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

Matthew Firth


The practical necessity of sight to effective participation in Anglo-Saxon life is reflected in the lack of evidence for a prevalent culture of punitive blinding in Anglo-Saxon England.  Contrary to the practices of continental Europe, the sparse records of blindings, legal, political or allegorical, demonstrate a cultural reluctance to use blinding as punitive measure.  Yet late Anglo-Saxon law codes, histories and hagiographies also evidence a growing acceptance of the practical political expedient of blinding as a means to the deprivation of power. Law, history and hagiography each illuminate a different attitude to the practice.  From as early as Edgar’s reign there is evidence for the use of mutilation as a legal means of punishment that preserved the soul for redemption; by Cnut’s reign these laws specified blinding as a punishment for recidivists.  The histories demonstrate blinding as a political tool facilitating the deprivation of a rival’s power, a political tool granted legitimacy through the legal use of blinding.  In contrast, the hagiographies use blindings, attempted blindings and healings as tropes that evidence and bestow the power of God in opposition to political power.  These conflicting narratives demonstrate the conflicted attitude to blinding inherent in a culture that considered sight as a vehicle for power.


Anglo-Saxon; Blinding; Hagiography; Law; Mutilation

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