Mutilation and the Law in Early Medieval Europe and India: A Comparative Study
By Patricia E. Skinner
The Medieval Globe, Volume 2, Number 2, 2016
Introduction: In her survey, Crime and Punishment in Ancient India, Sukla Das highlights the occurrence—in religious texts, literary material, and legal digests—of the use of branding and mutilation of the face and body to punish specific misdemeanors, including theft, the sexual violation of women, female adultery, defamation, and assault. Moreover, mutilation (including blinding of the eyes) might also be prescribed instead of the death penalty for acts of treason, and was considered a lenient alternative to death.
Such penalties, the rhetoric surrounding their use, and the circumstances in which they were prescribed sound very familiar to a historian of early medieval Europe, where the language and targets of such precepts were similar to those set out in the Indian material. Yet drawing a comparison between the two regions, or even suggesting that their similarities constitute a “legal encounter,” is fraught with methodological problems.
First, there is a clear chronological mismatch between the development of the prevailing legal norms of India and Europe; second, neither region can be treated as an undifferentiated whole; third, there is an important qualitative difference between “legal” texts in Europe and India; and finally, even if points of similarity and difference are identified in the texts, these represent not so much a dialogue as a shared recognition that the human body has always been an effective target for coercive and corrective practices.
All of this leads to an inevitable conclusion that the corresponding passages in Hindu and Western European texts should not surprise us at all. Yet the apparent incommensurability of the two regions in the period before 1200 CE has not deterred historians from demanding and attempting comparative work.