|SignWriting List Forum|
Charles Butler |
Date: Mon Sep 28, 1998 4:38 pm
Subject: An article on historical research in sign language
Chironomy, Chirology, Mime, Gesture and Sign Language.
(A short article on documentation of sign language from medieval period
[This is the draft of an article submitted to Tournaments Illuminated,
the scholarly journal of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a
medieval historical recreation society) I thought that the Sign Writing
list would enjoy it.]
Within the current SCA culture, there has been the gradual acceptance of
Signing Heralds, communicating the knowledge of the court to those not
hearing. There has been some concern that the language they are using
is not "strictly" medieval and also some discussion as to what were the
uses of Sign Languages in the period of the Middle Ages, were they an
aid to the deaf, a secret language, a mnemonic device, a musical
notation? This brief overview gives some sources and methods for
continued research in "period" sign language and its uses.
1) Oldest sources:
There is evidence from Egyptian heiroglyphics and Greek monuments that
conductors of music and court magicians used some sort of gesture
language. Greek theatre had an entire competition category for mime and
gesture, of which there are some descriptions (in theory) but
unfortunately none of those sources have come down to us. What remains
are the following:
Some interpretations of the Masoretic text (the accepted text of the
Torah and other Hebrew writings) include markings which have been
extensively researched as "chieronomy" (i.e, gesture markings) for use
by conductors to mark the melodies in chanting Torah portions and the
psalms. (Footnoted source)
Some evidence from Coptic temple worship of the transmission of melodies
through a sign language/chieronomy through the often blind musicians.
Some objections have been raised of how the blind could read sign
language, but current (i.e., 20th century) evidence from deaf-blind
schools show that sign language is not a visual language but a spatial
one, accessible to both the deaf and the blind.
It has been interpreted by a few zealous researchers that the Coptic
melodies have been transmitted in whole from Egypt to the monastic
system of Europe. One Coptic musicologist when asked the question
commented: "that is truly a creative anachronism, chieronomy (as far as
that musicologist has been able to determine) refers primarily to a 19th
century recreated system calling itself cheironomy (for conducting
music) and no clear evidence exists to show an unbroken chain of melody
by chieronomic forms." There is large evidence of various conducting
styles which have been labeled cheironomy, however, in many of the
branches of the Orthodox church, particularly Russian and Bulgarian
music. This may be a fruitful area of research for other readers but is
beyond the scope of this article.
2) Monastic sign language
There is more than ample evidence from many sources of a common body of
sign language in use in the Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries.
Current texts exist, but the most significant findings are the
(th)is sindon (th)a tacna (th)e mon on mynstre healden soml (th)aer mon
aefter regiles beloude swigan halden wile and geornlice mid godes
faltume begyman sceal.... [Direct Anglo-Saxon text translated into
Anglo-Saxon from Latin]
[Translation] These are the signs that are to be used in the monastery,
and observed diligently with God's help, where it is desired to keep
silence according to the command of the rule.
from Anglo_Saxon_Monastic_Sign_Language, 1991, Translation from
Anglo-Saxon descriptions (originally in Latin) for the Rule of St.
Benedict, published by Anglo-Saxon books, Monasteriales Indicia
(Monastic Sign Language), D. Banberry, ISBN O-95-16209-40. This is
partial translation of medieval sign language manuscript with
illustrations from mid-11th century British library manuscript Cotton
Oldest continental sign lists are in two customaries from Cluny, written
by two monks from that house in 1075 and 1083. Identical lists of sign
language to Monasteriales Indicia. Examples follow:
"If you want cheese, then put your two hands together flat, as if you
were pressing it". [This is also the current ASL sign for cheese]
"If you want salt meat for any reason, then pinch with your right hand
low down on your left, where the flesh is thickest, and make with your
three fingers as if you were salting it."
[This is also the current ASL sign for meat]
[Editor's note: this sign is significant, as the monastic rule only fed
meat to the infirm or young children. One boy in the text was asked for
meat and he commented (in sign) that he was not yet under orders and so
could eat meat.] To this compiler, this indicates that the sign
language was used in the instruction of illiterate children as well.]
The sign for king is that you turn your hand downwards and hold the top
of your head with all your fingers in the sign of a crown.
(This is also the sign in current Danish Sign Language, which tells me
that the rule of St. Benedict pervaded the continental sign language.
Note that this is not the sign in current ASL usage.
[the original article inserts Anglo-Saxon Sign, ASL sign, and Danish
sign side by side for comparison]
The sign for queen is that you stroke round your head (for a circlet)
and then put your hand on top of your head (headband + king).
3) Courier sign language.
The first published British pamphlet of the British manual alphabet
dates from 1698 (slightly out of period), but the first illustration of
sign language still extant is John Bulwedi's Chirologia, the Natural
Language of the Hand, a treatise on sign language used to serve for
privy crypters, and secret information in 1644. This was a
manual for couriers and spies, not for Deaf persons. The manual is over
150 pages long and all of its descriptors of vocabulary are in Latin,
which would indicate that it was not purely British in origin. This
manual also notes the work of the Venerable Bede (11th century) and his
use of a signed alphabet for indicating numbers in code (e.g., G=7).
Current overview is by John A. Hay & Raymond Lee (both Deaf persons from
Great Britain), ISBN 0-9524419-X, A Pictorial History of the Evolution
of the British Manual Alphabet.
Evidence of other manual alphabets in common use in the Middle Ages for
the purpose of silent communication exist and three distinct alphabets
are noted in Rosellius Thesauras Artificiose_Memorie (1579).
Considering that the title refers to "aids to memory", one would presume
that these are in common usage.
3) Continental and other non-English sources:
Because several of the countries of modern Europe are still
constitutional nobilities, the sign language of those countries retains
signs for King, Queen, Prince, Princess, and occasionally other offices
(Sir, Master). It is interesting to note the differences in current
sign language systems for royalty, which are often mime-related signs,
and how they relate to ASL signs.
[ASL King, Danish Koenig, Norwegian Koeniga, Spanish Rei, Mexican Rei]
ASL's sign is based on a baldric with an initial "K", the Danish Koenig
is based on a crown set on the head (similar to British), Norwegian
Koenig has the crown upright, Spanish Rei mimes an "R" being placed on
the temples. Mexican Spanish Rei reduces this to a one handed sign.
4) Current use by royalty (an aside).
In terms of signs in current usage by royalty, we have the following.
Queen Victoria was a fluent fingerspeller due to her regular
communication with her deaf daughter-in-law Alexandra, Princess of
Wales. Prince Philip signed with his deaf mother, Princess Alice of
5) Current use in the SCA (briefly)
Because the signed languages of medieval Europe (at least as far as
current research has been able to find) were not used as everyday speech
and there are many words specific to the SCA and its historical
recreation, the SCA heralds have been forced to make compromises between
history and usefulness.
a) If the sign exists in ASL (American Sign Language), we use it. As
the most pervasive sign language used by SCA members is ASL, the
systematic creation of signs has started with users of that language.
Although the SCA has members in Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, Denmark,
Germany, and Australia, we currently in the U.S. have not been in steady
communication with our counterparts and so have relied on ASL usage
rather than British, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, German, or Australian
Sign Language. We understand that all of these rich cultures may have
signs to teach us and we welcome them, but at present we do not have the
b) If the sign does not exist in ASL, we create it using specific
(1) start with an ASL sign and initialize it for special use:
For Master of Arms we use an "M" moved across the body like a baldric,
miming off of the ASL sign for King. Though this is also the ASL
Ecclesiastical sign for "Messiah" there is usually no confusion in
(2) Where a sign does not exist at all, or a parallel, like the names of
of some of the Kingdoms, we create using the heraldry as our guide.
An Tir's badge is of a leaping deer, our ASL-patterned sign is that of a
deer (antlers to the temple), leaping forward.
(3) As further research becomes available, we hope to incorporate
appropriate Monastery signs if there will not be confusion between ASL
(our primary informants) and medieval sign language. The following is
an illustration of a possible confusion.
[Mother in ASL and Devil in Benedictine Sign Language]
[Allow one inch and one column wide]
The difference between ASL Mother (the 5-hand on the chin) and the
Benedictine Devil (winged speech) (5 hand at the right side of the mouth
touching the lips) is not visually very distinct. Though
a mother may sometimes imitate the Devil and vice-versa, it is not our
intent to confuse the two.
In conclusion, the study of Sign Languages from period sources is a ripe
field for research, and will take many years to complete. It also
includes mime, gesture, and chieronomic musical notation, all of which
are beyond this overview article. We welcome all comments, critiques,
and greater search materials. A complete guide to "Signing in the
Current Middle Ages" is being prepared for distribution at Pennsic in
Charles Butler/Cadwan Gwydion Galwiddoe/Signing Herald/Atlantia
11348 Cherry Hill Road, #302, Beltsville, MD 20705-3741.
Monasteriales Indicia, The Anglo-Saxon Monastic Sign Language, 1991,
Debby Banberry, Anglo-Saxon Books, ISBN O-9516209-4-0.
A Pictorial History of the British Manual Alphabet, John A. Hay and
Raymond Lee, ISBN O-9524419-X.
Communicacion Manual, (c) 1991, Ma. Esther Serafin Garcia, ISBN
Lingauagem das Maos, Eugeno oates, Ministerio da Educacao e Cutarao, Rio
de Janeiro, 1946.
Las Senas Los Sordamos de Mexico, Ronald Hanson, 1983, Gallaudet
University, private printing.
<http:\\www.signwriting.org> All illustrations of sign language from
modern sources are transcribed using Sutton Sign Writing, used in the
Danish, Norwegian, U.K., Nicaraguan, and U.S. school systems in pilot
projects and by the Rochester Institute of the Deaf in Rochester, NY.