or honor. Consider this triad from one of the earliest versions of the law in South Wales, which also appears in similar form from the northern text the Book of Iorwerth:
There are three conspicuous scars on a man: a scar on his face is worth 120d; a scar on the back of his right hand 60d; a scar on the back of his right foot 30d.47
Facial scarring, it is implied, damaged honor more than less visible scars, and attracted a higher compensatory payment. Parallel examples of the damage a scar could do can be found in other legal collections, for example, a payment of twelve shillings for leaving a sunken scar called a sipido in early ninth-century Frisian law,48 or the 16 solidi payable for nose and ear wounds “healing to a scar” in the even earlier, seventh-century edict of the Lombard King Rothari in Italy.49
Now while facial scarring might be read as a badge of bravery in warfare, the assumption in lawcodes was that the victim of interpersonal violence was shamed by his scar. There are many indications in early lawcodes, however, of medical attention being available and paid for by the perpetrator (and one of the three “legal needles” in Welsh law was of course that of the medic to stitch wounds).50 Yet the shame remains: in the early Irish medico-legal code Bretha Déin Chécht, the shame of the public scar is made explicit, as a blemish on the face exposed its victim to public ridicule—hence, the law states, a fine has to be paid for every public assembly the victim has to endure with facial disfigurement.51
Literary tales from Wales and Ireland reinforce this sense of public shame. Although their use as historical sources is debatable,52 they provide some illustrations of how disfigurement and shame intersected in early Irish society. In the Irish mythic tale The Wooing of Étaín, for example, Mider tries to break up a pack of squabbling boys:
a sprig of holly was hurled at him, and it put out one of his eyes. Mider returned to the Macc Óc, his eye in his hand, and said, “…I have been shamed; with this blemish I can neither see the land I have come to nor return to the land I have left.”53
This being a mythical tale, the Macc Óc in fact sees to it that Mider’s eye is healed “without shame or blemish.” The Welsh tales making up the Mabinogion and associated later materials (which reached their written form in the eleventh and twelfth centuries) are full of indicators of face and shame, some, it has been noted by other scholars, very close in language to the legal material.54 In particular, “shame on my/thy/his beard” recurs in both earlier and later tales.55 If a woman wished shame or a blemish on her husband’s beard, she was essentially questioning his masculinity and had to pay a small fine (camlwrw) or suffer a beating on her body.56 Presumably, injury to her head or face would be considered excessive, not to mention make visible what was essentially a domestic matter between spouses. (The beard, it might be noted, features prominently in the nick-names attributed to Arthur’s men in Culhwch and Olwen, and in storylines about its removal/plucking or shaving.)57
Returning to the law, other aspects of facial dignity are visible. In the laws of Hywel as transmitted by the Book of Iorwerth, the king’s door-keeper is charged with ensuring that the chief officers of the court are admitted without stopping them. If he does stop them (and the implication here could be that he does so deliberately or that he does not recognize these prominent individuals), he is charged to pay them wynebwerth.58 A judge’s accuser is liable to pay wynebwerth if he falsely accuses the judge and loses.59 As has already been noted, wynebwerth is also strongly associated with male-female relations. A woman could take her wynebwerth if she left her adulterous husband, or if she was raped.60 A man’s wynebwerth from his wife was among his “unclaimable things,” and vice versa.61
In his legal survey, Thomas Glyn Watkin has noted the payment to the judge for his “loss of face,” but did not elaborate on the meaning of this phrase.62 What strikes me about wynebwerth payments, at least those discussed so far, is that they are indeed about loss of “face,” but not loss of “honor.” That is, far from being similar to sarhaed, wynebwerth seems to have been paid when the social status or position of the two parties was already unequal and then infringed—woman to man, doorkeeper to superior members of the court, petitioner to judge. The people paying were in effect recognizing that they had challenged someone higher up in the social hierarchy, which sounds very close to the idea of damaging their superiors’ “face.” Sarhaed might still be paid between people of unequal status, but it is striking that this is often by the senior party to the junior—hence a husband beating his wife for no reason was liable to pay her sarhaed, according to Iorwerth. But in acting so violently, I wonder whether the loss of honor implied is his, rather than hers?63 I think it is no accident that a woman insulting her husband (as above) pays only a small fine or is beaten—her insult did not constitute sarhaed, as she was not her husband’s social equal. A late version of a legal triad even makes this distinction explicit: “the disgrace of wynebwerth is not as great as sarhaed.”64 Rees Davies has noted that the term wynebwerth does not appear in the court rolls, and suggests that by the fourteenth century it was an archaism.65 My sense of this is that by the fourteenth century, the very specific and hierarchical meanings expressed by wynebwerth payments had been overtaken by (or subsumed within) the hierarchical values of chivalric culture. (The infiltration of romance elements into the later Welsh stories appended to the Mabinogion is another manifestation of this trend.)
To summarize then, sarhaed seems to have been a payment by social equals or superiors, and might buy back honor after a dishonorable act by the giver, as well as compensate the recipient. It was also a very public payment, and thought to concern more serious injuries (physical or social). Wynebwerth, by contrast, seems to have been a payment by social inferiors to their superiors to restore the latter’s “face,” did not reflect any honor onto the person paying, and was considered less serious, perhaps because of the lower status of that person. Essentially, the actions of a social inferior were being marked as less damaging to the recipient of wynebwerth; the challenge had to be compensated for, but it was not the same as a loss of honor between equals. The co-existence of these two, imperfectly defined payment systems, exposed by looking at real, physical faces and their conspicuous scars, suggests that medieval Welsh society had two strands of personal status running parallel to each other, “face” and “honor,” and they were not the same.
If I am correct about the distinction between sarhaed and wynebwerth, then it would follow that we need to look carefully at evidence from other regions for similar labeling practices. In Ireland, the compensation for injury was termed log n’enech (literally: “the price of the nose”).66 Wendy Davies’s study of Breton society reflects this when she reports on the settlement of a case in which “face was saved” between the abbot of Redon and his defaulting tenants.67 Sarah Sheehan points up the “facedness” of terminology in old Irish for the gaining and loss of honor: enech for face/honor, but also words for physical blemishes and blots conveying a metaphorical injury as well: ainim and on. She emphasizes the role of mutilation and insult, totally humiliating the opponent in order to win honor among equals, in her analysis of the early Irish tale of the carving of Mac Dathò’s pig.68 Thomas Charles-Edwards states that, in Welsh and Irish society at least, we are dealing with honor “which must be publicly declared.” He goes on, however, to distinguish “honor” from “status,” the “hierarchy of social ranks,” and discusses the very fine gradations of language and behavior required to preserve status—for which read “face”—in these communities. In essence, therefore, he is acknowledging the difference that can be picked up between horizontal and vertical relationships within these communities.69
Was Celtic society exceptional in this respect? Here the focus is on broadening geographically. It is worth noting, of course, that the Celtic regions were by no means isolated from the rest of Europe, and ideas, as well as goods, percolated along trade routes extending as far as Francia, northern Spain and Italy.70 Physical attacks leaving visible scars were dishonoring and required recompense. As will become apparent, however, legal materials from England and continental Europe do not appear to have differently named categories of compensation, nor do they utilize face-related terminology to name compensation payments. The difference between “honor” and “face” in these medieval societies may still be visible, however, if we focus again on unequal relationships, but this time explore the indirect effect of mutilation as a shaming practice. In Ireland, an insult to a wife was also an insult to her husband, as “the value of her face was dependent upon the value of his.”71 What happens if we extend the idea of dependence further, and explore other parts of Europe?
Modeling “Face” as an Element of Elite Male Authority
Christian authors in Medieval Europe had a clear idea of the social grada-tions of early medieval society, and one commonplace in texts describing the qualities of good lords and kings is that they offered protection to their dependents, especially the weak and vulnerable. How, though, did a good lord avenge injuries done to his subjects? Leaving aside the issuing of laws, we can see some hints in narrative sources. Notker suggests, in his portrait of the Carolingian King Louis the Pious (d. 840), that Louis appointed a man to stand in for him when justice had to be meted out on those injuring the poor. This justice, Notker says, consisted of “retaliation in kind for injuries and wounds received (iniuriarium vel lesionum taliones), and in more serious cases the cutting-off of limbs, decapitation and the public display of those executed.”72 The problems with this account are legion—by suggesting active and violent retribution for “injuries and wounds received,” Notker elides completely the existing framework of laws in Francia that prescribed compensatory payments precisely to avoid retaliation (and, by inference, escalation of the violence). The image of Louis (or at least his representative) as an avenging warrior for his people is an interesting counterpoint to his reputation for piety, but in writing him this way Notker allows the image to trump the realities of Louis’ relative impotence when faced with violent acts (not least from his own family).
To develop the theme of the ruler’s “face” further, we can turn to a passage from Adam of Bremen’s History of the Church of Hamburg/Bremen, completed in the 1070s but relating to an earlier episode. Referring to pirate attacks on the Saxon coast in 994, Adam says that the pirates severed the hands and feet and cut off the noses of their captives and cast them on the land “maimed and half-dead… Among them were some noblemen who lived a long time after, a reproach to the Empire and a pitiful spectacle for all the people [my emphasis].”73 There is an explicit criticism here—notably at a safe chronological remove from the actual events—of an emperor who did not defend his subjects, in particular (but not exclusively) the men who would be expected to make up his court. Adam’s account is late, but we can compare his report with that of Thietmar, who was not only a contemporary witness to the troubles but almost ended up being traded for one of the noble hostages himself. Thietmar’s three uncles, Henry, Udo and Siegfried were directly involved in fighting off the pirates. Udo was killed, but Henry and Siegfried were captured along with Count Adelgar. Thietmar reports that “the news of this quickly spread,” under-lining the severity of the situation.74 Negotiations were opened by Duke Bernhard “who was nearby,” to ransom the hostages, and resources began to be gathered for a payment, but Thietmar is curiously reticent about the emperor’s own contribution to the collection. Eventually, part of the ransom was paid, and several of the hostages were released in exchange for stand-ins (Henry’s son, Adelgar’s uncle and cousin). Since Siegfried did not have any children, Thietmar’s mother nominated first his brother, a monk, and then Thietmar himself to be substituted. In the event, Siegfried managed to escape before Thietmar was handed over. This action led to the pirates coming ashore, stealing all the women’s earrings, and the mutilation and dumping of the remaining hostages, who included Thietmar’s cousin Siegfried, Henry’s son.75
Although the accounts of Thietmar and Adam differ slightly in their presentation of this episode, they share unease about the power of the ruler to prevent such atrocities. The emperor himself was not maimed, but his face was irreparably damaged—one might say mutilated by proxy—by the dishonoring of his men. Context is crucial here, however: the emperor in question was the child Otto III, whose rule from 983 onwards had been contested by Duke Henry of Bavaria, and for whom his mother, Theophanu, and grandmother, Adelaide, ruled successively as regents. (The insecurity of this decade is apparent in the letter-collection of Gerbert of Aurillac, one of Otto III’s supporters and his tutor.) In 994, Otto was approaching his majority, but the weakness of his position is perhaps epitomized by the humiliation of his nobles. Adam’s passage, of course, does not comment directly on this background, but he was surely inspired to reflect on the shortcomings of lords in his writings by the contemporary politics of his own day. Writing in the late eleventh century, he had witnessed the accession of King Henry IV of Germany, also as a minor, and Henry’s subsequent hostile treatment of Adalbert, archbishop of Bremen and Adam’s own patron. The text of Adam’s third book, arguably, tries to save the “face” of his over-reaching ecclesiastical lord.
Can we see this motif of lordly failure elsewhere in the literature? In fact, it is a fairly common occurrence, used to highlight starkly the failure of protectors across time and place. So, for example, the future king of England, Cnut (r. 1016–1035), is famously reported as having mutilated the ears, noses and hands of his English hostages (to be more precise, the hostages sent to his father Sweyn in 1013 “from every shire” in the Danelaw, and from Oxford, Winchester, London and the west country, and placed in Cnut’s charge), before putting them ashore at Sandwich in 1014. While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes no explicit comment, the juxtaposition of this act with King Aethelred’s return to England may not be accidental, symbolizing the latter’s inability to resist the Danish invasions or protect his people.76 Failure to protect also infuses the sixth-century author Jordanes’ report, in his Getica, that the first wife of Huneric the Vandal was sent home to her father, Theodoric the Goth, with her nose and ears cut off, “because of the mere suspicion” that she was plotting to poison her father-in-law, Huneric’s father, King Gaiseric.77
In all of these cases, the shame of the mutilations rebounds upon a third party, but does so, I suggest, in multivalent ways. Two of the attacks, reported in Jordanes and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, involve a present or future king dishonoring a social equal (another king) by harming those whom they are expected to protect (as father and ruler). But all three attacks also have the potential to challenge and harm the “face” of the ruler, in terms of undermining his superior status by calling into question his ability to perform his expected functions as ruler. This is most explicit in the attack by social inferiors (the pirates) upon their betters (the nobles) interpreted by Adam as a disgrace to the emperor, but arguably damaging the “face” of both the emperor and the nobles themselves. In all three cases, however, the vulnerability of the ruler is made explicit without his being touched at all, and in sociological terms this could be described as a “face-threatening act.”78 How can the ruler recover? One way was to manage the report of the incident. For all that she is the victim, Theodoric’s daughter (whose mutilation is explicitly written up by Jordanes as sign of the Vandals’ barbarity) was nevertheless associated in his account with the suspicion of treason. The blame for the incident is thus shifted partly onto her, for having provoked such suspicion. This does not exactly mitigate the insult to Theodoric, but it is arguably less damaging to him than the multiple mutilations of socially important men in the other two accounts. Jordanes, it must be admitted, had no reason to minimize the damage to Theodoric, but if his work does indeed draw from an earlier history by Cassiodorus, then the latter’s position serving the king may be reflected here. The other two examples of weak kingship share a common context of external attack and the inability of the ruler to defend even his own territory (again, there is a contrast with the episode in Jordanes—Theodoric’s daughter was in a foreign land when she was attacked).
A key question at this point is whether and how these three examples are represented—are they barbaric atrocities, something “others” do, or are they all calculated actions within a shared discourse of how to damage the prestige of lords? Guy Halsall addressed this question indirectly in his discussion of the debate about Viking attacks on Europe, arguing that the Viking “atrocities,” written up largely by those on the receiving end of the attacks, were the result of a clash of cultures, and mutual incomprehension, rather than a calculated move by the raiders to destroy Christians or undermine long-accepted models of warfare in England and Francia.79 As a culturally different group, Halsall argues, the Vikings of the ninth century could not be expected to understand or share the expectations of those whom they attacked. Notably, Halsall draws a distinction between these early waves of raids and the later Danish invasions, when physical proximity and conversion changed the game considerably. It is within this later context that Cnut’s action can, indeed, be understood as a deliberate and knowing act.
Intriguingly, the potential for indirect harm also extended to the mutilation of animals, as Andrew Miller has recently pointed out.80 Miller highlights the fact that numerous writers reported on the deliberate disfiguring of Thomas Becket’s animals, and suggests that these highly visible actions were calculated to bring shame upon the archbishop. In Wales the laws attributed to Hywel penalized anyone putting out the eye or cutting the tail of the king’s staghound, another highly visible challenge to royal authority.81 Publicly damaging something owned, however, is a slightly different category—into which we should also place the injuries to slaves and the semi-free visible in the early medieval lawcodes. Unlike the examples just discussed, the mutilation did not directly undermine the relationship between the mutilated and their lords. It did have the potential to sway the opinion of third parties, perhaps, and this may explain why financial compensation was still paid for injury. In an interesting variation on this, a later version of the story of Congal Cáech, the king of Ulster and Tara (r. c. 626–637), incapacitated and disqualified from his position by a bee-sting in the eye, has him demanding (in vain) that the eye of the beekeeper’s son be put out as recompense for the bee’s action.82
It might be objected that we do not need sociological theories of face to explain a common assumption in medieval literature that the ruler was expected to offer protection to his people (female rulers faced a problem here that none quite resolved). Yet the ideal ruler was often extolled as the protector only of those who could not fight and defend themselves—the clergy, women, children, the poor and sick. The dynamic visible in two of the three cases discussed here is somewhat different: the mutilated are men who would be expected to be able to fight, but are placed in an impossible position of vulnerability because their leaders are ineffectual and unable to assist them. Thietmar offers another example: his own nephew, Henry, seized and blinded a “distinguished but over proud soldier (militem egregium set nimis superbum)” of the bishop of Wurzburg “on account of the injuries he had suffered (ob inlatas sibi iniurias).” The bishop’s men reported the incident to the king, who exiled Henry. Again we see an attack on an able-bodied man, damaging to the bishop, but reciprocated this time by the bishop’s lord and thus perhaps revealing the relative weakness of the episcopal position when it came to responding to violent acts.83
If injury to followers can be described as a loss of face for the ruler, do the followers themselves have any role in preserving face, given that this is a hierarchical scheme whereby they would be expected not only to acknowledge and defer to superior status, but to work proactively in its defense? A quasi-hagiographic tale from the chronicle of St Peter’s monastery near Halle in Germany reveals that insult to honor by a social equal could be the pretext to an act of disfigurement enacted by followers to save the face of their lord. The story, dating to the early twelfth century, centers on Conrad, count of Wettin, claiming that Henry, marquis of Meissen, was in fact a changeling of low birth (“the son of a cook”), whose father had arranged his exchange with the cook’s wife. But what started as a verbal injury between “rough equals” also compromised their retinues: Henry “stirred up his supporters to avenge his injury (ut suam iniuriam vindi-carent, omnibus suis fidelibus supplicavit).” Meanwhile one of Conrad’s followers, Heldolf, vowed, in front of the altar of St Peter’s, to prove the truth of this insult or lose the health (sanitas) of his body. Almost immediately he was waylaid by two of Henry’s servants and, unable to get his horse to move and escape them (the supernatural element), suffered mutilation of his eyes, nose, lips, cheeks and ears at their hands, and thus ended up as a permanent reminder that the story was false, his damaged face a testimony to the unwise vow he had made and proof that Henry was not a changeling.84 Picking apart this story—we must remember above all that it appears in a chronicle designed to promote the power of the cult site at St Peter’s—we might suggest that in making the accusation, Conrad put himself and his followers in a difficult position, at risk of retaliation for the insult. Indeed, Henry demanded that his followers take action. Heldolf, looking to save his master’s face by invoking the saint’s help to prove the story, misuses the altar and receives a terrible physical punishment from Henry’s men, who in turn save the face of their lord and restore his reputation.
Heldolf ’s comprehensive mutilation is presented in the source as a just punishment, as well as an indictment of his lord’s unwise challenge to Henry’s reputation. In failing to sustain his claim against one who is proven not to be socially inferior, and in his additional failure to protect his follower, Conrad himself loses honor and face. Arguably, Heldolf ’s own face does not need to be the site of mutilation to get this message home—he could equally well have been struck directly by the saint with a punishment such as muteness or paralysis for his brash boast—but the physical face here is the most visible target for Henry’s followers. And they not only mutilate, but also totally destroy Heldolf ’s features (this is an extreme example by the standards of the texts I have explored). At the beginning of this article we considered the physical face as a composite, expressive and capable of communicating with others actively and passively. Heldolf ’s fate is to lose his ability to “be” Heldolf: now his face communicates a story. The veracity of the tale is less important than the moral lessons to be learnt about respect, for one’s equals, one’s betters and, crucially, for the saint, always at the top of the medieval hierarchy.
It has become apparent that the physical face and the metaphorical one are intimately interconnected in the accounts of dam-age and its recompense. Although the concept of injury is semantically linked to facial features only in the Celtic languages, the potential for social disgrace or humiliation through facial injury reverberates throughout Latin texts as well. The facial features were easy targets, and highly visible once damaged. A damaged face arguably did not bring the same levels of impairment as a serious injury to body or limb (unless the victim’s eyes were attacked) but the social disability associated with the disruption of the facial features was potentially much greater. Materially speaking, facial damage had to be pretty severe before it prevented someone from continuing to work.
Here, though, the class of the victim matters as well. Almost all of the examples we have discussed were of high status: the hostages mutilated by Cnut were clearly chosen and “sent from every shire,” and in order to function effectively as hostages they had to have some recognizable value to those who sent them. Yet, a careful reading of the meanings of honor and face has also revealed that the careful preservation of vertical social ties entailed reciprocal responsibilities: a lord gained face by protecting his subjects, and honor by interacting appropriately with his equals; his subjects shared responsibility in defending and preserving his face through their actions.85 Yet when Henry stirred up his followers to avenge the insult done to him by Conrad, it is notable that they are not simply presented galloping off and attacking Conrad himself. Such violence from social inferiors would not have been appropriate and would have been punished severely, and might in fact have further dishonored Henry, fanning the rumor that he was little better than his servants. Returning to Agamben, the exposed abyss of Heldolf ’s face stood as a symbol for what happened when evil words and deeds were let out in public, and when supernatural aid was sought for an unjust assertion.
See endnotes and bibliography at source.
Chapter 2 (41-66) from Living with Disfigurement in Early Medieval Europe by Patricia Skinner (Palgrave Macmillan, 12.21.2016), published by OAPEN under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.