Asleep just before six this morning; awake just before eight. This is demented. I'm not sure how I'm still moving. I appear to have reserves of stamina I have hitherto been unaware of.
A bird in the hand...
While examining the insides of my eyelids in the hours when even burglars sleep, I found my thoughts drifting to what may seem a rather unusual topic: the obscene 'V'-sign, traditionally used in Britain and Ireland instead of the middle-finger jerk, more common throughout the Western World.
There's a common belief that the 'V' gesture derives from 1415, when French knights at Agincourt had threatened to cut the first two fingers from the right hand of every captured English archer; the French were defeated, and supposedly the victorious English jeered and displayed their unmutilated hands.
It's an amusing story, and one which I keep being heard repeated as fact. I don't believe it for a minute.
In the first place, I've never seen any evidence cited for the tale, and I have looked for it. Agincourt is exceptionally well-recorded by medieval chroniclers, yet not one medieval account of the battle records such behaviour by the English archers.
Apparently Jean Froissart is the only medieval chronicler of the Hundred Years' War who mentions the English making insulting hand gestures to their French adversaries. I haven't been able to find the reference within his work, unfortunately, but since he appears to have died a decade or so before Agincourt, I think it can be safely assumed that he did not describe the English archers jeering at the French after the battle. For what it's worth, he doesn't even appear to have recorded such a detail with reference to the battles of Crecy or Poitiers, accounts of which are readily available online.
Even assuming that Froissart does indeed record English archers at some point jeering at French prisoners by displaying their unmutilated hands, this should not be taken as conclusive proof that such a thing actually happened. Firstly, Froissart was a talented writer but a poor historian, and much of what he wrote should be treated with a rather liberal handful of salt. Secondly, the cause of such behaviour was a supposed French threat that they would deprive every archer of the fingers he needed to string his bow; there is no evidence for such a threat ever having been made, and in truth it seems rather implausible.
Medieval warfare, while horrific, operated in accordance with generally accepted norms, and prisoners were very rarely killed; instead, they were captured and held for ransom. This practise helped to fund European warmaking throughout the Middle Ages. An archer without his fingers would have been militarily worthless, and not worth buying back. It seems unlikely that the French ever threatened the English as they are reputed to have done.
But, let's assume that Froissart does refer, in however oblique a way, to English archers having brandished their fingers in a 'V'-sign towards captured French troops in the Hundred Years War. And let's assume that he's right. Does this mean that the modern 'V'-sign is derived from such an obscure event?
There are no known illustrations of the 'V'-sign that predate 1913, when it appears in photographs. There also appear to be no literary references of the sign from before that date. There is no evidence to indicate any continuity in what may possibly have been a once-off jeering gesture in the Fourteenth Century and an obscene gesture which we have our first clear evidence for in the early Twentieth Century. Almost six centuries lie between the two pieces of evidence. To claim that there is a definite link would be ludicrous.
So where does the sign come from? Desmond Morris, in Peoplewatching, lists five possible origins, two of which look plausible.
One is that it is a modification of an insulting 'V'-sign once common in the Middle East, where the two forked fingers are jerked upwards against the gesturer's nose; this sign could easily have been adopted and corrupted by British troops who then brought it home.
Alternatively, it could be a looser version, possibly even an amplification, of an insulting gesture which existed in Britain before the Second World War. Back then, Britons would sometimes use a gesture almost identical to the middle-finger insult, but would reinforce that finger, effectively thickening it, by pressing the index finger against it. Over time, the fingers could have separated; if this is indeed what happened, the process had begun some time before 1913, which is the first case we know of the 'V'-sign being used.
There's no need to make up stupid national myths about this peculiarly British insult dating back to Agincourt.