Two fingers up to English history…

Archers, Luttrell Psalter

Archers at the butts – from the Luttrell Psalter, c1320-40

Throughout history, events have been interpreted and spun to suit a variety of agendas, often a patriotic or nationalistic one. This is why a good scholar, if in doubt, always goes back to the sources. It’s hard enough to tackle speculative interpretation and outright falsehood in print, but when a myth reaches the public consciousness, either via oral tradition or by today’s mass media, it’s well on its way to becoming an established “fact”. One of my favourite myths is that of the origin for the famous British two-fingered salute – the V-sign. The origin myth, as given here, goes like this:

This salute dates back to the English Longbowman who fought the French during the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453). The French hated the English archers who used the Longbow with such devastating effect. Any English archers who were caught by the French had their Index and middle fingers chopped off from their right hand- a terrible penalty for an archer. This led to the practice of the English archers, especially in siege situations, taunting their French enemy with their continued presence by raising their two fingers in the ‘Two-Fingered Salute’ meaning “You haven’t cut off my fingers !”

Even the BBC give this etymology. Huzzah! It’s all very affirming if you have even the slightest romantic or patriotic leanings (and happen to be an Anglophile!). The story even makes superficial sense; archers were skilled and professional warriors, and able en masse to seriously disrupt enemy formations. We’ve all heard of their fearsome reputation, and seen how modern-day archers will indeed draw their bows with those first two fingers. We also think of medieval warfare as particularly brutal. Add a dash of casual jingoism and we can easily imagine the old enemy having an informal policy of cutting off those fingers. With this in mind, it seems perfectly logical that the English archers might make the famous gesture to show that they still had their bow-fingers, and would shortly be putting them to use. The story of this “archer’s salute” is oft-told by modern-day proponents, especially within the re-enactment/living history community. They will even sell you “archer’s pendants” inspired by it! Readers may also be familiar with an email version (originating in the USA) involving the rather more obviously fake phrase “pluck yew”. As Snopes points out, this permutation is palpable nonsense (and probably intended as a mildly xenophobic “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”-style joke). But is there any truth at all to the story?

It was that very Snopes entry that started me thinking critically about this tale. It points out several criticisms, including the unlikely prospect of low-status archers being captured for ransom (a common medieval practice where individuals were known to have the means to pay). The nail in the coffin for me was the realisation that medieval longbows would have required the use of all three main fingers on the strong hand to draw them. As I became more familiar with the retrospective way that origin myths for common memes are constructed (in a similar way to urban myths), I consigned this story to the same mental bin as the fuller on a sword being a “blood-groove“. This was further reinforced when I attended a lecture by the medieval historian Professor Anne Curry, who mentioned the story in passing, saying that she had been unable to find any reference to such a gesture in the primary sources usually suggested (e.g. Froissart).

Whilst reading the fascinating “Blood Red Roses” on the subject of medieval battlefield archaeology, I became aware (as Prof. Curry and many others no doubt already are) of a genuine inspiration for this myth, in the shape of contemporary Burgundian chronicler Jean de Wavrin (or Jehan de Waurin), as referenced in Prestwich’s “Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages” (1996). I was pleased to discover a PDF version of Wavrin’s chronicle, hosted by the quite wonderful people at La Bibliothèque nationale de France. The quote that seems to have started this whole myth; appears in the English translation (found in the Fifth Volume of Book One – page 203 of this PDF document) as follows:

“…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”.

Whilst the Middle French original reads like this:

“En oultre leur disoit et remoustrait comment les Francois se vantoient que tous les archiers Anglois qui seroient prins feroient copper trois doitz de la main dextre adfin que de leur trait jamais homme ne cheval ne tuassent. Teles admonitions et pluiseurs autres que toutes ne puis escripe fist lors le roy d’Angleterre a ses gens.”

..and carries a rather amusing modern French footnote, amounting to “this is really anti-French, but hey, all’s fair in love and war!”.

As you can see, the quote gives us the probable origin of the V-sign tale as a contemporary suggestion by the English that captured archers would be mutilated by the enemy. At the same time it strikes a fatal blow to the myth as it makes clear that the number of fingers said to be at risk is clearly three, not the two famously used in the modern gesture. The war-bows of the time, with a draw weight of around 100lb, would certainly have required all three. Interesting that this medieval myth, probably intended to spur on the archers by the demonising of the enemy, should give rise to the modern myth of a nationalistic origin for the two-fingered insult. To me this shows the real value of going back to the source material. Wavrin was actually at the battle, although we should remember that he was present on the French side, and so is unlikely to have heard Henry’s speech first-hand. He was also writing more than twenty years after the fact. But on the plus side, he’s about as impartial as medieval chroniclers get, having ties to both sides in the conflict (his father and brother fought and died on the French side, whilst he fought for England later on).

Neither Wavrin nor any other contemporary source mentions any manual sign of defiance associated with this, and the Agincourt archery story didn’t become popular until the 1990s. It can be seen as both innocent post-hoc rationalisation, and as a conscious attempt to ascribe great antiquity to a culturally distinctive gesture. Either way it’s pretty unhelpful in our understanding either of medieval history, or of the genuine origin of the “V-sign”. Any positive evidence for the latter seems to have been lost, and this myth has been constructed to fill the gap. As this article points out, there is no reference for the gesture before the 1970s. It could be a punk-rock subversion of Winston Churchill‘s “V for Victory” photographs – who knows? [It isn't - see the comment below]. However it really came about, we can be pretty sure that it’s bugger all to do with medieval archers.

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47 Responses to “Two fingers up to English history…”

  1. Going Commando! « The BS Historian Says:

    [...] and when did it originate? Is it really an Americanism? Compared to obscure memes like the “two-fingered salute“, this one has a fairly obvious significance and link to the military. A [...]

  2. bshistorian Says:

    Geni at the JREF forum has pointed out that I uncritically swallowed the “Icons” websites’ claim that the earliest recorded reference of the “V-sign” was post-1970. Not so – Geni reminded me that the famous production/publicity still from the film “Kes” has the lad holding up his two fingers to the camera.

    Anecdotal evidence suggests it was in use at least as far back as the early ’60s. It would be nice to disentangle the real origin of this one, one day.

  3. bshistorian Says:

    Me again, replying to my own posts… well, it’s easier than working it in to an edit.

    Check out this recent episode of the wonderful Q.I., at around 7:28:

    There’s an old mid-20th Century bit of video showing a worker flicking the old V’s at the camera in what seems to be the same gesture of cheeky irreverence we know today. To me, this looks to have been filmed before Churchill popularised the same gesture as a positive “Victory” symbol in the mid-’40s. It may not have originated with medieval archery, but just how old is this insult?

  4. jdc Says:

    Nice article. I like a good v-sign (I’d even go so far as to call the Kes one ‘iconic’).

    There’s some interesting snippets here: http://www.icons.org.uk/theicons/collection/the-v-sign/biography/v-for-get-stuffed
    Apparently, “[t]he first solid evidence of the rude V-sign dates from 1901, when the Edwardian film-makers Mitchell and Kenyon were filming workers outside Parkgate ironworks in Rotherham. A surly young man, unhappy to be filmed, can be seen making the gesture aggressively to the camera. A photograph of a 1913 football crowd also shows a man making the sign”.
    I guess the Mitchell & Kenyon footage is what was shown on QI. They speculate that the v-sign may have been of working class, Victorian origin.

  5. Mark Evans Says:

    There’s a Will Hay movie “The Goose Steps Out” from 1942 which clearly implies that the knuckle-out “V-sign” is an insult. Will Hay’s character teaches the gesture in Germany to would-be Nazi spies, so that they would use the sign in England when greeting people.

  6. bshistorian Says:

    Thanks all for your comments. The 1942 sighting is our “terminus post quem” at this point. Can we take it any earlier I wonder?

  7. Juan Gorretas Says:

    im not sure of the actual origin, but its got nothin to d with the french bowmen. its a myth. it means the same as sticking out ur first and little finger (similar to the new “Rock on”/ metal sign) in spanish – the two fingers represent horns which means that ur partnet or spouse is cheating on you :) (i saw it on QI)

  8. bshistorian Says:

    English bowmen. And yes, I know it has nothing to do with archery – that’s what this piece is about, in fact. ;) I’ve checked, and the QI episode said “Some people *think* that this might be to do with the cuckold.” It’s speculation, but plausible at least, so thanks for reminding me of it.

  9. john Says:

    I just saw an episode of a (Michael Palin?) British series that debunked a lot of the myths about medieval life. It said that before ID cards the only way to keep track of criminals was to mutilate them. Lots of things were cut off such as ears and fingers. Hence the gentry would often greet each other with gestures that showed that they had all their fingers.

    • bshistorian Says:

      Hi John,

      Interesting – I haven’t seen that one. As an explanation for the two-finger salute, this doesn’t hold water though (IMO).

      +Mutilation was certainly a punishment in many countries in medieval Europe.
      +One reason for doing it was indeed ready identification of convicted criminals.

      -The ID card idea doesn’t hold water – we still don’t have them.
      -Dress, jewellery, transport etc – all more reliable means of demonstrating one’s status than how many fingers you had.
      -Gentry would know each other anyway, or would be introduced to each other by other high status people.
      -No evidence of criminal’s index and middle fingers being removed.
      -No evidence (that I have seen anyway) of two-fingered hand gestures amongst this social group at this time (in fact, not for anyone, anywhere, until the 20th century).

      To me this sounds just as much of a retrospective explanation as the Agincourt version.

  10. john Says:

    Ok, so I checked a little more: The British series is called “Medieval Times” with Terry Jones (the other Python). The episode is named “The Outlaw”.

    ID argument aside (ever get ID’s as someone who missed a court appointment?) apparently there were a lot gentry who were notorious outlaws: Sir William Chetulton of Shropshire, Sir Gilbert Middleton of Duram and Sir Henry Leyborn of Kent, not to mention the Folville and Cogrel gangs. All had wealth, connections and thugs on tap. Status by dress or jewelry display alone was not enough to certify one’s character. There is an example of a certain John deRooten who carried a note to certify that his missing ear was due to a medical condition.

    As for the fingers, there are two points (ha): After the Conquest it was fairly normal to be branded an outlaw simply because around 1350 there were so many laws governing every little detail of daily life.

    Also, draconian forest law often gave more rights to the deer than the local people. As such, poaching the king’s greenwood was often considered a capitol crime (Henry I) or resulted in various mutilations. Cutting off the fingers was considered standard, although it might make more sense to take the two middle fingers so there were no two adjacent digits needed to pull 100lbs or so for the long bow.

  11. bshistorian Says:

    More plausible than the archery idea, certainly, and plenty of evidence of mutilations as criminal punishments, including fingers IIRC (and as you say). But it’s quite a stretch from that to the two finger gesture. For a start you’d need references to specific string-pulling fingers being removed. Even then it’s hundreds of years before the actual gesture is recorded.

    It’d be fun to find evidence of the first two fingers being cut off as punishment though.

  12. melmohay Says:

    a) FYI you reference p 212 as the source of that quote in the pdf. It is actually p. 203 (screen 212)

    b) Who are you exactly? I’m not asking to be a dick, I just had hoped to find a brief bio about you/by you somewhere on your site… maybe I’m not looking in the right spot?

    • bshistorian Says:

      Firstly, thanks for the correction – I have no-one proofreading this stuff but my readers.

      Secondly, I like to maintain my anonymity, partly because it’s just less hassle, but mostly because if I start plastering ‘credentials’ all over things, I’m inviting people to attack me rather than my arguments.

  13. calmhead Says:

    I’m surprised you (and the snopes article) rashly conclude that archers were unlikely to be held for ransom (worse yet the snopes article makes an unsubstantiated claim that they are more likely to simply have been killed). This article covers a lot of interesting facts about the treatment of prisoners in medieval warfare, and makes clear that it wasn’t just the noblemen who were captured, but also the common foot-soldiers (and presumably therefore also archers).

    As for the two vs. three fingers argument, it’s brings little that can be considered conclusive, since while a man might require three fingers for the draw, cutting off two of them rather than all three would be quite sufficient to prevent him from doing so, which is the supposed to point. One may even speculate that leaving the thumb would have the advantage of leaving the person able to do manual labour which would otherwise be difficult, and as pointed out in the above article a prison may have to work for his ransom if he couldn’t pay in cash.

    Finally, it’s dangerous to use the absence of evidence as the evidence of absence, as you have discovered and corrected in regards to recorded use of the symbol (1901 vs 1970). One thing to note here is that the 1901 film may give a clue as to the fact that this might have been a working-class or ‘common’ gesture which there may be little reason to think would be recorded under other circumstances. It is said that Churchill had to be told to invert his original version of the V sign to make the palm face out, so maybe there was a class divide here which could explain the relative lack of recorded use.

    The case against is not clear-cut as it appears, but nor is the evidence for particularly convincing, but unproven rather than proven false.

  14. calmhead Says:

    Article URL went AWOL, should be: http://deremilitari.blogspot.com/2006/10/english-monarchs-and-treatment-of.html

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  17. michael Says:

    http://www.grahamhancock.com/phorum/read.php?f=1&i=285386&t=285386

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  20. Hettie Judah Says:

    Hi there – I’m doing a bit of research for a design feature on the V sign at the moment (for a UK arts magazine), and wondered whether the discussion on this page ever got any closer to working out the origins of the sign – or at least the first public sighting? I’d be interesting to learn a bit more about your research into the subject. Best, H

    • bshistorian Says:

      Hi Hettie,

      I’ve emailed you, and also posted this update on the earliest instance of the gesture:

      http://bshistorian.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/775/

      Re earlier comments that I may have missed, can I just point out that a claim without any evidence is rather more than ‘unproven’. It’s just a claim – and anyone can make one of those…

  21. The BS Historian Says:

    [...] sorted out my comments, a steady trickle has started to come in, most recently a comment from Hettie Judah that is the inspiration for this post. Hettie wondered if I’d come across any earlier reference [...]

  22. crafts Says:

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  23. David Beal Says:

    I was born in 1940 and can remember using the v sign with my friends as an insult when at primary school in west London ie when I was 10 years old in 1950.

    • David J. Cottrell Says:

      I was born in 1941, also in west London, Fulham and we used the up-flicking V sign as an insult before the time I entered primary school. In fact, street gangs, yes we had them back then, often used the sign as an insult to members of other gangs in an attempt to cause indignation and start an instant provocation.

      As for the so-called American single digit sign, that is traceable to ancient Greece.

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  26. paul pottin Says:

    The fact that you rely on snopes for inspiration speaks volumes.

    • bshistorian Says:

      Snopes remains an excellent source, but it’s hardly my only one, for this or any other of my posts. What’s your vested interest for wanting this myth to be true, I wonder?

  27. Simmons Says:

    Have heard this story many times. Then one dat got to thinking about the practicle side of it. I seem to remember hearing somewhere that the English Longbow could be effective at up to 300 yards. So presumably the enemy would be stood further away than this. I would doubt that they would be able to clearly see two fingers from such a great distance.

  28. Robert Wainwright Says:

    Two finger salute a typical and original welsh gesture to english and like all english history full of lies

  29. Sciroccopteryx Says:

    I always assumed (as an ignorant ‘merican) that the two-finger salute had a lewd origin, just as the one-finger or the fig. I’m surprised no one here has said anything for or against that one yet.

  30. goldenboy66 Says:

    Just a thought, by removing three fingers the French would have ensured that an archer was rendered harmless however if the archer still had his two smallest fingers plus his thumb, then he could still fire a bow albeit less effectively.
    I disagree re your comment re an archer requiring three fingers to draw a 100 lb bow. Firstly, these men were highly trained and strong and secondly, when the bows retrieved from the Mary Rose were tested, the researchers concluded that the archers were exceptionally tall for the age at circa 6 foot. When tested, the bows were pulled using two fingers – Instron in High Wycombe, UK tested the bows.

    • bshistorian Says:

      The archers from the Mary Rose averaged 5’8″, only one of them was the full 6ft. I’m not sure to what degree height would confer enough advantage to compensate for a two-fingered grip, but it’s irrelevant, as Henry himself specified that the enemy would cut off three, showing that a three-finger grip was the standard and still giving the lie to the idea that the two fingers gesture originates in the 15th century.

  31. goldenboy66 Says:

    Sorry, another point I forgot to mention was that I read once that the English foot soldiers were distressed by the order to kill the prisoners during the battle of Agrincourt as it didn’t bode well for them if there were more battles of this campaign. Sorry, I can’t remember the source. Richard the Lionheart is noted for his extreme treatment of prisoners during the crusades so perhaps it wasn’t the norm by Agrincourt.

  32. goldenboy66 Says:

    My original post hasn’t materialized so here goes again! A highly skilled archer could fire a bow with his thumb and two smallest fingers hence the need to remove three fingers. Secondly, on testing the longbows retrieved from the Mary Rose, the researchers concluded that the archers were exceptionally tall at circa 6 foot – Instron, High Wycombe, UK provided the testing rigs. These bows were tested and fired by being pulled with just two fingers.

    • bshistorian Says:

      That’s because comments are moderated due to spam and daft comments, and I don’t check the site as often as I’d like. Again – it doesn’t matter if it’s possible or not, because Henry specified *three* fingers.

  33. SpanishLivingInFrance Says:

    then… Baden Powell was a fucker.
    If you’re familiar with the scout salute.

  34. Badvock Says:

    The V sign has been in use for well over a century as can be seen in this video shot in Rotherham in 1901 (1M in)

  35. Exploring Cognition and Semiotics: Part 2 | Little details Says:

    […] haven’t cut my fingers off yet!”. Another blogger relates the story in greater detail here. It has now been caught on and the meaning has simply been shortened to “Up yours!”, as […]

  36. 10 Reasons USC fans are the best | It's A Small World, After All. Says:

    […] beginning of the “V for Victory” dates back to the Hundred Years War. Basically, the French hated English archers, so when they caught any, they would cut off their […]

  37. lathenson Says:

    I grew up in the UK and recall very well being corrected and taught the difference between the Vickers (v for victory) and the knuckle out “up yours”.

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