Nose-splitting, Buttocks-stabbing, Pregnant-belly-kicking, and Other “Ritual” Gendered Violence in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

Pieter Speierenburg is a historian of criminology who describes his own work as being “at the crossroads of history, sociology, anthropology and criminology.” He has an affiliation with the Erasmus University of Rotterdam and has had visiting professorships at Carnegie Mellon and UC Berkeley. In 2008, he published a history of personal violence in Europe, using existing records of crime to trace trends and identify themes from, as his title says, “the Middle Ages to the Present.”

The introduction to the book lays out the general thesis and purpose of the cultural-criminology study:

“Killing always affects the fundamental values of those who participate in and witness the act, thus providing valuable information about culture, social hierarchy, and gender relations. In turn, consideration of broad social change over the long term increases our understanding of the history of killing. Hence, the subject lies at the crossroads of historical scholarship and criminology”

The first part of the book begins with tracing the reports of violence and crimes through a transitioning political and economic landscape from loosely organized fiefdoms, basically, to more organized nation-states. Spierenburg identifies “honor” killings and honor crimes, which are defined by a patriarchal sense of loyalty and masculinity, between men. And he defines a category of “ritual” violence and killing that served social and cultural purposes of establishing different kinds of authority or social status.

In a chapter titled “Patriarchy and its Discontents: Women and the Domestic Sphere,” however, he describes personal violence committed among women. I’d like to catalog those different types of “ritual” violence that were shaped within patriarchy and maintained by women.

Let’s call this historical true crime meets ritual gendered violence, in four movements:

(Note: I have not included page numbers because I consulted an ebook version of Speierenburg’s book, and the page numbering was not static.)

I. Nose-slitting

“Nose-slitting is among the few examples of violence that was both serious and typically female. It was a customary revenge by a married woman against her husband’s lover. Although the chastity of the perpetrator herself, strictly speaking, was not involved, the act nevertheless implied an aggressive defense of her sexual reputation. By marking her rival as an infamous person, the avenger posed as an honest wife. Significantly, she blamed the other woman rather than her adulterous husband. The term “nose-slitting” refers to the median result, as some perpetrators merely caused injury to their victim’s nose, whereas a few managed to cut it off entirely. The victim might be married as well.”

“In 1486, residents of Nuremberg eagerly followed the news about the neighboring town of Schwabach’s coin master, who was having an affair with the wife of a Nuremberg citizen. Although the council forbade the adulterous couple to see one another, they continued to meet publicly in the city. On October 3, the coin master’s wife traveled from Schwabach to Nuremberg, ambushed her rival in an alley, and attacked her with a knife. She did not quite manage to cut off her nose. The council ordered the arrest of the perpetrator, together with her husband. They were released after a short time through the intervention of Schwabach’s margrave. The magistrates told the coin master to stay away from Nuremberg altogether. It is unclear whether he was arrested for adultery or because of his wife’s revenge, but there were certainly instances in which the woman acted with her husband’s connivance.”

“Understandably that happened when he wanted to end or had ended the affair, as in another Nuremberg case in 1506. A citizen who had made his maid pregnant agreed to pay her off with 10 guilders. He asked his wife and a male relative to accompany him for the money’s transfer, but after handing it over they attacked her. While the men held the servant in grip, the wife cut her nose.”

“Most reported cases of nose-slitting are from southern Germany and Switzerland around 1500, but the custom was more widespread both geographically and chronologically. In fifteenth-century Paris, a woman named Jeanne Albiz managed to perform the act on her rival. She ambushed her with a pruning-knife, jumped forward, and cut her nose.8 In early seventeenth-century London, a few women threatened to slit the nose of their husband’s mistress, but actual violence only amounted to a scratch in the face. Significantly, this was called the “whore’s mark.” Nose injury as the characteristic revenge of a cheated wife on her rival also figures in old English ballads.”

“The fact that the custom was so widespread, probably less in actual practice than in representation, suggests that this revenge was acceptable to many women. It also proves that there were exceptions to the code that denied women the right to use violence in order to defend their honor.”

“Finally, it underlines the fact that women’s honor, too, originally was associated with the body. The nose had a highly symbolic value, linked to the sexuality of men and women. With men, the nose stood for their genital member, the size of the one indicating that of the other, while cutting off a man’s nose symbolized castration. For women, a heavily injured nose meant less beauty, and hence a diminished sexual attractiveness.”


II. Buttocks-stabbing 

“The ritual elements that we observe mostly belonged to the repertoire of humiliation. Dutch men preferred buttock-stabbing, suffered by a few male opponents as well, but mostly by women. This degrading treatment crossed the intimate/non-intimate boundary, because lower-class men lavished it on their wives and sweethearts as well as on female acquaintances. As well as being degrading, it certainly wasn’t fatal, since that part of the body contains no vital arteries. Amsterdam court records mention the stabbing of a woman’s buttock on a routine basis, almost always as an additional charge without further information.”  [I think the use of the word “sweethearts” seems very odd here, don’t you?]

“An untypical case of premeditated revenge, however, plainly illustrates the ritual significance of this part of the female body. For undisclosed reasons, two men intruded into a woman’s house and attacked her. While his mate pushed her down, the other man stabbed her twice in the right buttock, twice in the left one and once just above in her back.”


III. Pregnant-belly kicking

“A ritual attack that entailed more dangerous consequences consisted of kicking a pregnant woman in the belly. It was an act of symbolic abortion, but it could easily turn into a real one. Such attacks have been reported for France and England. A Parisian said of a lady he respected that she was not the kind of woman that one kicks in the belly.”


IV. Uncoiffing

“Removing a woman’s cap or headdress involved no serious physical injury, but it was highly significant within the symbolic vocabulary of honor and infamy. “Uncoiffing,” as James Farr terms it, has been reported from all over Europe. The meanings of dishonor for men and women converged in the act. As a male hat stood for prowess and virility, it was shameful for the owner if another man took it. Women’s caps symbolized chastity, so removing them stood for impropriety. The perpetrator was either making a statement to the effect that the victim was already unchaste, or the act was meant to make a respectable woman look unchaste. In either case, the woman’s reputation suffered. Cases in Burgundy usually involved other women as perpetrators. They accompanied the act with verbal abuse or dragged the victim’s headwear through the mud. A married woman, suspected of being a seigneur’s lover, demonstratively put on her bonnet in the street”

Here’s the full book info:

Spierenburg, Pieter. A History of Murder: Personal Violence in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present. United Kingdom: Polity Press, 2008.

You’re welcome.

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