“This calls for a delicate blend of psychology and extreme violence.”
Having 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 to the use of the two fingered ‘salute’ than the Mitchell & Kenyon film; an earlier commenter had pointed out that this pre-dated my original 1970s assumption (remember, ‘assumption’ makes an ass etc).
Well, I hadn’t. But thanks to the wonder of Google Books (again), I’ve just turned up this gem:
‘The earliest record of the insult-V we have been able to find comes from the sixteenth- century writings of Francois Rabelais, in the following passage: Panurge is carrying on a gestural ‘duel’. He makes an explicit copulation sign and then… “stretched out the forefinger, and middle finger or medical of his right hand, holding them asunder as much as he could, and thrusting them towards Thaumast.”‘
Desmond Morris, Gestures: their origins and distribution, (London:Jonathan Cape, 1979), p.228.
I daresay that’s about as early as we’ll get. Even if not, it further puts the lie to the flawed suggestion that the sign originated with English archers, since this earlier form of what is clearly the same gesture is pushed toward the target in a sexually suggestive manner, not displayed to him in today’s upright method. This doesn’t preclude archers using it in this way, but the fact remains that we just don’t have any evidence of archers using any form of the gesture. Just the threat of finger-cutting. As ever, if someone can find a reference, I’ll be pleased to see it – but if Anne Curry, Juliet Barker, and the other medieval scholars out there can’t find it, I doubt it can be found – unless a whole new source comes to light.
In any case, thanks to Desmond Morris for answering this one over thirty years ago!