Part 1 – General Prologue
A. What I learned about Physiognomy:
Prior to researching this term, I was not familiar with it. I found it is a phenomenon that is easy to understand. After all, we have all seen examples of physiognomy since we were children and perhaps didn’t even realize it. Think of the Disney movies that you may have watched growing up. As children we could probably pick out the “good guys” and the “bad guys” with out having any prior knowledge of the story. This is because of the use of physiognomy. For example: In the Lion King, the main antagonist is the character Scar. His mane is black, his features are sharp, and his eyes are a piercing green instead of brown or blue like most of the other lions. He also sports a scar over his eye from which he got his name. Just looking at his appearance we knew he was bad because he looked scary and mean. When we look at Mufasa, his features are more rounded and has gentle yet strong appearance. So, what does this have to do with Physiognomy in the Middle ages?
First, I found that physiognomy, from physis meaning “nature” and gnomon meaning “judge” (Merriam-Webster), also has roots in ancient Greek culture. As early as 500 B.C., Pythagoras was accepting or rejecting students based on how gifted they looked, and Aristotle wrote about what the shape of one’s face may indicate about their character.
Later, physiognomy was defined as the perspective of character types determined by physical and mental conditions. This was central to Medieval thought. Interestingly, the science of Physiognomy was even used in medicine. That is, someone appearance may indicate manifestations of disease or other ailments. One example of physiognomy in the general prologue is that of the Wife of Bath. She is said to be gap-toothed (line 470). F.N. Robinson, author of The Riverside Chaucer”, states that being gap-toothed indicated a nature that was “envious, irreverent, luxurious, bold, faithless, and suspicious”.
Braswell-Means, Laurel. “A New Look at an Old Patient: Chaucer's Summoner and Medieval Physiognomia.” The Chaucer Review, vol. 25, no. 3, 1991, pp. 266–275. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25078086.
“The Riverside Chaucer: Based on ‘The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer’ Ed. by F.N. Robinson.” The Riverside Chaucer: Based on "The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer" Ed. by F.N. Robinson, by Geoffrey Chaucer and Larry Dean. Benson, Houghton Mifflin, 1987, ...