Saving Face? Masculine Prowess and Facial Wounds in Medieval Christendom

By Fiona Knight (@fionalillian_)

Sarah Covington writes that the wound of a soldier is not only an ‘embodied record of warmaking’, enshrining the conflict in memory, but also a locus of the soldier’s identity, representing ‘heroism, personal shame, or public burden’.[1] Facial wounds have a unique status in this regard, especially in relation to masculinity – they can affirm it, but also undermine it. Popular culture is replete with representations of both heroes and villains bearing facial disfigurements – take Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, or Rami Malek’s Safin from the latest Bond film. Even public figures like Israel’s General Moshe Dayan, best known for his victory in the 1967 Six Day War, were made more ‘iconic’ by their wounds. Dayan’s black eyepatch has marked him out as distinctive and distinguished, even setting him apart from other military personnel. When appearing alongside General Westmoreland in press shots of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, he is marked out against both his contemporaries and his surroundings.

Medieval Christendom has many facets which make it an interesting context in which to ponder these questions. Whilst it would be reductive to characterize the entire society as any more martial than our own, we shouldn’t underestimate the maiming capabilities of medieval weaponry. Even ‘lighter’ weaponry like arrows had huge potential for damage.

Further to this, the fabric of religion at this time infused wounds with greater meaning -sSee the overall preoccupation with the wounds of Christ, as well as of martyrs like St Sebastian. Indeed, there is no medieval Latin word for ‘disfigurement’ at all – medieval writers used specifics to describe the wound and the manner in which it was created, or else the complete final result; one could have a vultus deformatus, or ‘deformed face’.[2] In early medieval law, injuring another so as to result in a facial wound carried special, more extreme, legal penalties, alluding to the severe consequences bearing these wounds would have. These penalties show that facial wounds were a particular hindrance to men, and carried stigma. This makes sense when we also consider the ‘open reciprocity of masculine violence in early medieval European society’, as Pat Skinner puts it – facial wounds were physical evidence of failure to defend oneself.

The story of Prince Hal, the son of Henry IV of England and himself the future Henry V, might, on the surface, represent a change in the masculine status of facial wounds. The Battle of Shrewsbury, in 1403, saw the Lancastrian king Henry IV successfully defend himself against internal rebellion, led by Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy. This story, then, is one where a facial wound is proof of success, rather than proof of failure to defend oneself. Injured in the face by an arrow with a bodkin tip, Prince Henry’s wound was over six inches deep. The extraction of the arrowhead by surgeon John Bradmore was one of the most famous surgical interventions in later medieval England.[3]  Later poems extolling Henry’s virtues as king even went so far as to call the injury ‘this marke of his manhood, with the ouerthrow of Hotspur in that bloody conflict, were hopefull signes of his following success…’[4] Mythologising poems in this genre followed the general template set by the Chronica Maiora: they describe Henry being struck but, bolstered by his youthful strength and not wanting to harm morale, continuing to fight until the Welsh were vanquished.[5]

For basketball fans reading this, you might be reminded of Michael Jordan’s infamous 1997 ‘flu game’, where, despite illness, he managed to score 38 points and win – cementing his stalwart reputation in the process. Whilst this analogy is far from perfect – the Utah Jazz were not firing longbows – the point is the durability of these symbols of prowess. The competitive ‘masculine’ compulsion to continue for the good of your teammates is one that is culturally significant enough that it overrides the ‘less masculine’ succumbence to illness or injury.  

Image: King Henry V, by Unknown artist, oil on panel, late 16th or early 17th century, NPG 545. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.


[1] Covington, Sarah. “Teaching the Wounded Body: Mutilation and Meaning in Western War and Religion.” Transformations (Wayne, N.J.) 19, no. 2 (2008): 14-31. p.17

[2] Skinner, Patricia. “‘Better off Dead than Disfigured?’ The Challenges of Facial Injury in the Pre-Modern Past.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 26 (2016), p. 30

[3]  S.J. Lang, “John Bradmore and His Book Philomena,” Social History of Medicine 5 (1992): 128–30. Interestingly, this case was also used as an opportunity for Bradmore to secure his own masculine reputation as a surgeon, which he did successfully – this case, written up in his Philomena, was translated and replicated in vernacular English to wide acclaim.

[4] John Speed, The History of Great Britaine (London: William Hall and John Beale, 1611)

[5] Arner, Timothy D. “The Disappearing Scar of Henry V.” The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 49, no. 2 (2019), p. 350

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