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Cut off your nose to spite your face

Posted by Graham Cambray on January 22, 2009 at 00:42

In Reply to: Cut off your nose to spite your face posted by David FG on January 21, 2009 at 18:47:

: : : : Has anyone heard of a reference to the Scottish priory at Coldingham, in reference to the origin of "cut off your nose to spite your face"?

: : : All I know is here: //'t see anything about a priory.

: : ----------------------------------------------

: : From:
: : Nunneries and the Anglo-Saxon Royal Houses
: : By Barbara Yorke
: : Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002
: : ISBN 0826460402, 9780826460400

: : "St AEbbe the younger of Coldingham is said to have preserved her virtue in the face of a viking attack by cutting open her nose and lips with a razor, and action which was imitated by her fellow nuns. The ruse was successful in deflecting the vikings from rape, but only encouraged them to burn down the nunnery with its disfigured inmates inside. The fact that an almost identical story was told of Eusabia and her virgins in Mardeilles does nothing to encourage belief in the historical validity of this account ...."

: : So probably just a local story, without much foundation, I'm afraid.

: And runs counter to the meaning of the phrase, which is to do something stupidly selfish which ultimately causes you more hardship than it does anyone else.

: That, as I understand it, is not what the nuns were doing - apocryphally or not.



The wikipedia article on the phrase makes roughly the same point as DFG. See Although the action would seem to have caused AEbbe et al rather more hardship than it did the Vikings! But with something over 1100 years having passed, a shift in meaning might not come as a great surprise.

The incident has also been attributed to a Viking raid at Ely, as well as Coldingham and Marseilles (correct spelling this time). See

But - as far as I am aware, and somebody please prove me wrong - there's nothing concrete to connect this phrase to self-mutilating nuns in the ninth century.