Sight and the body in Anglo-Saxon law & society

What was it about eye wounds that so fascinated writers and illustrators in late Anglo-Saxon England? Matthew Firth explores this in the companion blog to his new article ‘Allegories of Sight: Blinding and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England‘.

There are few images in medieval art as well known, or as well debated, as the depiction of Harold II dying with an arrow in his eye at the Battle of Hastings.  As a pictorial representation of a momentous event in English history, the transition from an Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman realm, its fame is justifiable.  Much of the debate surrounding this depiction of Harold’s death revolves around whether this is indeed the way Harold died or if it represents an authorial invention, anachronistic restoration or the preservation of a vernacular tradition.  It is not a debate into which my paper, ‘Allegories of Sight: Blinding and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England’, enters.  Indeed, I studiously avoided the Bayeux Tapestry in my exploration of Anglo-Saxon attitudes to punitive blinding; Harold’s death is only metaphorically punitive, and is extensively hypothesised elsewhere. Yet it was out of a now distant conversation on the iconography of Harold’s death with a fellow student at the University of New England that this paper was born: Why the eye? Was there subtext to an injury to the eye in this cultural milieu? Are there other examples in the late Anglo-Saxon/early Anglo-Norman world?

I should briefly disclaim that my Master’s research focuses on Anglo-Saxon societal attitudes to punitive mutilation, especially as represented in narrative sources. That is a nice neutral summation that tends to garner polite attention. ‘Societal attitudes to punitive blinding’ on the other hand tends to garner mildly shocked looks of bemusement and a disapproving interrogation. This is perhaps because the social mores of a society and time long distant and alien to modern sensibilities can be difficult to access.  The term ‘punitive mutilation’ gels with a popular image of brutality in the medieval world without being confronting, whereas the idea a person being deliberately punished through blinding provides a more palpable and horrific image. Certainly if we were informed on the news tomorrow of a deliberate and malicious blinding in our neighbourhood it would be shocking crime engendering the censure of the community.  Nonetheless, in the course of my research it did not take long to locate examples of blinding in Anglo-Saxon literature, both actual and fictional, being perpetrated from the highest tiers of society.

It is fair to say that all narratives of blinding in Anglo-Saxon society are didactic. Some more directly so than others.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle attributes numerous political blindings to Æthelred II (the Unready) during is tumultuous reign, while the law codes of his successor, Cnut, are the first codes to specify blinding as a legal punishment for recidivist criminals. Such historical blindings are multifaceted in motivation. For Æthelred, blinding deprived rivals of political power while stopping short of the sin of murder, while Cnut’s law codes reflect a theological concern to punish the sinner while preserving their souls that they may repent and receive redemption. In a society in which each person’s worth was defined by their ability to contribute to their community, the punishment of blinding extended beyond the victim.  The victim’s family was burdened by a member that still consumed valuable resources but was now functionally unable to add to those resources, while the mutilated features of the victim were a visual exemplar to the community, warning of the repercussions for criminal behaviour.

In hagiography blinding takes on a different aspect. Here the practice is almost always a narrative trope and almost always serves to demonstrate the power of the saint. This can take many forms (and are frequently rather entertaining). St Kenelm’s treacherous sister attempted to curse the procession translating her brother’s remains and, as she read an imprecatory psalm backwards, her eyes shot out onto the psalter. A man erroneously sentenced to mutilation had his eyes remove and, having lived like this for three months, had them restored by St Swithun.  St Dunstan fled from the shores of England just before King Eadwig’s mother-in-law (and some-time lover) could catch and blind him.  Whether the saint is enacting blindings, healing blindings or avoiding blindings, God’s favour for the saint is on display in their spiritual power. As artefacts of saints’ cults this is certainly one intent of the narratives, yet the duality of the trope cannot be ignored as a didactic motif. Those who do wrong in the eyes of God are blinded by his agents, while the innocent partake in his blessings.  These narrative elements are representative of moral archetypes familiar to an Anglo-Saxon audience and, as such, provide evidence of Anglo-Saxon societal attitudes toward blinding.

I do not believe that blinding was a common punishment in tenth- and eleventh-century England, nor that it was undertaken lightly. Indeed, it is this cultural reticence to the practice that grants blinding in hagiographical narrative its pedagogic impact. But I do believe that it began to gain some acceptance as a practical political and legislative expedient. It is clear that sight was a cherished faculty in Anglo-Saxon England and that blinding was a vehicle in which personal agency could be invested, political power could be diminished, and spiritual power could be augmented.

Read Matthew’s article, ‘Allegories of Sight: Blinding and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England‘, for free by clicking here!

Feature image: The martyrdom of St. Leodegar, Bishop of Autun

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