‘Cheers’ is one of those satisfyingly flexible words, useful in a range of social settings. It’s one I probably overuse, and yet its pull is irresistible: what simpler way to foster goodwill with a stranger (“Cheers!”) or sign off an email to a friend (“Cheers,”)? It can even encourage familiarity in academic electronic correspondence: the moment a colleague transitions from ‘All best,’ to ‘Cheers,’ is (at least in my case) not infrequently laden with meaning: it speaks of our relative stage, age, experience, trust, and friendship.

So, clearly, I’ve been thinking about ‘cheers’ quite a bit of late. I have my reasons. Originally, however, it came about as I was preparing for the recent Faces of Emotion Collaboratory at Melbourne, which I co-convened with Stephanie Trigg (see our report on the collaboratory at the Queen Mary History of Emotions blog, here.)

Cheer’ or ‘chere’ in Middle English has little to do with drinking culture, even if it does relate to friendship and hospitality. The most common usage of the word describes the human face, its countenance as well as its expressions.

Harley 4425 f.138v
Harley 4425 f. 138v Venus in her chariot
British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

So, when Chaucer describes Criseyde’s beauty:

Criseyde mene was of hir stature

Ther-to of shap, of face, and eke of chere,

Ther mighte been no fairer creature.

Troilus and Criseyde, Book 5, ll. 806-8.


The Middle English term comes from the Old French, ‘chère’ or ‘chiere,’ which means much the same thing: facial expression, countenance, or bearing. It’s about an attitude, as much as a particular expression, and could be about colour and tone as much rearranging facial features to smile or frown. Secular literature in medieval French contains numerous references to an individual’s ‘bonne chère.’ Bearing ‘good cheer’ suggests something of one’s cheery disposition, of course, but in the medieval period is more an expression of sociality: this is the face presented to another or others to convey to them the pleasure experienced in their company.

Since Christmas is only just past, my next example is as much about material culture and emotions – the pleasure of giving and receiving a gift – as it is about social interaction. (Plenty of that at this time of year too!)

In the late fourteenth century, the poet and chronicler Jean Froissart paid a visit to Richard II. He brought with him a gift, expensively bound and decorated, of a collection of his own poems on love:

[…] et voult veoir le roy le livre que je luy avoie apporté. Si le vey en sa chamber, car tout pourveu je l’avoie, et luy mis sur son lit. Il l’ouvry et regarda ens, et luy pleut très-grandement et bien plaire luy devoit, car il estoit enluminé, escript et historié et couvert de vermeil velours à dix clous attachiés d’argent dorés et roses d’or ou milieu, a deux grans frumaus dorés et richement ouvrés au milieu de roses d’or. Adont me demanda le roy de quoy il traittoit. Je luy dis: ‘D’amours.’ De ceste reponse fut-il tous rejouys, et regarda dedens le livre en plusieurs lieux et y lisy, car moult bien parloit et lisoit le franchois, et puis le fist prendre par ung sien chevalier qui se nommoit messiere Richard Credon et porter en sa chambre de retraite, et me fist de plus en plus bonne chière et bon receuillotte à merveilles.

Froissart, Oeuvres, ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove (1871; Reprint, Osnabrück: Biblio Verlag, 1967).

[…] the King asked to see the book which I had brought. I took it to his chamber, for I had it ready with me, and laid it on his bed. He opening it and looked inside and it pleased him greatly. Well it might, for it was illuminated, nicely written and illustrated, with a cover of crimson velvet with ten studs of silver gilt and golden roses in the middle and two large gilded clasps richly worked at their centres with golden rose-trees. The King asked me what it was about and I told him: ‘About love!’ He was delighted by this answer and dipped into the book in several places and read, for he spoke and read French very well. Then he gave it to one of his knights, called Sir Richard Credon, to take into his private room and was more cordial than ever towards me.

Jean Froissart, Chronicles, trans. Geoffrey Brereton (1968; London: Penguin, 1978) 408.

I think Brereton’s translation is luke warm on this last point. ‘Cordial’ doesn’t quite seem to cut it. Froissart has already emphasized how happy Richard is made by the gift (‘tout rejouys’!) and goes on to say that consequently, he ‘made’ Froissart ‘more and more good cheer.’ His pleasure, in other words, in receiving the book (and who doesn’t like receiving a good book?) is written on his face.

What is the facial expression Froissart describes? Is it as something simple as a smile? Manuscript illuminations don’t often depict the specific facial expressions of an individual as they receive a gift, or at least, such expressions are not discernible to the modern eye:

Arundel 38 f. 37, John Mowbray presents a book to Henry V
British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

Richard’s facial response is rarely, if barely, mentioned in critical commentary on Froissart. In one fifteenth-century visual representation of Froissart’s presentation, however, Richard seems to show just the hint of a rosy-cheeked smile, especially when his mouth is compared to the attendant in blue to his left behind him:

Harley 4380 f.23v
Harley 4380 f. 23v
British LIbrary Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

And yet, it’s not all the about the face: at least two figures in the scene have their backs to the viewer. How to explain them? Perhaps these blank heads serve to place more emphasis on the expressions of the two key figures. Visually, they frame the exchange. If the courtiers’ lids are all lowered as they watch the scene, a closer look at Froissart’s face shows a difference: his eyebrows seem to me slightly raised in anticipation… of the goods and good favour he might receive in return?

If you were lucky enough to receive them – and even if you weren’t – may you read many good books this January.


Content posted by Stephanie Downes

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