Reading faces: how did late medieval Europeans interpret emotions in faces?
By Philippa Maddern
postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, Vol.8:1 (2017)
Abstract: 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.
Introduction: Three simple questions shape this essay. 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.