The grins of others: Figuring ethnic difference in medieval facial expressions

  • Kim M. Phillips


This article considers facial expressions in the portrayal of peoples considered religiously or ethnically ‘Other’ in later medieval Christian cultures. It focuses on artistic representations of grins, grimaces, and gaping with open mouths, especially in relation to depictions of Jewish, Muslim, and Black African figures from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, before examining some portrayals of Mongol peoples in greater detail. In medieval cultures, to ‘grin’ with bared teeth was widely viewed in pejorative terms, and was understood less as a sign of happiness or friendliness and more as an indication of anguish, base character, or evil. The grin’s connection to grimacing and gaping was more overt than in present Western societies. I contend that depictions of the facial expressions of Mongol peoples do not consistently accord with the looks characteristically associated with enmity towards Christianity. Instead, shifts in portrayals accord with the Mongols’ changing and complex associations for Latin Christians over the period from the early thirteenth to fifteenth centuries.


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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kim M. Phillips
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of History, School of HumanitiesUniversity of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand

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