Research Stream


Stephanie Trigg
The University of Melbourne

Stephanie Downes
The University of Melbourne


Speaking Faces: Describing the Facial Expression of Emotion

How do literary texts describe the expression of emotion on the human face? This project examines the changing ways literary texts express and represent emotion on the face from medieval to modern times.

Speaking Faces

"The Baptism of Christ" (late 15th century, by the Master of the St. Bartholomew Altar), National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

This is a project about language, emotion, and representation, focussing on the discursive representation in imaginative writing (fiction, poetry, song) of emotional states. It examines the verbal description and representation of emotion in facial expression, in English and other European languages. The central research question here is: How do the ways we represent and describe the expression of emotion on the human face change over time? This project is particularly concerned to track gendered changes in the literary expression of emotion: how this is described by male and female authors, on the faces of male and female characters. A secondary strand will be the representation of facial emotion in the visual arts, and the verbal descriptions of such representation. This project will result in a number of publications: a book by Stephanie Trigg on the face in Middle English literature, focussing on the use of descriptive similes. A second book will focus on the long history from medieval to modern literature of the trope of the “speaking face,” especially when the expression of the face is put into direct speech. These expressions function, it will be argued, somewhat like William Reddy’s “emotives”: speech acts that both express emotion and that foreground the expression of emotion. Other outputs will include a book co-authored by Stephanie Trigg, postdoctoral research fellow, Stephanie Downes, and Associate Investigator Paul James; a special issue of the journal postmedieval; and an interactive database that will invite uses to “read” emotions on faces from the past.


Special Issue of Journal
Downes, S. and S. J. Trigg, eds. ‘Facing Up to the History of Emotions’, special issue, postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 8.1 (2017).

Trigg, S. J. ‘Chaucer’s Silent Discourse’, Biennial Chaucer lecture. Studies in the Age of Chaucer 39 (2017): 31–56.

Downes, S. and S. J. Trigg. ‘Introduction: Facing Up to the History of Emotions’. postmedieval 8.1 (2017): 3–11.

Trigg, S. J. ‘Langland’s Tears: Poetry, Emotion and Mouvance’. Yearbook of Langland Studies 26 (2012): 27–48.

Trigg, S. J. ‘Weeping like a Beaten Child: Figurative Language in Chaucer and Malory’. In Medieval Affect, Feeling and Emotion, edited by Holly Crocker and Glenn Burger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Forthcoming.

Trigg, S. J. ‘“Language in her Eye”: The Expressive Face of Criseyde/Cressida’. In Love History and Emotion in Chaucer and Shakespeare: Troilus and Criseyde and Troilus and Cressida, edited by A. J. Johnston, E. Kempf and R. West-Pavlov, pp. 94–108. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016.

Trigg, S. J. ‘Faces that Speak: A Little Emotion Machine in the Novels of Jane Austen,’ in Spaces for Feeling: Emotions and Sociabilities in Britain, 16501850, edited by S. Broomhall, pp. 185–201. London and New York: Routledge, 2015.

Keynote lectures

Trigg, S. J. ‘Chaucer’s Silent Discourse,’ Biennial Chaucer Lecture, New Chaucer Society Congress, London, 14 July 2016.

Trigg, S. J. ‘Changing Faces: The Dynamics of Facial Expression and Emotion in Middle English Literature’, The G. L. Brook Lecture, The University of Manchester, 16 April 2015.