Disability History Month 2019

This week marks the beginning of Disability History Month, which runs from 22nd November to 22nd December. To celebrate this, the School’s Equality & Diversity Committee has put together a series of six posters, each one dedicated to a historical figure or figures who lived with physical and/or intellectual disabilities or neurodiversity. These will be displayed in and around teaching rooms and staff offices in South Street, St Katherine’s Lodge, and the Arts Building. See if you can spot them all!

We hope that the posters will fire your interest to find out more about the fascinating people they describe, so we’ll also release blog posts here over the course of the month which will set out some further reading related to each case. The first one – on the mutilation of Justinian II – is below.

Disabling an Emperor: The Mutilation of Justinian II

The poorly-struck gold tremissis coin visible on the poster was minted in Constantinople between 705 and 711 CE. The two figures on the reverse, both clutching a cross, are named in Latin [I]USTINIANUS ET TIBER[IUS], identifying the emperor Justinian II and his young son, and co-emperor, Tiberius. Someone however has deliberately damaged the nose of the Justinian figure, clearly an act of dissidence and opposition, but also of artistic correction, for Justinian II had had his nose cut off and his tongue split when deposed in 695. His return to power a decade later was accompanied by great brutality and the intervening emperors were both beheaded. Why did Justinian II lose his nose rather than his head?

Contrary to popular belief, there was no long-standing tradition of nose-cutting – as opposed to the ubiquitous blinding – in Byzantium. The earliest instance involves the punishment of Athalarikos and Theodore magistros, respectively the illegitimate son and nephew of the emperor Heraclius, for plotting to murder the emperor and his sons in 637. Justinian II’s father Constantine IV had mutilated his two brothers, Heraclius and Tiberius, in 681 in the same way. This action may be connected to the prohibition found in Leviticus 21:18 on imperfect men serving as priests and it is striking that all of the figures who suffered this fate down to Justinian II were descended from Heraclius. Nose-cutting therefore may have been a form of permanent, visible disfigurement intended to delegitimise rather than to kill, intimating a remarkable respect for the Heraclian line. The tradition that Justinian II obtained a golden prosthetic appears only in a later eighth-century Italian source which maintains that Justinian II lost his arms and ears as well; this should be treated with caution. 

Suggestion for further reading: Patricia Skinner, ‘The Gendered Nose and its Lack: “Medieval” Nose-Cutting and its Manifestations’, Journal of Women’s History vol. 26 no.1 (2014): 45-67

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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