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Canterbury Tales meets criminal profiling

In The Canterbury Tales, a frame story by Geoffrey Chaucer dating from the late 14th century, you are introduced to a cast of memorable characters with carefully selected physical features. I say carefully selected because the author’s choices concerning his characters’ physical features reveal something about their personalities.


The Wife of Bath, MS Cambridge GG.4.27. []

Here are some examples from Chaucer’s ‘General Prologue’:

  • The Wife of Bath: gap-toothed (gat-tothed, l. 468). Being gap-toothed indicated a nature that was ‘envious, irreverent, luxurious, bold, faithless, and suspicious’ (pp. 818-19).*
  • The Miller: a ‘short-shouldered, broad, and thick figure‘ (short-sholdred, brood, a thikke knarre, l. 549), red beard (his berd … was reed, l. 552), a nose with a wart (werte, l. 555), and a wide mouth like a large cauldron (His mouth as greet was as a greet forneys, l. 559). These qualities indicated ‘a shameless, talkative, lecherous, and quarrelsome character’, and red hair specifically hinted at ‘deceit and treachery’ (p. 820).
  • The Reeve: lean with a ‘choleric’ complexion (sclendre colerik man, l. 587). A choleric complexion was associated with ‘a sharp wit, a quick temper and wanton disposition’ (p. 821).

Physiognomy is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as:

I. The study of appearance.

  1. a. The study of the features of the face, or of the form of the body more generally, as being supposedly indicative of character; the art of judging character from such a study.

The theory that you could relate a person’s appearance to his or her character goes all the way back to Ancient Greece, as early as the 5th century B.C. In the Middle Ages, the main role of physiognomy was, according to Joseph Ziegler, ‘to enable people in positions of power […] to make the right choice of associates, friends, councilors, and partners’.

It could be used to ‘detect’ any of the following: alcoholism; tendency towards domestic violence; sexual behaviour, appetite and preference; life expectancy; professional, academic and intellectual ability; tendency towards piety, virginity and chastity.**

Somehow the idea that you could judge a person’s character by their physical appearance never seemed to go out of style. In the nineteenth century and twentieth centuries it is still considered ‘practical’ and ‘scientific’.

Here are some excerpts from Physiognomy: how to read character in the face and to determine the capacity for love, business, or crime, by Leila Holt Lomax, published in 1905.

One of the physical characteristics Lomax expounds upon is the appearance of the eye, the ‘window to the soul’. Although the author admits that people like St Paul and Molière had ‘eye defects’ and nonetheless turned out alright, she quotes a former prosecuting attorney of New York who says, ‘I have practiced at the bar for thirty years, and I do not hesitate to assert that out of 1,000 criminals I have only known three who have not had some defect of the eye’ (p. 70).

Of course, one has to wonder if these individuals ‘eye defects’ made them more likely to be perceived as guilty in the first place.

The pseudo-science of physiognomy is far from dead.

Meet Faception, the company which uses a medieval literary device as the basis of its ‘breakthrough’ technology.


Faception is  (according to their website) ‘a facial profiling technology company’ that ‘reveal[s] personality from facial images’.

Faception can analyze faces from video streams (recorded and live), cameras, or online/offline databases, encode the faces in proprietary image descriptors and match an individual with various personality traits and types with a high level of accuracy. We develop proprietary classifiers, each describing a certain personality type or trait such as an Extrovert, a person with High IQ, Professional Poker Player or a Terrorist.’

By looking at someone’s facial features we can determine whether they will beat us at poker or bomb an abortion clinic? Amazing! And look how easy it is to recognise the personality types…


‘High IQ’ is obviously a white male. The ‘Academic Researcher’ wears glasses as all eggheads do. And the ‘Terrorist’ is a Middle-Eastern-looking man–this despite the fact that ‘White Americans are the biggest terror threat in the United States’:

The Washington-based research organization [New America Foundation] did a review of “terror” attacks on US soil since Sept. 11, 2001 and found that most of them were carried out by radical anti-government groups or white supremacists. (Global Post, 27 Nov 2015)

By the way, these are Faception’s co-founders: CEO and Chief Profiler.

How would their profiling technology classify them, I wonder?


If your face somehow reveals that you are introverted or suffer from depression or anxiety, these are the two ‘personality types’ for you:


(It’s impressive that your face can be analysed by Faception’s technology, even if you’re wearing shutter shades.)

I know, this is a medieval blog and the subject matter of this post is largely otherwise… but Chaucer’s wide-mouthed, red-bearded Miller was the first thing that came to mind when I heard about this company.

Behind a mask of cutting-edge, machine-learning technology, Faception continues the ancient and outdated practice of physical profiling (racial and otherwise).


Miniature illustration (early 1400s) of Robin the Miller, with a 16th-century note ‘Robin with the Bagpype’. The Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, folio 34v. [Wikimedia]


*All Chaucer quotations/references are from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). [back]

**Joseph Ziegler, ‘Physiognomy’, in Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encylopedia, ed. Thomas F. Glick, Steven Livesey and Faith Wallis (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 402. [back]

Disclaimer: All opinions here are my own. I mean to implicate Geoffrey Chaucer neither in the practice of racial profiling nor in the criticism of this company.

2 comments on “Canterbury Tales meets criminal profiling

  1. agogo22
    October 8, 2016

    Reblogged this on msamba.

  2. Mark Miles
    October 12, 2016

    Really fantastic article. 👏 This company is clearly trailblazing new ways to make the world a more inhospitable and antisocial place than it already is.

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This entry was posted on October 8, 2016 by in Science and tagged , , , , , , , , .


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