Saint Aebbe Cut Off Her Nose to Spite Her Face
If you’ve ever heard the saying “cut off your nose to spite your face,” have you ever wondered where it came from? Legend has it that Saint Aebbe, also known as Saint Ebba or Æbbe the Younger, was a pious woman who disfigured her face to protect her chastity from invading Vikings in the 9th century, giving birth to this famous saying in the process.
This bizarre English idiom is still in use even today, though its modern-day meaning has different connotations to the original. These days it is used to describe a self-destructive act or overreaction, usually motivated by anger or revenge, and whose ultimate consequence is to do more harm to oneself rather than the offending party.
Apparently, a group of Vikings, led by children of Ragnar Lothbrok , arrived on the shores of Scotland around 870, and ended up burning and sacking Coldingham. When Aebbe the Younger, the Abbess of Coldingham Priory on the southeast coast of Scotland, discovered they had arrived, she cut off her own nose in a desperate bid to avoid being raped by the invaders.
She was also said to have convinced the other nuns to cut off their noses. The sight encountered by the Vikings must have been truly hideous. Nevertheless, while they escaped forcible violation, their actions still irked their assailants who continued to burn down the convent. The nuns were killed in the flames. Their purity had been preserved but they ultimately came to an untimely demise. In some accounts, the day of their martyrdom is given as the 23rd of August.
A sixteenth-century depiction of Aebbe the Younger, a saint supposedly martyred by invading Vikings around 870. ( Public domain )
These events were first recorded in Chronica Majora by the Benedictine monk Matthew Paris (circa 1200 to 1259), written over 300 years after the events actually took place. They also made an appearance within the Flores Historiarum , though it has remained impossible to prove, or disprove, these accounts for lack of archival evidence. It’s also impossible to know if this was truly the origin of the saying.
While it sounds like a truly horrific turn of events, nose mutilation was actually a pretty common form of punishment and torture throughout ancient world. Known as a rhinectomy, the removal of the nose was a type of corporal punishment in ancient Egypt, whereby the noses of certain criminals were cut off as a permanent sign of their crimes and they were then banished to Rhinocolura. There are also accounts from the Persian Empire, ancient Greece, medieval Europe and pre-Columbian America.
According to Plutarch’s De Exilio , King Lysimachus of Thrace cut off the nose and ears of a subject who insulted his wife. He also gouged out his eyes to ensure the message was received loud and clear. Heracles in Thebes was given the nickname Rhinokoloustes, meaning “the nose-docker,” since he reportedly had the noses removed of all messengers sent by Orchomenos to demand tribute. Even the Old Testament recommended rhinectomies in the case of prostitution.
Top image: The saying “to cut off your nose to spite your face” is said to have its origins in the actions of Saint Aebbe and the marauding Vikings. Source: LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS / Adobe Stock
By Cecilia Bogaard