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

  • Philippa Maddern


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.

Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2017

Authors and Affiliations

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

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