Archers at the butts – from the Luttrell Psalter, c1320-40
[Update – October 2020 – I’ve tweaked the conclusion to correct my old assumption that the gesture was modern; it’s actually at least 120 years old, and probably is hundreds of years old in one form or another. But it’s almost certainly NOT from medieval archery.]
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. We do know that the gesture is old – it appears in this 1901 footage, and there’s a very old form described in ‘Gargantua And Pantagruel’ (1532) that involves pointing the fingers at the person. This makes it even less likely that it could have originated as an English gesture of defiance, as the author Francois Rabelais was French! However it really came about, we can be pretty sure that it’s bugger all to do with medieval archers.