But the oddest journal article I have ever read is “Losing Face, Saving Face: Noses and Honour in the Late Medieval Town.” Here the historian Valentin Groebner documents dozens of accounts from medieval Europe in which one person cut off the nose of another. Sometimes it was an official punishment for heresy, treason, prostitution, or sodomy, but more often it was an act of private vengeance. In one case in Nuremberg in 1520, Hanns Rigel had an affair with the wife of Hanns von Eyb. A jealous von Eyb cut off the nose of Rigel’s innocent wife, a supreme injustice multiplied by the fact that Rigel was sentenced to four weeks of imprisonment for adultery while von Eyb walked away scot-free. These mutilations were so common that, according to Groebner, the authors of late-medieval surgical textbooks also devote particular attention to nasal injuries, discussing whether a nose once cut off can grow back, a controversial question that the French royal physician Henri de Mondeville answered in his famous Chirurgia with a categorical “No.” Other fifteenth-century medical authorities were more optimistic: Heinrich von Pforspundt’s 1460 pharmacoepia promised, among other things, a prescription for “making a new nose” for those who had lost theirs.

The practice was the source of our strange idiom to cut off your nose to spite your face. In late medieval times, cutting off someone’s nose was the prototypical act of spite. Like other scholars who have peered into medieval life, Elias was taken aback by accounts of the temperament of medieval people, who by our lights seem impetuous, uninhibited, almost childlike: Not that people were always going around with fierce looks, drawn brows and martial countenances…. On the contrary, a moment ago they were joking, now they mock each other, one word leads to another, and suddenly from the midst of laughter they find themselves in the fiercest feud. Much of what appears contradictory to us—the intensity of their piety, the violence of their fear of hell, their guilt feelings, their penitence, the immense outbursts of joy and gaiety, the sudden flaring and the uncontrollable force of their hatred and belligerence—all these, like the rapid changes of mood, are in reality symptoms of one and the same structuring of the emotional life. The drives, the emotions were vented more freely, more directly, more openly than later. It is only to us, in whom everything is more subdued, moderate, and calculated, and in whom social taboos are built much more deeply into the fabric of our drive-economy as self-restraints, that the unveiled intensity of this piety, belligerence, or cruelty appears to be contradictory.