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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111 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:
    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.

    • Lauren Gawne Says:

      Actually, it’s possible that Churchill knew exactly what he was doing. John Colville, Churchill’s private secretary, noted in his diaries that “The PM *will* give the V-sign with two fingers in spite of representations repeatedly made to him that this gesture has quite another significance”.

      • bshistorian Says:

        Ha! Excellent, thanks Lauren.

      • Robert B White Says:

        Highly dimming, nobody has grasped the meaning and significance. So sad, the programing goes on. Education?

      • Jonathan Myer Says:

        in response to calmhead:

        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 […]

        As perhaps your only contributor who (1) actually saw Churchill in the flesh (so to speak),* and (2) caught Snopes in two errors myself** — I submit that, like many or most European conflicts during the Middle Ages, only the nobility or other captives of wealth (i.e., men in costly armor and/or on horseback) were held for ransom if captured. It wasn’t worth the winners’ time or effort to spare their worst enemies . . . especially those commoners who killed from a distance (hardly sporting where close combatants were concerned).***

        * My younger brother and I were in London’s House of Commons’ visitors’ gallery (1951 or early ’52) when an ancient Winston Churchill entered from the rear of the chamber, tottered up to the front bench, whispered a brief message to a colleague (perhaps the PM), and then turned and tottered out. — No “V” of either sort.

        ** Snopes usually has the most extensive evaluations of claims that reach them, but I noticed (in a piece about Elvis Presley) that a decimal was in the wrong place, thus misrepresenting the “real” number. Snopes answered that they deal only with messages that cross their deck, so I forwarded three such (with the correct number). Snopes neither replied nor changed its verdict.
        Secondly, in response to a claim (from a Viet vet) that John Kerry’s Vietnam medals were wrongly earned (this was during his 2004 campaign), Snopes’s verdict was “False.” I noticed that, even a few years later, Snopes had used only supportive sources, omitting both Swift Boat veteran John O’Neill’s book “Unfit to Command” (also in 2004) and the post-election narrative “TO SET THE RECORD STRAIGHT: How Swift Boat Veterans, POWs and New Media Defeated John Kerry,” which “connected a lot of dots” — on both sides — while fully covering the “medals” issues. I e-mailed Snopes twice, citing these sources — to no avail.
        So they’re not perfect, even though I agree with them on this issue.

        *** There weren’t no Geneva Conventions in those days, now often euphemized as the era of chivalry. Come to think of it, they are ignored by most of our enemies to this day.

        (Pontificator Rex)

      • V Soar Says:

        You make two conflicting statements, which one are we to believe ?

        You say..
        1) I’m surprised you…. 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).

        2) I submit that,.., only the nobility or other captives of wealth (i.e., men in costly armor and/or on horseback) were held for ransom

        So which is it, ? 1) – we are all wrong to assume archers were not held for ransomed but were killed or 2) only the rich were held for ransome Both these statements cannot be correct they are mutually exclusive.

  14. calmhead Says:

    Article URL went AWOL, should be:

  15. Cohron Says:

    Thank you so much for your nice suggestion.I will give it a try.

  16. Peterman Says:

    Film izle dizi izle video izle. Ne ararsan bu sitede denemekten zarar ??kmaz

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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

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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)

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  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”.

  38. bruce Says:

    …Steve McQueen gives this salute to his rival driver at the end of the movie LeMans….it seemed so right at the time, now I don’t know.

  39. aelarsen Says:

    The battle against historical myths is a never-ending one. Thanks for this post.

  40. Nils Visser Says:

    There’s a 15th century depiction of an archer giving the archer’s salute. Of course, that’ll be late 15th century and Agincourt was early 15th century, but it’s getting rather close isn’t it?

  41. Farmer Bullshot Says:

    Even if the French cut off all three fingers needed to fire a bow it is extremely difficult to actually hold up three fingers on one hand and is much easier to use two – holding the third finger down with the thumb.

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  44. Karl Von Hellmuth Says:

    judging by the normality of the 1901 fellow’s use of the gesture in the video, I find it safe to presume that it’s true origin does indeed go back a few hundred years at-least. For if it was inspired from the victorian era, then surely it wouldn’t be lost in history.

    I would like to start hunting down a mention of this in literature. Also, If i were to speculate my own myth, then maybe it origionates with pistols. cause people make a pistol with those two fingers and thumb… perhaps it’s a more diplomatic way of gunning someone down with sign language… i dunno… like a defused firearm.

  45. noreply Says:

    Long bows are long, having a long draw which doesn’t require three fingers to pull, not for an experienced bowman. Besides if they only cut off two fingers, three fingers would be remaining, allowing the bowman to adapt.

  46. Yeckel Says:

    ‘Up yours’ might explain it? Seeing as the fingers are ‘brandished’ in a way that could be a sexual insinuation.

    Perhaps it started with the fingers together and then developed into them being apart?

    In my mind is someone who is quite drunk and using it as an instinctive response to someone else..

    Pure speculation obviously.

    Great site.

  47. Sara Says:

    Calmhead makes good points.

    I was a teen in the early 60s and I can confirm that by the late 60s the ‘up yours’ V sign was in general use, but before that I’d never seen one (having grown up in genteel surroundings in the Home Counties).

    It was generally understood to signify the female mons pudenda, so was just too ‘rude’ a gesture for the middle and upper classes. By the late 60s all that class stuff had gone out of the window of course, and being vulgar was a badge of honour.

  48. Jonathan Myer Says:

    As a post-War II British schoolboy, I was familiar with both the “Victory V” and the “insult V.” Over to the U.S. in 1952 (for good), I saw two “F-you” examples you haven’t included above:

    1. In 1960, I saw the British film “I’m All Right Jack” open with a VE-day celebration, during which one exuberant shinnied up a Union Jack flagpole, and after the title appeared gave that two-finger “salute,” punctuating the common expression “I’m all right, Jack – F… you!” (An early cameo appearance by Anthony Newley? As he’s not listed in the cast, I can’t be sure.)

    2. During his 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon was interviewed on the Huntley-Brinkley Report. (I don’t recall the date.) When he mentioned a meeting with Winston Churchill and saying, jowls wobbling with intensity, (something like) “. . . and when I saw that indomitable old man giving his famous . . .” and Nixon flashed a “V” . . . only his hand was facing the wrong way! Nixon had just told the American people to go F- themselves — on national TV! I was sure there’d be an uproar next day, but I never learned of any reaction. . . . Perhaps, in retrospect, he’d seen an earlier example . . . before Churchill had been (ahem) educated by his staff?

    As attributed to George Bernard Shaw: “The Americans and British are two peoples separated by a common language.”

  49. Mattew Says:

    Hi, i just finished to read this and i want to make my own comment. But there is a problem, i’m french and i’m not that good in english to show you my position about this. So i would like someone to translate my french message in english, i promess you it’s very interesting and should probably make you see everything diferently anf my arguments are different than every post i have read.

    Je ne suis pas d’accord du tout avec cet article. Depuis toujours les signes sont modifiés mais parfois les connotations restent les mêmes.
    Si les archers anglais utilisé deux ou trois doigts on s’en fiche car pour moi le signe remonte bien de cette période. Dans l’hypothèse la plus connu où les français coupaient les deux doigts, il n’y a rien à démontré car tout serait expliqué et logique. MAIS ! Imaginons que les français coupaient bien trois doigts, pourquoi le signe V serait ma ? Trois doigts ressemble plus a un W. La réponse est simple … avez vous déjà tenté de lever simultanément les trois doigts du milieu de votre main sans lever les autres ? Si vous avez déjà essayé, vous savez que le quatrième doigts et comme relié au cinquième. Or levée quatre doigts ne veut rien dire, et lever trois est trop compliqué à cause de ça. Je pense donc que par déformation, levée deux doigts est resté comme signe le plus connu et a donné suite au fameux V d’aujourd’hui. Je pense que l’a expliqué plus tard en remarquant que le V est proche du U est qu’on l’aurait appelé ” Up yours ” car au fil du temps tout ne reste pas et peut contribué hélas à déformer la chose. De nos jours beaucoup de signes subissent ça et les personnes peu ouvertes d’esprit contribue avec l’éducation donné au enfant à modifier l’histoire.
    Si vous n’êtes pas convaincu j’ai une autre piste qui pourrait remonter beaucoup plus loin que ça, mais tout se que je vais dire n’est qu’hypothèse, je vous laisse le plaisir de chercher.
    Depuis toujours les gens volent ( pas comme des oiseaux !!! Mais comme les voleurs bandes d’anglais que vous êtes ;) ). Imaginons qu’à une certaine époque, les gens volaient beaucoup, pour survivre, subvenir à leurs besoin. Imaginons maintenant qu’à une certaine période l’autorité pouvait être mal perçue par les gens pauvres. Ajoutons à ça la vilaine connotation du V. Vous aurez compris la ou je veux en venir. On sait que les voleurs à une époque étaient punis en leur coupant la main. Mais que pouvaient ils faire après ? Sans travail, une personne inutile. Je pense donc que quand les gardes ou les gens riches arrêtaient un voleur, ils leur coupaient les deux doigts. Un voleur perdait ainsi sa dextérité mais pouvait encore travaillé. En ajoutant à ça que les voleurs étaient souvent pauvres, que le V est du langage populaire, je pense que bien avant les archers anglais le V était symbole de mécontentement, de provocation, de refus d’autorité.

    J’espère que mes théories vous plaisent, n’hésitez pas à réagir dessus. Et désolée encore une fois de ne pas avoir le niveau d’anglais suffisant.

  50. Veronica-Mae Soar Says:

    Just found this site while researching something else – as one does – and what an interesting list of comments on a “myth” which I as an archer historian have been trying to deal with for years.
    Most of what BSh says is quite right and reasonable, as are the majority of comments below it.
    A few points: 1) archers NEVER fire a bow, that is what you do with a gun or cannon “give fire” being the order.
    2) Those suggesting that an archer could shoot using a thumb and two little fingers are clearly not archers. He might manage a fairly light bow, or perhaps use an oriental thumb lock, but I don’t believe he would be considered of much use in battle.
    3) old paintings can be found where a character appears to be waving two fingers, but they are usually fairly close together; and a moments reflection will show that it is a sort of “this is so” or “thus it is” gesture, It can be clearly seen being made by the instructor in the Lutrell psalter image above, and is a gesture shown being made by priests and also – in one painting – by God himself. Clearly not a rude sign.

    One suggestion is that the palm outwards says “peace” the palm inwards says”war” but I am not wedded to that as a theory
    I am with the poster who suggests “up yours/F…you” – or as one said “go F….yourself” It might be remembered that many many folk using this sign had probably never heard of the archer battles of old.

    The discussions will no doubt continue as long as there are archers and websites

  51. Felix Glynn Says:

    Regarding the origins of the V-sign- I cannot vouch for the veracity of this claim at this time (although I will be doing some follow-up research), but I recall being told that it was an easier-to-see variant of an Anglo-Saxon gesture, meaning “woman”. The person who relayed this theory to me claimed that a pair of fingers extended and splayed with the tips pointing to earth was a crude depiction of a woman’s legs/genitals, and would have been used to insult the masculinity of those gestured at. Raising the hand up, so the fingers point to the sky, would make it easier to see.

    • Hugh Soar Says:

      There is a drawing known to me, dating I believe from the sixteenth century,showing two archers in front of a castle wall,one has his right hand outstretched upward with two fingers extended,- the other has his hand extended with the thumb uppermost. I take each to be a gesture of derision. bogaman aka Hugh Soar.

  52. Robert B White Says:

    Absolute poppycock, if you actually understood the dexterity needed to pull a Longbow correctly you would comprehend its V signs real meaning,
    Plus you’d understand how touch wood and crossed fingers were derived?
    You are just starting another myth, another so called expert just like the ones you are belittling.
    Are you and everyone so naive to believe that it took such a long time for an English (not Welsh, another myth) archer to become proficient at this weapon launcher just by building up upper body muscle.
    You’ll be telling me next that the Trebuchet at Warwick castle is actually set up to knock castle walls down as just like all the other Trebuchet’s reproduced. With the parabola trajectory imposed it would take months. Maybe you should go to one of the American universities that specialise in getting their students to build one and then issue them a pass mark for getting it completely wrong.
    You’ll be telling me that you can push next.

  53. Veronica-Mae Soar Says:

    I am quite puzzled by Roberts comments and do not understand what points he is trying to make. I assume that you understood them bsh ? Is his derision aimed at you ? I wonder if he is an archer and if he shoots the heavy war style longbow.

    • bshistorian Says:

      Well, not really, but I took the gist to be;

      1) From his personal experience, the war bow was difficult to draw.*
      2) It therefore required X number of fingers to draw it.
      3) These fingers were therefore important to an archer.
      4) He might therefore have waved them at his enemy.
      5) ????
      6) Profit.

      *As I cannot even string a 100lb war bow, I can vouch for this.

  54. wholetale Says:

    On the way to making the “fig of Spain” [thumb wiggled between first two fingers, referenced by Pistol in Henry V] it is necessary to raise those fingers in a V-gesture…

  55. nilsvisser Says:

    The image Hugh Soar referred to dates from the late 15th and early 16th century and is by Diebold Schilling. Apart from the archer’s salute (fingers not close together) the other man is probably ‘biting his thumb’, a insulting gesture made immortal by William Shakespeare.

    • bshistorian Says:

      Ah, thank you for that. A wonderful image showing bow against handgun, and I would have to say easily the best evidence for those claiming this as the ‘archer’s salute’. Perhaps if there were a written reference to back it up…

  56. Robert B White Says:

    Miscomprehension, our accepted beliefs and reliance on the ordained norm is the problem here.
    Oh and yes I am an archer, but my love of toxophily stems from the original, which was then superseded by another, before being supplanted by the bow and arrow.
    Or to put it into context, “being led up the garden path”!

    • Veronica-Mae Soar Says:

      Robert – From the original ? You used an atl atl ? or perhaps a so called “Swiss” throwing arrow?
      In my book the origin of toxophily was and is archery – with a bow and arrow. It was only in Victorian times it was called toxophiliy; they loved long words. Before that in England it was bowskill

  57. arty mcclench Says:

    Just to fill out the 1940s context, although the Parkgate film record does renders it somewhat unecessary, I have seen photo and newsreel images of cheerful British soldiers and sailors making Churchill’s “V for Victory’ but with some wags slyly holding up two fingers the ‘wrong’ way round, their gleefull smiles clearly showing this is no accident. I can’t give you references, but I _promise_ you they’re there!

    How the two-finger ‘V’ transformed into the peace sign of the Vietnam War era is another matter. I should be interested to know. Boodhism?

  58. arty mcclench Says:

    PS. There are definitely two instances of British 1st Airborne Division soldiers, captured in the aftermath of the Arnhem operation, giving unambiguous V-signs to the camera, one in a group shot where the men are determined to show they are not cowed; the other a soldier who, being marched past the camera, turns and walks back into shot to give an emphatic ‘F- you’ into the lens.
    So it goes.

    PPS. There’s no direct indication that the Schilling figure with his three digits extended is an archer or that the alleged taunt is the reason for his making that gesture. At best, ‘arguable.’

  59. recyclingsupport Says:

    Welsh Archers, the legend of the 2 finger salute is about Welsh archers. the Welsh the commended and were considered the finest in the world. It became law that Englishman had to practice with a longbow, because the Welsh had proved so effective against the French crossbow. The English had also started using the crossbow rather than a longbow by that point, until the Welsh won Arincourt. Of course the Welsh fought on the English side and for England.

    • bshistorian Says:

      Arincourt? If you mean Agincourt, then regardless of who invented the longbow, I’m afraid there were many more English archers at that battle than Welsh (see, among others, the work of Anne Curry, who has done the research on the pipe rolls and other sources). Only 400 compared to some 6000 Englishmen. That’s just Agincourt though; archers used in English armies could be from either country, and both were equally respected. No need to mythologise/nationalise things.

    • Robert B White Says:

      Here come the disgruntled, I bet the scribe also believes the drivel that it was a welsh Regiment at Rorke’s Drift.

      • bshistorian Says:

        Well, now you mention it…

      • Robert B White Says:

        Good and accurate info But did you also know that Lieutenants John Rouse Merriott Chard and Gonville Bromhead are wrongly given credence for their command at Rorke’s drift It is far more interesting to know that the person that should have received the full recognition of organising the defence of the Drift, was acting assistant commissary James Langley Dalton of the transport department, Who incidentally was the last to be recognised and to receive his VC. Political shenanigans abounded here and continue to this day! As by today’s standard of military awards, there would and should have been twelve VC’s awarded, However at this time posthumous awards were not given. Had private Joseph Williams, B Coy, 2nd/24th Foot, who died defending the hospital survived he would most certainly have received a VC, he was however mentioned in despatches! Which beggars the question of how “if this be true”; that prior to Rorke’s Drift we got our arses kicked at Isandlwana due entirely to Lord Chelmsford’s incompetence and arrogance, two VC’s were awarded to Lieutenants Melville and Coghill who tried to carry off the Colours? They were obviously unsuccessful and died in their endeavour. It smacks of hypocrisy. It obviously means that only officers could be awarded posthumous awards. As for Chelmsford he was never brought to book, he got away with it, probably because he was very good friends with Queen Victoria. After 9 years in Zululand you find these little things out and it’s not in any book only passed down from Zulu descendants!

  60. Robert B White Says:

    Sadly you have all missed the point, everyone appears to be concentrating on the V sign where it is the touch wood and the crossed fingers that are more Imperative.
    All or beliefs are fundamentally swayed by the powers that be, so therefore whatever is proffered by the head cheese is taken as sacrosanct !
    In the case of the Medieval archer (and before,) the sign was used to greet a fellow archer and to confirm if the saluted archer was indeed Kosher?
    If your returning salute was erroneous, You would probably been taken to the local ale house and been plied with mead and generally had a good time.
    You would not have made it back to the camp.
    Archers were proud of their prowess and extremely violent. Nobody messed with these toxophilites.
    All those that saw the sign of crossed fingers would have had their throats cut.
    What you observe is not what you see.
    The sign goes way back before the middle ages.and was highly significant in the bows two predecessors.

  61. Up yours: The gesture that divides America and the UK – Strong Language Says:

    […] became a battle gesture. There is no evidence to support this story, and quite a lot of evidence to contradict it, although that doesn’t stop the story being […]

  62. jerry lewis Says:

    You misunderstand . The v sign has evolved. Yes., all three primary fingers were used, needed , too properly draw and control release of longbow arrows….yet ,being that prisoners were commonly used as laborers it was not productive to totally handicap a hand by removing two or even three fingers , .however, by removing the middle finger only ,the amputee could still be useful as slave labor, and obviously the missing digit left the appearance of the v Sign when the archers drawstring fingers were displayed without it. The middle finger is therefore displayed to show the individual has the ability , and intent to pluck a yew.

    • Veronica-Mae Soar Says:

      Oh purleeese, cease perpetuating the idea that an archer “plucks yew.” The yew is the bow, the string is of hemp. He does not “pluck” the string, he is not playing a banjo. he hauls back the string and let’s it go

      • Robert B White Says:


        (Oh purleeese, cease perpetuating the idea that an archer “plucks yew.” The yew is the bow, the string is of hemp. He does not “pluck” the string, he is not playing a banjo. he hauls back the string and let’s it go)

        You can’t perpetuate on something you haven’t even scratched the surface of.
        What you condescendingly wrote is probably what everyone believes, i.e. the archer just hauls (pulls) back on the bow (bough) and lets go.
        Are all the so called aficionados thoughts, this way inclined.
        Do you honestly believe that the years of training with a longbow was solely to build up upper body muscle, in order to draw a 110 lb bow.
        please don;t insult your own intelligence.
        This was not one of these bows (machines) that they use in the modern era.
        Even the true archer realises that the longbow is made up of one piece, but it is comprised of two arms; a shame they do not take the concept a little farther.
        Just like another common run of the mill instrument used for hundred of years and completely msconstrued
        The scissor!!!!!!!

      • V Soar Says:

        Robert you seem to inhabit a strange world where you are totally incapable of making a point which is relevant to the post. There is no scratching of the surface to be done. My post said stop perpetuating a silly idea. Nothing to do with two arms. nothing to do with years of training, simple fact THE ARCHER DOES NOT PLUCK YEW.

      • Robert B White Says:

        Hello V
        You may regard my tone or approach as insulting, that is a pity and so be it, however I can’t apologise for what is fundamentally your problem.
        The whole post was started as a slur on English history i.e. “Two fingers up to English history”!
        Correctly pointing out that a lot of the information is brought about
        through national pride, patriotism etc etc.
        Basically “To the Victors the spoils”
        Henceforth and therefore everyone delves into the written word and apparently checks their facts through the celebrated and respected, for proof. (Those that are to be believed),
        However there are things in history that aren’t given any credence whatsoever.
        The part about the V sign as being used to bait the French most definitely holds water, however it has a more practical significance.
        What the archer did, but did not comprehend, is all encompassing, Even today it is not understood.
        People are to set in their ways and indoctrinated to follow a certain path, programming didn’t start with the invention of computers.
        You must believe what is obvious and then learn the truth when it’s far too late.
        I wish you well

      • artemis diana Says:

        Robert – I did not find your comments insulting in the least just largely incomprehensible You speak in riddles and expect people to understand. You imply that YOU have secret knowledge which no-one else has. You imply that all writers are liars (except you of course)

        I did not say YOU have missed the point I asked what point you think WE have missed.

        I do wonder, since you live in S.Africa, just how much you know about England and English history – specifically anything to do with English archery and archers. I do not – as you suggest – comment on something I know nothing about – far from it. I know a great deal about the history of archery.

        If – as you say – this action is a greeting between archers then why do they no longer use it as a greeting and have not done so for several hundred years. Why did they stop ? tell me that

        It is well known that whoever writes history puts their own slant on things. It is rare that a writer is totally unbiased. But if you read many authors it is possible to draw a balanced conclusion …..And Shakespeare did not write history, he was a dramatist he wrote plays – totally different thing We know that much of what he wrote was inaccurate, we do not go to his writings for a history lesson.

      • Robert B White Says:

        I was not going to reply to your offering. but after due thought I have relented.
        Firstly as for the implication that I have a secret knowledge, this is indeed fact.I will not elaborate on this so do not ask. Suffice to say I can prove it at any time!
        I will respond your remarks in the order they appear, however you won’t like the answers, because they’re the truth; largely undocumented, but still the truth!
        Firstly I no longer live in S.A. I have returned to the country of my birth, I’m English and extremely proud of it. My adventures in S.A. were almost entirely educational. Not everything is written.
        If you state you know a great deal about the history of archery then who am I to contradict. Lets try to enlighten some people just a little.
        We will include three other weapons which predate the Bow and arrow, I refer to Sling, Throwing board and the Viking arrow
        Before you think I am side stepping the issue, may I point out that these three are the forerunner of the B&A. The all use the same two identical delivery types. One being Parabola, not Parabolic, “there’s no such word”, the other Linear. Both call for a different approach, a different mindset. Most anyone could use the parabola approach, which was used at Agincourt on a stupid enemy that tried to gallop into a bog.
        Crecy was the domain of the Linear where the English archers (not Welsh, they used a short bow) were actually firing down onto the French. The linear is applied in a different way and from these linear archers rose the sharpshooters of the day. They did something different which is where the crossed fingers has erroneously originated from. Mainly because It was what onlookers saw, but mistakenly so.
        These toxophilites didn’t do crossed fingers nor did they do the insult of showing the first two fingers with the palm towards the archer nor the Winnie Church victory sign with the palm away.
        They did however do something that resembled the crossed fingers and insult V sign. But it was a salute that set them apart from the others, it signified to other top notchers what they were and that they were proud of their prowess. Other top notchers would reply in kind.
        What this sign implied was that they could extend the range and the accuracy by applying Rifling to the arrow. Unfortunately I do believe most earnestly that although they used the action they were unaware of its significance and over the years familiarity fuelled contempt and they basically forgot even how to do it.
        Their expertise suffered and it has laid dormant.
        Incidentally as a historical buff you must be well aware that the recurve Archers are mindful that the bow consists of two arms, can you please explain to me why they don’t fathom that a bow also has two strings.
        We won’t speak of the compound bow of today’s olympics and such
        as it is nothing more than a machine. The yumi would be different as it also holds the secret of the archers paradox.
        As you say writers do have a tendency to garnish the lilly everyone is aware of this. However a lie is a lie, it makes no never mind if the lie is intentional or unintentional; a lie, is a lie, is a lie!
        It ventures onto subliminal persuasion then to paradoxes and enigmas.
        There is another ancient weapon which must be categorised with the above. The Trebuchet, as with the others also has two means of delivery however every Trebuchet that is constructed today uses the secondary, the lesser parabola approach that was used cast whatever is required over fortified walls, not to knock them down, Whoever devised this war machine was an absolute genius and the secret stayed with him and the guyners.
        As for Willy Shake he was a propagandist pure and simple.
        He did a real beauty on MacBeth, one of Scotland’s greatest Kings
        I bid thee adieu forever

      • V Soar Says:

        I really must address some of your points….

        “We will include three other weapons which predate the Bow and arrow, I refer to Sling, Throwing board and the Viking arrow”

        A Viking arrow went with a Viking bow. Do you perhaps mean the arrow thrown by means of a string? variously called the French, Dutch or Gypsy arrow. Vikings were not prehistoric, they certainly did not pre-date bows and arrows. You do not mention the atlatl – or is that what you call a throwing board ?

        “Most anyone could use the parabola approach, which was used at Agincourt…….. Crecy was the domain of the Linear where the English archers (not Welsh, they used a short bow) were actually firing…….!

        Archers do not fire, it is not necessary to set light to a bow for it to work.

        “…….down onto the French.. “

        It matters not whether you are shooting a long distance, a short distance, uphill or down hill, the effect on the arrow is that it always rises from the bow in a parabolic or ballistic curve. Any missile will travel in a ballistic curve, even if only a slight one which cannot be seen by the naked eye. .

        “They did something different which is where the crossed fingers has erroneously originated from.”

        Crossing ones fingers is a sign to ward off bad luck. It is well known and still used today and not just by archers.

        “.These toxophilites………did however do something that resembled the crossed fingers and insult V sign.”

        And you obviously have documented evidence of this sign, such as images produced at the time ? Do let us all see them

        “What this sign implied was that they could extend the range and the accuracy by applying Rifling to the arrow.”

        WHAT !! An arrow does not need to be rifled, it will rotate quite naturally due to the effect of the fletchings. This is the reason they are all from the same wing of the bird,

        “Unfortunately I do believe most earnestly that although they used the action….……they basically forgot even how to do it. Their expertise suffered and it has laid dormant”

        So how come you know about it ?
        “Incidentally as a historical buff you must be well aware that the recurve Archers are mindful that the bow consists of two arms,”


        “can you please explain to me why they don’t fathom that a bow also has two strings”

        Not nowadays. The two strings to your bow idea meant having a spare one available, in pouch or under hat, Today it is kept in the tackle box. There IS an old image of a bow with one string in use and another hanging loose, but all this would do is get in the way and spoil the shot. – It has been tried.

        “We won’t speak of the compound bow of today’s olympics and such as it is nothing more than a machine”

        True – but then so is a trebuchet. And compound bows are not used in the Olympics, only in the Paralympics.

        “ The yumi would be different as it also holds the secret of the archers paradox.”

        There is no secret to the paradox. The forces at play when an arrow is released cause it to bend one way and then the other in decreasing amounts, this action enables it to clear the bow and still travel toward its intended target
        “As you say writers do have a tendency to garnish the lilly everyone is aware of this. However a lie is a lie, it makes no never mind if the lie is intentional or unintentional; a lie, is a lie, is a lie! “

        A very famous man once said “What is truth?” and this was a very insightful comment, since one man’s truth is another man’s untruth – and vice versa.

        Adieu ??? are you going somewhere ?

  63. Robert B White Says:

    Everyone has missed the point,. It’s staring you all in the face you observe but you do not see.
    You read little books and accept the doctrine because of the pre eminence of the author.
    So be it.

    • V Soar Says:

      What on earth are you jabbering about. Missed what point ? read what little books? What doctrine? What author ?

      It is you who seem to have missed the point. We are discussing a particular and specific hand gesture = not anything else. If you want to discuss touch wood and crossed fingers, tap head or stick tongue out then start a new thread.

      • Robert B White Says:

        I haven’t missed any point, you and yours have missed the significance of this so called gesture,
        It is not a gesture, it is an action. An action that is mistaken and is being maligned by the so called intelligentsia, because they as you, do not comprehend.
        Not only was It was done in a specific way that made a good archer a top flight archer it was also used as a greeting to other archers, stating that you were a top archer and knew what you were about.
        If you had proffered then, what is the now accepted as the salute, you would have probably had your throat cut.
        As for an author? No author therefore all authors, you can’t and shouldn’t comment on something you know nothing about.
        History is rubbish written by dipsticks and propagandists including William Shakespeare. Henry V was right to do what he did on the day Chivalry died.

  64. Neil Says:

    This is absolute rubbish backed up with a total of nothing just like the V-Sign claim itself, except the V-Sign has cause, reason & logic Behind it. Just because there is no documented evidence of the V-Sign doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. The ONLY documentation back then was Royal or Christian. The V-Sign was a lower class insult. Fowl & associated with the peasants. The records of Agincourt were written by the Monks & Royals. Monk & Royals wont have recorded the vile insults of the lower class. It would be shameful. The Victory was recorded as ‘One of God’ first & Henry V second. The Archers wont have been handed the glory not at all. The lowly peasant? haha. Not going to happen.

    The French DID single the English Archers out for specificity gruesome ends if captured. This is in no doubt. They spread the word of this to terrify the ‘English’.

    If you torture & humiliate a man how do you do it? You attack his faith, occupation & people. If he betters you in something you target that too.

    Of course fingers were cut off. Of course disfigured English Archers were put on display in the French Hamlets as a weapon of fear. Knowing this would get back to Henry’s men.

    Just as a thieves hands are cut out & a liers tongues cut out…. an archers fingers will have been cut off.

    You really don’t understand the era or even mankind if you cant see this.

    You need to try harder at History.

    • bshistorian Says:

      Ignoring the insulting tone, I’m afraid that isn’t how history works at all. Just because something is plausible doesn’t mean that it happened. Those of us who actually study the past professionally rely upon evidence, not conspiracy theories about the suppressed working class archers. Otherwise, what’s to stop anyone from just making things up?

      This is the first principle of academia. Give me one piece of historical evidence for this claim. One. I won’t hold my breath.

  65. Neil Says:

    Bernard Cornwell covers point here

    “Agincourt started with STORIES told by survivors (unwritten)’It may be true about V-Sign’

    • bshistorian Says:

      Yes. Somehow “It might even be true” doesn’t fill me with confidence.

    • V Soar Says:

      Neil. The full paragraph from Cornwell seeks to answer the question “Why do we remember it ?” (Agincourt) and intimates that we remember it because of the tales of those who thought they were done for but who won.
      The next sentence moves on to the suggestion that the two fingers MIGHT be true.- NOT that it was mentioned in the tales brought back. .
      There is no real evidence other than a record that Henry SAID the French would cut off fingers. The French have always denied that their forebears ever said any such thing.

      Even if we do accept that there were tales brought back that does not makes it true. We only have to look at the tales brought back from 1st World War about the Angels of Mons – pure fabrication but lots of folk at the time believed it.

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