Allegories of Sight: Blinding and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England
By Matthew Firth
Ceræ: An Australasian Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Vol.3 (2016)
Abstract: The practical necessity of sight to effective participation in Anglo-Saxon life is reflected in the multifaceted depictions of punitive blinding in late Anglo-Saxon literature. As a motif of empowerment or disempowerment, acts of blinding permeate the histories and hagiographies of the eleventh and twelfth centuries and each narrative mode illuminates different societal attitudes to the practice. These narratives reflect a social discomfort and lack of evidence for a prevalent culture of punitive blinding, alongside a growing acceptance in late Anglo-Saxon England of the measure as a practical penalty. As a codified legal punishment, blinding was reserved for recidivist criminals: mutilation punished while preserving the soul for the redemption of repentance. An eleventh-century legal innovation, the histories and chronicles relating events of this period similarly display a growing acceptance of blinding as a practical expedient deprivation of personal political agency. In contrast, the trope of blinding in hagiographical narrative frequently displays a social commentary that opposes these political and legal powers. Blindings, attempted blindings and healings are motifs used to correct the wrongs of temporal agents and bestow God’s favour upon a saint. The conflicting narratives demonstrate the conflicted attitude to blinding inherent in a culture that considered sight as a vehicle for power.
We looked for light, and behold darkness:
brightness, and we have walked in the
dark. We have groped for the wall, and
like the blind we have groped as if we had
no eyes: we have stumbled at noonday as
in darkness, we are in dark places as dead men. (Isaiah 59. 9-10.)
The seventh-century law code of King Æthelberht of Kent ascribes a wergild of fifty shillings for the gouging out of an eye. This penalty is the highest the law code mandates for any instance of mutilation, and is the same as that imposed for the killing of a free man. That a man’s sight and a man’s life are given commensurate value within this early Anglo-Saxon law code demonstrates a cultural association between sight and personal agency in Anglo-Saxon societies. In its genesis, this connection illustrates the practical necessity of sight to effective participation in Anglo-Saxon life.