title page of The deceyte of women, to the instruction and ensample of all men yonge and olde, newly corrected (1557?): Aristotle is being ridden like an ass by the courtesan Phyllis.—image: Early Modern Drama Blog
The phrase to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face means to carry out a vengeful action that hurts oneself more than another, usually with the implication that the person who carries out this action knows its likely consequences beforehand.
It was first defined by the English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-91) in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1788 edition):
He cut off his nose to be revenged of his face; said of one who, to be revenged on his neighbour, has materially injured himself.
But the image is found as early as around 1557 in The deceyte of women, to the instruction and ensample of all men yonge and olde, newly corrected:
He that byteth hys nose of, shameth hys fate [misprint for face], and so it is wyth me, for yf I shame my wife: I shame my selfe.
The metaphor had been used in medieval Latin. In Conquestio de dilatione vie Ierosolimitane, composed between 1188 and 1191, Pierre de Blois (Petrus Blesensis in Latin), French diplomat, cleric, theologian and author (born at Blois about 1130 – died about 1212), quoted a proverb:
Proverbium vulgare est : “male ulciscitur dedecus sibi illatum qui amputat nasum suum” (“he who cuts off his nose takes poor revenge for a shame inflicted on him”).
There were similar proverbs in Middle French (i.e. from about 1340 to 1611); for example:
Qui cope son nes, sa face est despechie (He who cuts off his nose, his face is mutilated).
Qui son nes coupe, sa face desenoure (He who cuts off his nose dishonours his face).
Qui son nés cope, sa face enledist (He who cuts off his nose makes his face ugly).