Guido Mazzoni, Portrait of Henry VIII (?) when a young boy, c. 1498
Guido Mazzoni, Portrait of Henry VIII (?) when a young boy, c. 1498

Philippa Maddern

Postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies

February 2017, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp 12–34


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).

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; 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.

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