‘Better off dead than disfigured’? The challenges of facial injury in the premodern past

‘Better off dead than disfigured’? The challenges of facial injury in the premodern past

By Patricia Skinner

Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 26 (2016)

Head of man with arrow in head, 14th century. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Abstract: This paper argues that facial disfigurement has been neglected in the historiography of medieval Europe, and suggests some reasons for this oversight before examining the evidence from legal and narrative texts. One reason for this may be the lack of first-person accounts of being disfigured, preventing historians from accessing the experience of being disfigured. By situating the medieval examples within a wider frame of modern responses to disfigurement, it becomes apparent that whilst medical advances have assisted in restoring the damaged face, social responses to facial difference remain largely negative.

Introduction: When architect Louis Kahn, responsible for some of the most iconic buildings of the mid-twentieth century, especially in the Indian subcontinent, was badly burnt on his face and hands as a child, his father expressed the sentiment that he was ‘better off dead than disfigured’. Kahn’s mother, fortunately for him, took a different view, arguing that Kahn would ‘live and become a great man some day’. As recounted by Kahn’s daughter, this almost hagiographical episode epitomises triumph over adversity, and this early experience is even credited with shaping Kahn’s later practice as an architect. Ravi Kalia attributes Kahn’s later sensitivity to the play of light and shadow in his monumental public buildings to the fact that he would wear a soft hat pulled low to disguise and shade his scarred face from the sun. Both his father’s reaction and Louis’s own attempt at disguise, though, express the strength of feeling that seeing a disfigured face could elicit.

The subject of this paper touches upon some sensitive issues of perceived and actual facial difference. Many of the examples I will be discussing, medieval and modern, are of catastrophic, acquired facial injuries, uncomfortable at best to look at and often portrayed in highly emotive terms by the authors reporting them. Part of the shock in the reports is generated by the circumstances of the acquisition: unlike congenital conditions, or visible birthmarks, or difference in skin colour, a disfigurement acquired through violence or accident is a sudden, often traumatic life change. The real trauma inherent in acquired facial disfigurement arises from its suddenness, the switch from one face to another, rather than a gradual transition. I have not, therefore, foregrounded diseases as causes of acquired disfigurement in this discussion. Leprosy, for example, for all that its more severe, lepromatous form could destroy the facial features, is not a subject for enquiry here, not least because it has formed the subject of numerous, recent studies and continues to attract attention as new archaeological discoveries expand and revise our knowledge of this disease and responses to it in the early and central Middle Ages. The process of adaptation, I suggest, is entirely different.

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