Reading faces: how did late medieval Europeans interpret emotions in faces?

  • Philippa Maddern

DOI: 10.1057/s41280-016-0038-7

Cite this article as:
Maddern, P. Postmedieval (2017) 8: 12. doi:10.1057/s41280-016-0038-7


There were a number of confident guides to the interpretation of facial expressions, complexions, and gestures in late medieval England. Medico-scientific literature posited facial complexion as a sure sign of the humoral (and hence emotional) tendencies of the whole person. Ecclesiastical law courts accepted facial expressions and gestures as decisive indicators of motives of speech and action, and of consent, or otherwise, to marriage. Emotional behaviors connected with the face, such as weeping, were taken to signify true remorse and repentance. Yet alongside these discourses, hints appear that other late medieval writers found the unitary correspondence between face and emotion worryingly unstable. Facial expressions might be assumed; tears might arise from less worthy motives than remorse; behavior might be consciously enacted rather than spontaneously arising from interior emotion. This paper investigates some of the problematics of reading faces raised in late medieval English texts and contemporary visual media.

Three simple questions shape this essay.1 How did medieval people read signs of emotions in faces? What aspects of the face did they observe (or rather, did they record themselves as observing) or represent in images? How trustworthy did they think the various outward signifiers of emotions were as guides to the person’s emotional interiority? I have limited my source material to the era c. 1300–1520, focusing mainly on England, but with reference to the neighboring regions of France, the Netherlands, and western Germany.

These questions were initially inspired by a profound unease about the methods of the well-known psychologist of emotion-recognition, Paul Ekman. Famously, Ekman pioneered the identification of six (later, seven) universally recognized ‘basic’ emotions (happiness/enjoyment, fear, disgust, anger, surprise, and sadness). His research showed that subjects from a variety of cultures (Brazil, the USA, Argentina, Chile, Japan), when shown monochrome photographs of (as far as possible) context-free Caucasian faces expressing these emotions, correctly identified them at rates far exceeding those that could be achieved by random guessing. To obviate any suggestion that even the non-Western subjects were merely identifying emotions they had been already ‘trained’ to recognize through access to Western media such as films, Ekman and his colleagues carefully extended their research to include people from preliterate cultures (the Sadong of Borneo, the Fore of New Guinea) who had had little exposure to Western culture (Ekman and Friesen, 1971, 124–129, esp. 124–125; Ekman, 1971, 207–282). They also carried out some reverse experiments -- that is, confronting Caucasian observers with New Guinean posed facial expressions -- and found that they too were well-understood (Ekman and Friesen, 1971, 124–129). Slightly modified versions of Ekman’s theory continue to be heartily endorsed, even outside the Western psychological research tradition (Huang et al., 2009).2

The universality of basic emotions is not the only theory apparently confirmed by this research. More basic, though often unstated, conclusions underlie the research findings. Ekman’s work concludes that facial expression involuntarily arises from the pre-existing emotional state of the individual; that one expression invariably and truly denotes one emotion only;3 and (most importantly for this paper) that facial expression -- particularly facial muscular expression (smiling, frowning, and so on) -- is the prime guide used by observers to determine the emotions of the observed.

Ekman himself strongly (though implicitly) endorsed the primacy of facial muscular expression in reading emotions in his review of research (including his own) on what he terms the ‘Duchenne smile.’ His argument runs that many scholars criticized the principle of universal, as opposed to culturally distinct, emotion expressions on the grounds that smiles can, in many cultures, signify other emotions than happiness/enjoyment (indeed, they may be used to mask reactions to very unpleasant emotional stimuli). Ekman invalidates this critique by positing that there are many different types of smiles, of which only one -- identified by the nineteenth-century anatomist Duchenne de Bologne -- involves the play of both facial muscles under voluntary control (those that lift the corners of the lips) and involuntary muscular movements around the eyes. Only this smile, according to both Duchenne de Bologne and Ekman, is the true sign of enjoyment, recognized as such worldwide. Other smiles, using only muscles under voluntary control, do not necessarily signify enjoyment, and are consequently not reliably recognized as such (Ekman, Davidson, and Friesen, 1990, 342–353; Ekman, 1992, 36–37). Ekman (and de Bologne) may, of course, be right about the muscular construction of smiles of enjoyment;4 but right or wrong, they assume that it is overwhelmingly the recognition of even subtle muscular changes in facial expression that governs our perceptions of other people’s emotions.

Yet a completely different strand of research on facial display and recognition of emotions has emerged side by side with Ekman’s ‘universalist’ hypothesis, deriving from social psychology and sociology. Researchers in these fields do not deny that facial expressions, under some circumstances (crying when reading a sad book alone, for instance), may be pure symptoms of underlying emotional states; but they point out that facial expressions have many other functions apart from the symptomatic. They may be used, consciously, as ‘interactional signals’ between social actors, and these signals may have little to do with truly expressing underlying emotion. Hess, for example, notes that Japanese people tend to suppress what they see as inappropriate expressions of anger in the presence of relatives or colleagues, or conform to social demands, such as expressing pleasure at a gift, however disappointing. Facial expressions may be used socially to show that we have understood someone else’s emotion, or that we empathize with it (Hess, 2001, 398, 400). This kind of facial communication is necessarily heavily inflected by the social rules and norms of each particular cultural group.

It follows that there may be no one-to-one link between an emotion and a facial expression (happiness and smiling, for instance). In 1995, Fernandez-Dols and Ruiz-Belda studied records of Olympic gold medalists at three stages in the presentation ceremony: waiting to mount the podium; standing on the podium; and singing the national anthem, turned towards the flagpoles. They found that though the medalists reported intense happiness at all three stages, they displayed Duchenne smiles for a significant amount of time only at the second stage of the three (and then only for 48% of the time!). At the first and third stages, their faces showed not only other types of smile, but also a ‘considerable number’ of expressions not normally associated with happiness, including ‘prototypical expressions of sadness and anger.’ The researchers then recruited ten other gold medalists and 32 students, asking them to judge the emotion on video of two medal recipients, one smiling and the other ‘displaying a prototypical expression of sadness’ (tears?). All the participants identified both medal awardees as showing either ‘joy’ [‘alegria’] or ‘peace of mind’ [‘tranquilidad’]. Indeed, seven out of the ten medalists and 20 out of the 32 students thought that the ‘sad’ face denoted the happier winner (Fernandez-Dols and Ruiz-Belda, 1995, 1114, 1116–1117). Clearly, these ‘readers’ of emotional expression were not guided simply by the muscular facial conformation of those they observed.

According to Hess, then, those attempting to decode the emotions of others have a number of sources of information to help them do so, of which facial expression is only one. But what if, as well, different aspects of facial expression of emotion might be employed to help observers ‘read’ emotions in others?

This is exactly the argument I will make, from an examination of a variety of late medieval records. The evidence of such genres as witness depositions in law courts, chronicles, self-narratives, certain artworks, and even miracle stories, suggests that in the late Middle Ages, reading emotions from faces was a much more complex business than Ekman and his colleagues seem to suggest.

Among the bodies of cultural knowledge employed by late-medieval observers to ‘read’ emotions in real or painted faces, was, I believe, a set of exact and well-understood theories as to the relationship between felt emotion and its facial expression, which led late medieval people to identify at least five signs by which emotions might be detected in the face. One of these appears to correspond to Ekman’s ideas of facial-muscle expression, but, to many late-medieval people in the West, this form of sign was perhaps one of the least important and certainly one of the least reliable. In order of their importance and trustworthiness to medieval observers, I would rank these signs as follows:
  1. 1)

    those aspects of the face (mainly, shape or formation and habitual or default coloring) that were taken to be the visible signs of the person’s humoral constitution or their astrologically determined nature;

  2. 2)

    changing facial color;

  3. 3)

    facial gesture (for example, holding the face at certain angles, making movements of the head or face);

  4. 4)

    facial output, such as tears, sweat, or possibly blood;

  5. 5)

    facial expression (using facial muscle to alter the shape or character of the face).

I shall discuss these factors in that order.

Shape and formation of the face and habitual or default coloring

Unsurprisingly, we hear most about the importance of the humorally or astrologically determined color or shape of the face or features in determining an individual’s emotions in the scientific literature of the period. But we should not take this to mean that these theories were accessible to, and known by, only the tiny proportion of highly qualified Latinate scholars in the population. On the contrary, they were present even in the most popular and widely available versions of this genre -- the English translations of encyclopedias such as Bartolomaeus Anglicus’ De Proprietatibus Rerum, for example, or in English-language treatises on such subjects as the influence of the seven planets (Bartolomaeus, 1975; Brown, 1994).

This practice of reading the countenance by its humorally determined shape, formation, or color was thought to be a highly reliable method of determining, not perhaps what an individual was feeling at any one time, but their ‘complexion’ or constitution -- the range of emotions that they might be expected, or able, to feel; or their habitual emotional disposition or mood. Indeed, so highly respected was this method that it alone was dignified by the title of the ‘science’ of physiognomy -- a branch of learning authorized by Aristotle himself. Thus, according to Bartolomaeus Anglicus:

The disposiciouns of the membres of the body tokeneth and bodeth the affecciouns and wil of the soule, as the philosofir seith in principio physiognomie. For the chaunginges of the soule ben ofte ilikned and iknowe by the changinges of the body. (Bartolomaeus, 1975, 1. 193–194, emphasis added)

Certain parts of the face were particularly important; for instance, the forehead, because it ‘is the seete of schame and of worschipe, and that is for he is nyghe the vertue ymaginatif.’ Hence the shape of the forehead was particularly diagnostic of a person’s character and emotional range:

Aristotel seith yif the forehed is to moche, it tokeneth a slogard that drawith to foly; and whan he is meneliche litil, it tokeneth goodnes of vertue. And when he is to highe and as it were rounde withoute, it tokeneth passinge and excesse of colera [the hot dry humour] and of feruour and scharpnes. (Bartolomaeus, 1975, 1. 189)

The habitual or default coloring of the face was likewise a highly reliable sign of emotional constitution. Bartholomaeus follows Constantine the African in noting that, by the color of the cheeks, ‘the complexioun of a man is most iknowe. For yif they ben ful rody imelled with temperat whitnes […] he tokeneth hoot and moist complexioun and temperat’ (Bartolomaeus, 1975, 1. 195). Such a ‘complexion’ would lead to a sanguine, energetic, and optimistic nature. Similarly, pallor without ‘redness’ betokens a superfluity of phlegm, the cold, wet humor, while a brownish or ‘citrin, zolowhe-red’ color betrayed the dominance of the choleric humor. Finally, ‘yif they ben as it were bloo in colour […] he tokeneth exces and superfluyte of drynes and colde.’ The bluish-faced individual was governed by the melancholy humor, leading to a predominant mood of unreasonable fear and depression or, sometimes, irrational anger. As Bartolomaeus described it:

al that hath this passioun [melancholy] withouten cause beth often dredeful and sory […] . And so if men asketh of suche what they drede and wherfore thei beth sory, they haueth none answere. Somme weneth that they schulen dye anon vnresonabliche. Somme dredith enemyte of som oon. Som loueth and desireth deth […] somme falleth into wel euel suspicions withouten recouere, and therfore they hatith and blameth […] hire frendes and somtyme smytith and sleeth hem. (Bartolomaeus, 1975, 1. 161–162)

So deeply embodied were these signs taken to be, that they literally could not lie: there was an inevitable connection between humoral constitution and facial complexion, and the color of the face must therefore truly represent the nature of the soul within. Thus, the fifteenth-century author of a vernacular treatise on the seven planets and their influence on those born under each planet’s sign, confidently asserted that a child born under the sign of the Sun ‘ys swete and fayre maneryd, and he ys goodly and of a hey souerayne wytte, […] He ys full benygn and good.’ What were the outward expressions of this fortunate astrological conformation? ‘These bythe the synnes of the sonne in a mannyse body […] a white face or a clere, and a rody and a mene mowthe, and grete rody lippis’ (Brown, 1994, 17). By contrast, the child of Mars, governed by choler, was known by his

blacke face and a lene and megyr, and a long hodyd noce as a falson, and who-so-euer hathe suche a nose, he ys false be kynde, for that is preuyd long. (Brown, 1994, 17)

Tuesday’s child was thus ‘colerycke, strong and wrethefull, covetyse, a mansleer, a traytor, and ryche.’
In consequence we should ask ourselves whether, if we ignore these ‘signs’ in ‘reading’ late-medieval portraits, we may miss much of the emotional information they were intended to convey? Take, for instance, the sculptured portrait head, possibly of Henry VIII as a child of no more than seven (Figure 1).
Figure 1

Guido Mazzoni, Portrait of Henry VIII (?) when a young boy, c. 1498. Painted and gilded terracotta. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

In terms of simple facial expression, it shows him laughing, apparently in uncomplicated happiness; but the evidence of the white skin, rosy cheeks and the well, but not excessively, rounded forehead might suggest also that the sculptor was aware of humoral and astrological theories both of facial formation and coloring, and hence did his subject the compliment of presuming that he would be of a sanguine and virtuous nature when he grows up. If so, he would infallibly become, as the Seven Planets treatise says, ‘a grete man of honowre’ (Brown, 1994, 17).
Whereas what are we to make of the subject in Jan Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Young Man (Figure 2)? In terms of facial muscle-expression, we would have to say it is singularly inexpressive, which may seem odd granted that its tag ‘Leal Souvenir’ suggests that it was meant to be a love-token, or a representation of a man in love. But what if Van Eyck had in fact typed his subject as a child of Mercury? The Seven Planets treatise dictates that Wednesday’s child would have ‘a clere face, fayre and grete rody lippis and euen toothyde, and blacke eyen, and a strayte nose, not long ne hokyde.’ Apart from the teeth (invisible in this portrait), the description tallies with uncanny exactitude. When the treatise author adds ‘and he louythe women ouermoche,’ the ‘Leal Souvenir’ tag suddenly makes much more sense -- but only to those in the know about this particular cultural understanding of the meanings of facial coloring and conformation (Brown, 1994, 18–19).
Figure 2

Jan Van Eyck, Portrait of a Young Man, ‘Leal Souvenir’, 1432. © The National Gallery, London

Changing facial color

But medieval scholars were not so ideologically driven as to deny that facial color could change. Indeed, they painstakingly elaborated on the fact that these changes signified changing emotional states. As Bartolomaeus Anglicus wrote:

the chekes schewith not onliche the diuersite of complexiouns but also the qualite and affeccioun and wil of herte; for by effecciouns of herte, by sodeyne drede othir ioye, he waxith sodeynliche pale othir red. (Bartolomaeus, 1975, 1. 196, emphasis added)

Changes in facial coloring can also be seen in art works, and were represented in archival sources as being observed, and read by observers as signs of the emotional state of the subject. Take, for example, the case of anger, which is associated in some sources with a sudden reddening of the face. In the marital cause for separation because of domestic violence between Joan and Robert Londesdale, heard in York in 1409–1410, one of the witnesses testified that she had seen Robert ‘strike Joan on the cheeks and eyes, with a burning face’ [‘percussit dictam Johannam super genam & oculum illius cum una face ardenti’] (CP.F.371, 1409–1410). Since to prove domestic violence involved distinguishing corporal punishment delivered judiciously and calmly -- for the improvement of the victim’s behavior -- from violence deriving solely from cruelty or passion, we must assume that whatever the actual color of Robert Londesdale’s face at the time, the witness was trying to convince the courts that Robert had acted purely out of anger, and was not merely exercising his just husbandly authority over his wife. Furthermore, she believed that the ecclesiastical judges would be convinced by this description, recognizing that ‘a burning face’ was an infallible sign of anger.
The ‘burning face’ of wrath can also be seen in late medieval art. King René of Anjou’s Book of Love (Le Cueur d’Amours Espris) has the protagonist, Cuer, visit the Castle of Wrath [Courroux]. The accompanying illustration in the manuscript held in the Austrian National Library shows Courroux, with flushed cheeks on an already orange-based complexion, leaning out of his window to berate and threaten the travelers (King René, 1975, f.25v) (Figure 3).
Figure 3

Livre du Cuer d’Amours Espris. Codex Vind. 2597, fol. 25v, ‘Courroux,’ 15th century. © Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Blushing, however, could also be associated with shame or embarrassment. A late-fifteenth-century ‘Book of Curtasye,’ telling young men (in particular) how to behave at meals, refers to the ‘chaunge’ of countenance that might arise from hearing bawdy or scatological stories told. In this case, the polite young man is warned:

Ne chaunge þou not in face coloure,

For lyghtnes of worde in halle ne boure;

Yf þy vysage chaunge for noOpen image in new window t,

Men say ‘þe trespas þou hase wroOpen image in new windowht.’ (Furnivall, 1868, 187)

On the other hand, turning pale -- when it was not seen as a sign of imminent or recent death -- is associated in both texts and art with sorrow or sudden fright or shock. This type of emotion display was used to good effect by the compiler and translator of the miracle stories of Henry VI, gathered in the 1490s in the course of an attempt to have the dead monarch canonized. The king’s healings had to be of a dramatic and otherwise inexplicable kind, such as raisings from the dead. Death could be attested partly by the emotional reactions of the witnesses and family members. So the compiler, recording the alleged death and miraculous revival of Beatrice, daughter of Ralph Shirley, writes that the child was playing near a wood stack, when ‘a huge trunk’ fell on her, instantly crushing her to death. Her father, alerted by the cries of her playmates, came running, ‘finding her already carried off by so cruel a death, his face grew pale, and his heart was struck by the sharp sting of grief’ [‘cernens infantulam tam immani mortis genere iam defunctam palluit vultu corde que concussus doloris spiculo’]. Here the changing color of the face was clearly meant to be read as an exact and truthful sign of the state of the man’s heart. It is worth noting, too, that the subsequent miracle was achieved partly through the extreme facial signs of sorrow of both parents; as regards to the father, ‘the fountains of his eyes were loosed’ [‘erumpentibus oculorum fontibus’], while the child’s mother (successfully, it is alleged) sought the divine help of God and the Virgin Mary through the intercession of Henry VI, ‘no less by her tears than by her prayers’ [‘non minus lacrimis quam vocibus’] (Grosjean, 1935, 36). In this case, the changing color of the face combines with the tears to witness to the need for the miracle, and as powerful agents in its performance.
Pallor is also associated with prolonged grief-stricken weeping in a Hans Baldung Grien painting of the Mater Dolorosa (Figure 4).
Figure 4

Hans Baldung Grien, detail of Mater Dolorosa, c. 1516. © Budapest Fine Arts Museum, Hungary

Here the artist has literalized the Simeonic prophesy, ‘[a]nd a sword shall pierce your own heart also’ (Luke 2:35), but what are the facial signs associated with this inward agony? True, the mouth is slightly downturned, but far more eye-catching is the facial coloring attributed to the Virgin: her eyes reddened with weeping, the whole face not merely pale, but almost as white as her veil.

Facial gesture

This painting also brings us to the third type of facial sign apparently strongly recognized by late medieval people, both in archival texts and art: facial gesture. How do these broader facial movements -- the ways one gestured with the face, or held the head -- testify to inward emotion?

One particularly prevalent association with mourning and grief is a downward tilt of the head (Figure 4), sometimes with the head resting on the hand. This type of image, though I have not found it attested in the manuscripts, can be seen at all levels of art, from high-quality patronized work such as Grien’s, or the productions of famous fifteenth-century workshops, such as Rogier van der Weyden’s5 to anonymously produced devotional images (Figure 5), to public ecclesiastical sculpture and decoration, such as roof bosses (Figure 6).
Figure 5

Anonymous, Crucifixion, devotional tablet, 15th century, England. Photograph by Philippa Maddern

Figure 6

Anonymous, Death of Herod, roof boss, 15th century, Norwich Cathedral. © Paul Hurst

In some private devotional works, the facial gesture had to take the primary role in conveying grief. Figure 5, for instance, shows a late medieval English ivory devotional tablet depicting the crucifixion. The figures of Mary and John are so small that it was impossible for the artist to impart to them much (if any) facial expression, and the medium precluded any representation of the possible pallor of grief. Yet the figures are clearly those of mourners, with bent heads and hands raised to their faces.

Though often associated with the Virgin and Saint John mourning over Christ, this gesture also occurs in the context of other funerals and deathbeds, including secular ones. In the late fifteenth-century Norwich cathedral roof boss of the death of Herod (Figure 6), for instance, his attendants are shown mourning the passing even of this biblically villainous character. One has the by-now characteristic face on hand pose (and, again, an otherwise inexpressive countenance).

Viewers may have found this facial gesture the easier to interpret because it seems to have had a very long history. A coffin-bearer in one of the twelfth- to thirteenth-century windows of Chartres Cathedral is shown with his head titled sideways, the corners of the mouth downturned (Figure 7).
Figure 7

Anonymous, coffin-bearer, window detail, Chartres Cathedral, c. 12th–13th century, France. © Painton Cowan

The representation of parents grieving over a dead child on one of the fourteenth-century column capitals of the Doge’s Palace in Venice (somewhat stiff and inexpressive to our eyes) nevertheless conveys its message through the mother’s gesture of resting her face on her hand (Figure 8).
Figure 8

Anonymous, parents grieving over dead child, column capital, Doge’s Palace, 14th century, Venice, Italy. Photograph by Philippa Maddern

A second form of facial gesture is fairly well attested both in art and in ecclesiastical court depositions, either in cases of defamation, or in those of marriage vows made under duress. In both cases, thrusting the face forward was alleged to signify clearly threatening behavior deriving from anger. In a defamation case, this could be important in establishing motive and intent, as the plaintiff had to show that the defendant had maliciously intended to defame them. Thus on 15 January 1512, Agnes Kendall of Dartford was charged with defaming one of her neighbors, Elizabeth Anger. One of the witnesses testified that Agnes had not only said to Elizabeth: ‘Thy doughther is a yong hore & thou art an olde harlot’ (which we might take to be sufficient evidence of defamation!); but also that she had done so ‘in an angry spirit, with the face thrust forward’ [‘animo irato et wultu pretenso] (DRb/Pa5, 1512, f. 26d). Presumably this (apparently) infallible sign of Agnes’s anger was taken to prove that the words were uttered with malicious intent.

The phrase vultu pretenso or proterus occurs also in the statements of witnesses intent on proving that a marriage should be annulled because the woman had been justifiably terrified by threats made to her if she did not consent. Again, the intent of the deponents seems to have been to show that the woman had good reason for her fear, because of the uncontrolled anger of those attempting to persuade her to the marriage. Around 1413, in the case of the supposed marriage between Agnes Stowk and Robert Clopton, Thomas Thystylden testified that, at the marriage, Robert Borehed had demanded of Agnes (then only about eleven years old) whether she would take Clopton for her husband, and when she stood silent ‘as if terrified’ [‘quasi perterita’], Borehed

as if with an enraged spirit and with face thrust forward said to her, answer, and tell him that you want to have him for your husband and spouse, and struck her on the side with his hand, and then, the said Agnes, as if compelled by fear, replied in this form, ‘I will have him.’

[quasi animo iracundo & vultu proterus dixit eidem respondeas sibi & dicas ei quod tu vis habere eum in virum & maritum tuum & percussit eam sub latere cum manu & tunc dicta Agnes quasi per metu compulsa respondebit sub hac forma volo habere eum.] (CC X.10.1, 1413, f. 28d)

Similarly, in the 1477 case of a disputed marriage between Alice Townley and Roger Talbot, witnesses swore that Alice had been kidnapped by Roger, and threatened so severely that she dared not refuse the marriage for fear of death. Asked exactly what threats had been made to her, Edmund Richardson testified that he had seen and heard Roger draw his dagger, and ‘vultu proterno dicere [with face thrust forward, say] … Bot if thou consent to be wedded with me I shall stik the with this dagar’ (CP.F.257, 1476–1477, emphasis added). The facial gesture seems here to have been taken by the witness to confirm the depth of Roger’s anger, and the seriousness of the threat.

In almost all the examples so far, I have found no sign that these three facial signifiers of emotion -- humoral complexion, change of color, and facial gesture -- were thought to be at all unreliable or misleading. On the contrary, they seem almost invariably to have been taken to be entirely unambiguous, true reflections of the hearts, minds, and emotional states of the actors. So authoritative were they, indeed, that they could literally determine the outcome of legal cases. In cases of domestic violence, had the woman good reason to fear her husband’s rage? If so, she had good grounds to claim a legal separation. In cases of disputed marriage, was one party justifiably terrified of the angry threats either of her family or her proposed spouse? If so -- if the threatener could be shown, on the basis of his facial gestures, to be really enraged -- then the complainant had good cause for annulment. The only possible exception to the large faith observers placed in these signs might be read in the courtesy book injunctions to young men to control the changing color of their countenances when hearing risqué tales, lest ‘Men say “the trespas thou hase wroght”’ (Furnivall, 1868, 187). Yet even this assumes that the onlookers would correctly read shame or embarrassment in the young man’s facial color-change: they were simply mistaken about the cause of the shame.

Facial output -- blood, sweat, and tears

When we come to facial secretions, however, the matter becomes more difficult. Though such phenomena as bleeding or sweating might involuntarily display the subject’s emotions, weeping was less unambiguous. Tears might be true signifiers of an emotion (though not necessarily just one) but they might also mislead.

Observers seem to have believed that sweat or blood on the face might very reasonably be interpreted as, respectively, signs of high anxiety, or great anguish. The monastic chronicler of the Journal de la Paix D’Arras, apparently writing contemporaneously with the events he describes (1435), recorded that observers of a meeting between Cardinal Beaufort of England and the Duke of Burgundy told him that though they could not overhear the conversation, they saw that the Cardinal ‘became so heated that he sweated great drops’ [‘s’eschauffoit tellement qu’il suoit à grosse gouttes’] (le Taverne, [1451] 1651, 71).6 Though the chronicler disclaims knowledge of the subject of the meeting, Beaufort must have been trying (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to persuade the Duke not to renounce his alliance with England against the French; and the chronicler certainly seems to think that the Cardinal’s sweat accurately conveyed his intense stress and anxiety.

Similarly, late medieval English worshippers were urged, as a devotional exercise, to observe the blood on the face of the crucified Christ, specifically because it was an index of Christ’s suffering, and should move the observer to compassion, pity, remorse, and contrition. So in the poem ‘A Pair of Wings’ by Stephen Hawes, written c. 1500, Christ urges the penitent to focus on all parts of His crucified body:

My swete bloode

On the Roode (my brother

Dide thee good

My face right redde

Mind armes spredde (think none other

My woundes bledde

Beholde thou my side …. (Hawes, 1999, 259)

No one, apparently, doubted that the ‘red’ (here signifying bloodied) face of Christ accurately represented his suffering, emotional as well as physical. Indeed, his agony was sometimes represented as provoking a mixed flow of blood and tears from the onlookers.
But tears themselves, when not produced by Christ, the Blessed Virgin, or a true worshipper, could be seen as very ambiguous signs of emotion, for several reasons. Firstly, late medieval scientists pointed out that some emission of tears from the eyes had purely physical causes, entirely independent of any emotion the subject might feel. Bartolomaeus Anglicus classified these tears as ‘tears without will’ [‘lacrimis inuoluntariis’], and included in that category tears caused by smelling onions, a blow to the eye, a superfluity of either hot or cold humors, or in fact almost any purely physical or constitutional cause (Bartolomaeus, 1975, 1. 362). Secondly, observers in the late Middle Ages were just as aware that tears could signify many different kinds of emotion as are modern theorists (if not more so). Tears of joy were clearly recognized, for instance. The chronicler of Arras records that when the people of Arras knew that peace had been established between the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France:

for the great joy they had in the peace, alliance and confederation, and that the most Christian and most noble blood of France should be reunited together, tears sprang from the eyes of many good and devout people.

[pour la grand’ ioye qu’en eut de la paix, alliance, & confederation; & de ce que le tres Chrestien & tres-noble sang de France estoient ralliez ensemble, furent espandues larmes des yeux de plusieurs bonnes & deuotes personnes.] (le Taverne, [1451] 1651, 100)

But late medieval commentators were concerned to classify further even those tears associated with less happy emotions. Weeping might, of course, signify laudable or allowable emotions such as justified grief for the death of a family or household member. In particular, the growing late medieval tradition of showing the Virgin Mary and other spectators of Christ’s death weeping in sympathy for his agony and sorrow for their loss portrayed two apparently entirely justified emotions (Figures 9 and 10).
Figure 9

Gerard David, detail of mourners (Mary Magdalene, the Virgin, and Saint John) at the Crucifixion of Christ, c. 1515. © GemäldeGalerie, Berlin, Germany

Figure 10

Master of the Stauffenberg Altarpiece, detail of the Virgin of the Pièta, c. 1454–1460. © Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France

In turn, such sorrow was meant to be first imitated by the good devotee, and then used to produce tears signifying yet another pair of emotions: love for Christ and true contrition for the sins of the observer, which had caused Christ’s agony and death.
The problem was, however, to distinguish exactly which emotions might be signified by any particular outburst of weeping. The author of the Wycliffite tract against the performance of Mystery Plays, for instance, noted that proponents of the plays justified them on the grounds that ‘by siche miraclis pleyinge men and wymmen, seinge the passioun of Crist and of hise seintis, ben movyd to compassion and devocion, wepinge bitere teris’ (Davidson, 1981, 39). But such tears, he thought, showed nothing more than easy sympathy, without any true contrition:

the weping that fallith to men and wymen by the sighte of siche miraclis pleyinge, as they ben not principaly for theire oune sinnes ne of theire gode feith withinneforthe, but more of theire sight withouteforth is not alowable byfore god but more reprowable. (Davidson, 1981, 43)

It followed, therefore, that under some circumstances, the nature of the tears involved had to be put under careful scrutiny -- even judicial scrutiny -- to establish whether they truly signified sorrow and repentance. In Durham in 1498, a case arose in the ecclesiastical court concerning a couple (Christopher and Isabella Wright) whose baby had died in a house fire. The parents had to appear before the court to answer to the charge of having caused its death by their negligence or malice. They admitted carelessness, but how were they to prove that they were in fact innocent of any intent to kill their baby? Only by demonstrating true sorrow and contrition (and subsequently undergoing penance). Sorrow and contrition, in turn, had to be made manifest through tears. Sure enough, when the couple first appeared they ‘publically confessed the charges, with tearful faces and inward anguish’ [‘publice se reos confessi fuerant lacrimoso vultu & dolore intrinceco’] (Off.bk., 1487–1498, fol. 119d). It seems that the clerk of the court drew a simple, unilinear connection between outward tears and inward feelings; but was this reading fully believable? Significantly, the scribe added a note of doubt: ‘as it truly appeared’ [‘ut versimiliter apparebat’] (Off.bk., 1487–1498, fol. 119d, emphasis added). To clear up this uncertainty, the couple had to present at a higher ecclesiastical court, to demonstrate their contrition again through tears. There they ‘palam confessatum cum dolore non modico ymmo clamore & lacrimis effucionem’ [‘were openly confessed with no small sorrow, but with outcry and a flood of tears’] (Off.bk., 1487–1498, fol. 119d, emphasis added). On this occasion, the court accepted the couple’s tears as signifying genuine sorrow and repentance, and assigned them the penance that would ultimately allow their reintegration into church and community.

In other ecclesiastical court contexts, the meaning or sincerity of tears was rarely in dispute. In cases where a marriage was contested on the grounds that one or both of the partners did not willingly consent to it, weeping (or appearing with a tearful face -- lacrimibili vultu), generally on the part of girls or women, was accepted as an unambiguous sign of fear and reluctance to marry. Thus, in the 1443 case of Christina, widow of Sir Robert Haryngton, versus Sir Thomas Sayvell, Christina claimed that she had been forced into the marriage, and never truly consented. Accordingly, witnesses on her behalf swore that they had seen her take her vows ‘with a weeping and tearful face’ [‘vultu flebili & lacrimoso’] (CP.F.263, 1443). Similarly in 1345, the Rumford Archdeacon’s Court declared a full annulment of the ‘marriage’ between John de Nevyle and Margaret de la Warde, on the grounds that Margaret was under age at the time of marriage, and never truly consented to it. How was her lack of true consent verified? A servant in Margaret’s household testified that she had been terrorized by threats that if she did not make the marriage, she would be turned out of the house to beg from door to door. The servant said that he ‘often and often and he could not say how often … heard [Margaret] saying and weeping from fear’ [‘sepe & sepius & nescit dicere quociens … audivit [Margaret] dicente ac timore flente’], that she would never consent to the marriage (DL 41/406, 1345). In both these cases -- and others -- the presumed unambiguous connection between tears and the true feeling and intent of the heart was so powerful as to produce solid legal outcomes.7

The final problem late medieval people found with correctly ‘reading’ tearful faces was that, to the extent that emotionally meaningful tears were not, as Bartolomaeus Anglicus wrote, ‘unwilled’ [inuoluntariis] (Bartolomaeus, 1975, 1. 362), they might be ‘willed’ in the wrong ways -- subject to manipulation, and even of concealing the true emotion underlying them. In other words, tears -- especially when shed by women -- could be signs not of true sorrow, compassion, or contrition, but of blatant hypocrisy. A late medieval anti-feminine lyric, for instance, counts as one of the greatest signs of women’s deceptive nature that

they can wepe oft and all is a sleit,

and when they list the teere is in the ey –

Beware! Therefore … . (‘Against Women,’ 1999, 239)

Margery Kempe’s tears -- to herself clear evidence that God had granted her the gift of true contrition and sorrow for her sins -- were, according to her own account, received with the utmost suspicion. Her critics

wend that sche mygth wepyn & leuyn whan sche wold, and therfor many men seyd sche was a fals ypocryte & wept for the world for socowr & for wordly good. (Meech and Allen, 1940, 13)

To sum up: in terms of facial output, such effusions as sweat or blood were treated by late medieval observers as direct and unambiguous signs of underlying emotion, but tears, though they might (if sincerely, rather than hypocritically, uttered) display a range of emotions from joy, through grief, sorrow, compassion, repentance, contrition, and devotion, were much more suspiciously scrutinized, to determine both their exact nature and their sincerity.

Facial expression

The hypocrisy question very appropriately leads to a consideration of the final way in which late medieval people recognized that emotions could be read in the face: through an Ekman-like observation of muscular facial expression. For of all the signs of emotion to be read in the face, this was the one greeted with most suspicion by contemporaries, who were convinced that mere facial expression could be adopted at will to conceal or suppress emotions, and particularly to mislead spectators.

This deep skepticism of facial expression as a true marker of inward emotion was not quite universal. Again, in some ecclesiastical court marital causes, the ‘joyful and happy face’ shown by participants in a marriage was alleged by witnesses, and accepted by the judges, as testifying to the true and willing intent of the parties to marry. Thus, in the annulment case of Alice Hoghton versus Robert Schirburn in 1452, the cleric who performed the marriage ceremony testified that Alice ‘showed a joyful and happy face’ [‘letum et illarem vultum ostendebat’] (CP.F.187. 1451–1452). In Durham in 1490, supporters of the marriage of Richard Laton and Elizabeth Berker deposed that Elizabeth ‘came to the contract with a merry and happy face’ [‘venit ad contractum Jocundo & amicabli vultu’] (Off.bk., 1487–1498, f. 10r).8 What exactly constituted a happy face in these accounts is not clear, though in the absence of any detail about facial coloring, gesture, or output, it very probably did refer to expression. Yet the courts accepted such testimony, and apparently regarded it as just as authoritative in displaying happiness, contentment, and willingness to marry, as accounts of tears were in showing fear and reluctance, or ‘burning’ or out-thrust faces, signifying anger.

But in other contexts, contemporaries were very clear that expression could be put on, or changed to suit an occasion and an audience. Thus Philip de Commynes, reporting in 1477 the reaction of the French King Louis XI to the news that his great enemy, Charles the Bold of Burgundy, had been either killed or captured at the battle of Nancy, wrote that ‘[t]he king at first was so overjoyed at the news that he hardly knew what face to put on [quelle contenance tenir]’ (qtd. in Bryant, 2002, 319). Similarly, a fifteenth-century English chronicler recounts how the guardians of the young heir of the deceased Edward IV, on their way to take the prince to London, were met by the future Richard III:

When they first arrived they were greeted with a particularly cheerful and merry face and, sitting at the duke’s table for dinner they passed the whole time in very pleasant conversation.

[Recepti sunt in primo adventu jocundo nimis atque hilari vultu sedentesque ad coenam in mensa apud ducem omne id temporis gratiosis valde colloquiis transegerunt.] (Pronay and Cox, 1986, 155)

But Richard’s face was clearly hypocritical; the following morning he had the prince’s guardians arrested, and subsequently executed without trial.9 Indeed the ‘putting-on’ of facial expression seems, in these instances, to be a particularly potent index not of true emotion-representation, but of the hypocrisy and turpitude of rulers.


No wonder, then, that some late medieval painting may seem to us extraordinarily inexpressive (in terms of facial muscle-movement) (Figure 11).
Figure 11

Hans Memling, The Man of Sorrows in the Arms of the Virgin (detail), 1475. Oil and gold leaf on wood panel, 27.4 × 19.9 cm. © National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, Felton Bequest

What, for medieval people, displayed the ‘sorrow’ in these faces? It cannot have been the facial expressions of Christ and the Virgin, for there are (virtually) none. Instead, I argue that medieval viewers must have deduced the sorrow and agony of the image from facial coloring (comparatively pale); facial gesture (the heads drooped to the side); and facial output (the tears on the Virgin’s face mirroring the blood running down Christ’s forehead).

A medieval audience, shown Ekman’s ‘context free’ and monochrome faces, might find them quite difficult to interpret because of the lack of color and gesture. But I also wonder whether we have been missing many of the subtleties of medieval emotional communication because we have not sufficiently appreciated the different aspects of facial expression they were considering and the different meanings they attributed to them.


This essay has been very slightly abridged by the editors from the text sent to them by Philippa Maddern in 2013 following her presentation at the ARC-sponsored Faces of Emotion conference, held at the University of Melbourne in December, 2012. It is published here with the permission of Philippa’s executors.


Huang et al. conclude that Matsumoto and Ekman’s Japanese and Caucasian Facial Expressions of Emotion (JACFEE) are valid in Chinese culture, but that pictures relating to fear and surprise might need modification.


See summaries in von Scheve (2012, 1–14, esp. 6–8) and Hess and Philippot (2007, esp. 1–6).


But see Hess (2001, 401). Hess notes that there have been shown to be individual differences in the muscular patterns of smiling.


See, for example, the gesture of St. John in the Crucifixion attributed to van der Weyden’s workshop in the GemäldeGalerie, Berlin.


Cited in Harriss (1988, 251).


See also, for example, cases in CP.F.257 (1476–1477) and CP.F.308 (1499–1500).


See also CP.F.308 (1499–1500), a case where different witnesses disagreed as to whether the bride showed a happy or tearful face.


For the executions of Earl Rivers, Richard Grey, and Sir Thomas Vaughan, see Pronay and Cox (1986, 161). The whole continuation seems to have been completed no later than early May 1486 (Pronay and Cox, 1986, 57–60).


Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Philippa Maddern
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Western AustraliaPerthAustralia

Personalised recommendations