ABSTRACT

Emotion is often written on the body, signalled through such uncontrolled somatic gestures as weeping or sighing, laughing or smiling, or conveyed through intentional gestures such as kissing or winking, chest-thumping or bowing. Somatic gestures are complicatedly ambiguous, which makes them rich indicators of an emotional state, if challenging to pin down. Even casual or comic gestures provide useful access to emotional states: think of the different valences of Pandarus winking to Criseyde or of Chauntecleer’s winking in front of the fox; of the lady kissing Gawain and of Gawain kissing the lord. Such gestures are freighted with meaning but hard to unpack verbally, liable to misinterpretation by both the actors and the audience, with a potential to carry much weight or to mean nothing at all. Rather than picking up on the larger indices of emotion, such as weeping or laughing, I shall focus on a relatively minor bodily expression, namely blushing, alongside attention to winking and mouth-opening. Blushing in Old English literature has received little attention, perhaps because it seems so inconsequential. Rather than keying into basic emotions like grief or pleasure, blushing seems to signal what might be termed lesser emotions – embarrassment, awkwardness, shame or self-consciousness. These lesser emotional states have themselves received only limited attention by critics of medieval culture, but may be particularly interesting to a cultural critic of the past since they are more likely to be socially constructed than their more fundamental cousins.1