25 August 2003

Agincourt and the 'V' Sign

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?

Not remotely.

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.


Anonymous said...

I followed your link from your post in today's Guardian relating to armour worn by the French at Agincourt? I'm surprised that you say there is no evidence of the "V" Sign existing before 1913 as I have seen photographs of a mediaeval tapestry which shows an English archer, bow in hand, showing his two fingers in exactly this fashion to the assembled French soldiery at what appears to be a siege. There was a very good article about this some 20 years ago in a magazine called "Military Illustrated" and I've seen the same photograph in other publications since then? It stuck in my mind because I'd never heard any other explanation for the "V" sign as used in England and Ireland.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Hi there, and thanks for that. Have you any idea where this tapestry is? I'm surprised I've never seen any replicas of it, because I have looked this up a few times over the years, since posting this on my old blog -- I only reposted it here because it seemed apposite given the Guardian article.

It is possible that the tapestry may have been misinterpreted. This happens a lot. Still, that's interesting. It does leave open the question, still, of why the gesture would then have fallen into disuse for five hundred years...

It seems 1913 is wrong anyway, as seemingly there's Edwardian footage of a Rotherham youth making the sign towards a camera in 1901. Perhaps I should update the text. Or write a new post.

The folk etymology associating the sign with the Hundred Years' War isn't even mentioned in Desmond Morris' work as far I can remember, which suggests that either my memory's faulty or that as a folk etymology this is a new phenomenon. I have a feeling it's rooted, ultimately, in Christopher Hibbert's 1964 book Agincourt, which describes Henry V telling his troops that the French had threatened to mutilate any captured English archers, drawing this from either Jehan de Wavrin or Jean de Favres.

The Burgundian Jehan de Wavrin's account of the battle, written many decades later and found in A Collection of the Chronicles and Ancient Histories of Great Britain, now called England, an 1857 translation of which can be read here, describes Henry V as having gone along the ranks, exhorting the men here and there, saying why he'd come and trying to encourage them in various ways, among on things telling them of what the French would do if they captured them.

“…And further he told them and explained how the French were boasting that they would cut off three fingers of the right hand of all the archers that should be taken prisoners to the end that neither man nor horse should ever again be killed with their arrows. Such exhortations and many others, which cannot all be written, the King of England addressed to his men”.

That's on page 203. Jean le Fevre, as far as I can tell, says much the same thing, such that Hibbert's description of Henry's exhortations has been described as a paraphrase of le Fevre's account.

Anyway, from this passage I think it's important to note:

1. Henry may never have said this. There's no reference to this in any other source, and most notably not in the English sources, the earliest of which, Henrici Quinti Angliae Regis Gesta, was written just two years after the battle. Indeed, that never mentions Henry having made any speeches at all at Agincourt! Jehan de Wavrin was at Agincourt, but fighting on the French side, and I can't imagine that Jean le Fevre, fighting though he was with the English, would have been anywhere near the archers.

2. Even Henry he did say it he may have been making it up -- it sounds like typical military propaganda.

3. Henry is described as speaking of a French threat to cut off three fingers, not two, which makes sense, given the strength and effort needed to draw a longbow.

4. There's still no suggestion in the text that the English took to brandishing any fingers at the French.

kit said...

Could the 'V' sign be related to the insulting gesture of 'making the sign of the horns' i.e. mocking a cuckold?

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

It's certainly possible. Morris cites that, iirc, as one of the options. I gather that's still used that way in some Catholic countries, but then we'd need to explain when and why it transformed in England. That's part of the problem with this sort of thing. It's like evolutionary psychology -- lots of plausible theories, but how do you prove them?

Rich said...

One slight criticism of an otherwise excellent piece: archers were mostly a peasant rabble - not noblemen, and would very probably not have been held for ransom or exchange. Noblemen tended to treat those they considered below them very badly indeed, to put it mildly. There are reliable accounts from the same era of, for example, the French slaughtering their own footsoldiers, and also their Swiss mercenary allies (well above peasant footsoldiers in the pecking order). So it's highly unlikely they would have kept a bunch of unruly and hungry English bowmen as prisoners.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

I take your point, because common troops usually couldn't raise the money for their own ransoms, but I wouldn't be quite so sure of that in this case.

This wasn't a squabble between noblemen, and it could look rather bad for the English king to be leaving his men to their fate; simply as a matter of maintaining his prestige, it'd make sense for him to pay to retrieve his men unharmed. I'm not sure it's right to call the archers a rabble, either; they were highly skilled troops, and a valuable resource, well worth paying to keep.

The Swiss, as far as I can tell, were something of an exception. Notorious for their bloodthirstiness (sp?), they seem to have been hated by many, and I'd not be surprised if people were only too keen to slaughter them. In any case, mercenaries -- unlike vassals -- weren't tied to anyone, so who would have been obliged to pay for their ransoms?