Mutilation as Cultural Commerce and Criticism: the Transmission, Practice, and Meaning of Castration and Blinding in Medieval Wales

Mutilation as Cultural Commerce and Criticism: the Transmission, Practice, and Meaning of Castration and Blinding in Medieval Wales

By Lizabeth Johnson

Istoria: An Online Graduate History Journal, Vol.1:1 (2008)

Introduction: In 1130, Maredudd ap Bleddyn of Powys had his great nephew Llywelyn’s testicles removed and his eyes gouged out. It is unclear what offense Llywelyn had committed against Maredudd to merit this treatment, but events leading up to Llywelyn’s mutilation suggest that Maredudd feared that Llywelyn would become a threat to his own political power. Removing Llywelyn’s eyes and testicles was an acceptable means, by Maredudd’s standards, of dealing with this threat. Whether Llywelyn survived the double mutilation is also unclear, as he is never again mentioned in the sources. However, it is not a stretch to reason that, if he did survive, he was no longer a threat to his great uncle’s control of Powys. Indeed, from 1130 onward, it was Maredudd ap Bleddyn and his direct descendants who would control the political destiny of Powys.

For those familiar with medieval British history, Maredudd’s mutilation of his great-nephew Llywelyn may not come as a surprise. Medieval chronicles of Norman or English origin often describe the propensity of the Welsh to use violence against their kin. In fact, the amount of violence within Welsh families was one of the things that led medieval chroniclers to label the Welsh as uncivilized and barbarous. However, it should be noted that the form Maredudd’s violence took was unprecedented. Never before had the Welsh chronicles reported the castration and blinding of one Welsh prince by another. To be sure, mutilation had been used in Wales before 1130, but it had most commonly been limited to blinding. Castration was not a type of mutilation that the Welsh had practiced.

Outside of Wales, though, neither blinding nor castration was unusual. Both types of mutilation had been used in the Byzantine Empire and in Western Europe as early as the seventh-century. In both Byzantium and the West, castration and blinding were recognized punishments for various crimes, including treachery, adultery, and bestiality. However, this was not the only use of castration and blinding in these two areas, as it was not uncommon for politically powerful men to inflict one or both types of mutilation upon their political rivals in an attempt to eliminate the threat posed by those rivals. The practical implication of politically motivated blinding is relatively obvious, given that a blind man was not likely to be a threat militarily, particularly in a time and place when political power was largely dependent on mil itary capability. The practical implication of politically motivated castration also seems obvious, in that a castrated man would not be able to sire heirs who might themselves represent political rivals. Beyond such concerns, however, these two types of mutilation had particular, culturally specific meanings in medieval Byzantium and Europe, and it was the cultural meaning of castration and blinding which did far greater damage to the status of the victim than did the simple loss of a body part.

The purpose of the present paper is to compare the use and meaning of castration and blinding in Byzantium and Europe with that in Wales, with a particular focus on the use of mutilation in cases of treachery and political rivalry. Additionally, the paper will examine the transmission of the practice of castration and blinding to Welsh society, a transmission that appears to be intimately connected with the growing presence of Norman nobles in Wales from the late eleventh-century onward. The appearance of the practice of castration in Welsh politics, I argue, reinforced the emerging twelfth-century stereotype ironically created by Anglo-Norman authors, which depicted the Welsh as a barbarous and uncivilized people. The fact that both castration and blinding had long been used by the rulers of early medieval Europe and the Byzantine Empire indicates that the division between civility and barbarism in high medieval Europe was not nearly so clear cut as these Anglo-Norman authors asserted.

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