Allegories of Sight: Blinding and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England

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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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-33
Number of pages33
JournalCerae
Volume3
Publication statusPublished - 2016
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

All articles and reviews published by Ceræ: An Australasian Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies are published under a CC BY-NC-ND license, unless otherwise specified.

Keywords

  • Anglo-Saxon
  • Blinding
  • Hagiography
  • Law
  • Mutilation

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