A brief history of gestures - from the handshake to the high-five

Gestures – usually made with the hand, but in some notable cases with other parts of the body entirely – form a symbolic, non-vocal language; a shorthand way of sending a message without the need for words. Many gestures we make today have a long history, and some are supposedly connected with particular historical events. Here, Robert Hume considers the history – both real and imagined – of six popular gestures…

This article was first published in October 2015

Reconciliation between Thomas a Becket & Henry II. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1)  The handshake

This greeting dates back at least as far as Ancient Greece. In the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, a funeral stone from the 5th century BC depicts two soldiers shaking hands. The base of a column at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, meanwhile, shows Hera [the wife and sister of Zeus in the Olympian pantheon of Greek mythology and religion] shaking hands with Athena [the goddess of wisdom, courage and inspiration in ancient Greek mythology and religion]. By shaking hands, rather than bowing or curtseying, both parties proved they were equals and that they felt sufficiently comfortable in each other’s presence not to bring weapons.

In van der Helst’s painting, The Celebration of the Peace of Münster, 18 June 1648, Captain Witsen [a counsellor and mayor of the city of Amsterdam] is shown shaking hands in a gesture of friendship with his lieutenant. Meanwhile, handshakes between man and wife are depicted in numerous 17th-century marriage portraits. In the wedding ceremony itself, the gesture sealed a sacred and legally binding commitment.

The White House lawn became the setting for a notable handshake in Middle East history on 13 September 1993, when Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords [a set of agreements marking the start of a peace process]. President Bill Clinton had coaxed these bitter enemies together for the symbolic gesture. Unfortunately, the hoped-for peace in the Middle East failed to live up to the promise of that handshake. 

 

2) Thumbs up

It is popularly believed that this gesture can be traced back to the Colosseum when gladiators fought in front of their emperor and a crowd of thousands. The fate of the fallen gladiator famously depended on how much of a fight he had put up. If he had made a good show, chances were the crowd would convey their appreciation with a thumbs-up gesture, which would then be confirmed by the emperor, who would spare his life. Thumbs down, on the other hand, meant execution.

However, there are in fact no contemporary references to thumbs going either up or down in the Colosseum. In reality, those wanting to spare the gladiator would cover up their thumb and keep it out of sight (pollice compresso, or ‘compressed thumb’). They would only extend it if they wanted him killed. This way, the emperor didn't have to strain his eyes scanning the vast arena to work out which way most thumbs were pointing, which makes far more sense. 

 

3) Mooning

Baring one’s bottom in public may have originated in Ancient Rome. In AD 66 the historian Flavius Josephus was watching Jewish pilgrims on their way to the temple during Passover, when suddenly a Roman soldier “raised his robe, stooped in an indecent attitude, so as to turn his backside to the Jews, and made a noise in keeping with his posture”. 

In Braveheart, the 1995 movie set in 13th-century Scotland, hundreds of Scottish warriors moon their English enemies from across the battlefield. But according to the chronicle of historian Peter Langtoft, it was the English who used mooning to insult the Scots.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle [a collection of annals in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons, created late in the 9th century] records how, during the battle of Crécy (1346), several hundred Norman soldiers “exposed their backsides to the English archers and many of them paid a high price for doing so”. The Chronicle does not include further detail.

Meanwhile at the Siege of Nice (1543), Catherine Ségurane, a washerwoman, is supposed to have stood before the invading forces exposing her bare bottom.

The gesture still has appeal in some quarters today: the Annual Mooning of Amtrak trains takes place in Laguna Niguel, California, on the second Saturday of July, and in June 2000, the Movement Against the Monarchy organised mass mooning outside Buckingham Palace. Despite a large police presence, some individuals successfully managed to moon.

The Wimbledon team moons the public during the Alan Cork Testimonial at Plough Lane in Wimbledon, London, 18 May 1988. (Pascal Rondeau/Allsport)
 

4) The V-sign

So runs the popular myth that some 600 years ago at the battle of Agincourt (25 October 1415), the French chopped off the index and middle fingers of the right hand of English archers to prevent them shooting arrows. Those who were spared are supposed to have taunted their enemy by raising their first two fingers at them: “You haven't cut off our fingers, we can still fire arrows!”

However, as shown in the Luttrell Psalter [an illuminated psalter commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, lord of the manor of Irnham in Lincolnshire] and corroborated by the contemporary chronicler, Jean de Wavrin, the effort involved to draw an English longbow (draw weight around 100lb) would have required, not two, but the use of all three main fingers of one’s dominant hand.

Any evidence establishing the true origins of the ‘V-sign’ seems to have been lost, but the gesture is still very much alive today – even, it seems, in the rarefied atmosphere of the English House of Lords. The video below shows the 89-year-old Tory peer Baroness Trumpington making a V-sign at ex-cabinet minister Tom King, when in November 2011 he dared remark that the survivors of the Second World War, “like my noble friend here” are “starting to look pretty old”.

Please refresh the page if the video fails to display properly.

 

5) The salute

According to one theory, the salute originated in the medieval period, when troops wore a ‘sallet’, or metal helmet, with a visor that could be drawn up. During inspection, the order would be given and the visor would be raised so that the inspecting officer could identify the wearer.

Whatever the truth in that, the salute as we know it seems to have developed much later – in the 18th century, when the flat hats worn by grenadier guards were replaced by cumbersome conical ones. As these new hats were held in place with chinstraps, it made them difficult to raise when greeting someone, so the guards simply touched them with one short, sharp movement to the hairline, as if intending to raise them, before quickly restoring the hand to their side.
                                                           

6) The high-five

This hand gesture is now used the world over as a greeting, or celebration. There are rival claims over which US baseball team invented it  – the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1977, or the Louisville Cardinals in 1978.

Whichever it was (and perhaps it was neither – stock exchange brokers the world over seem to have slapped hands for years), the gesture is very similar to the Jazz Age's ‘low five’ or ‘giving skin’, where two people slap each other’s lowered hands. In The Jazz Singer (1927), Al Jolson dishes out a low five to celebrate news of a Broadway audition, while in the 1941 Abbott and Costello film In the Navy, the Andrews Sisters perform ‘Gimme Some Skin, My Friend’ while giving themselves repeated low fives.

US president Barack Obama (left) high-fives British prime minister David Cameron as they play table tennis with students of the Globe Academy school in London on 24 May 2011. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Dr Robert Hume was head of history at Clarendon House Grammar School in Ramsgate, Kent (1988–2010), and now regularly writes features for the Irish Examiner.

His publications include Education Since 1700 (Heinemann, 1989); Death by Chance: The Abergele Train Disaster, 1868 (Llygad Gwalch Cyf, March 2004), and a historical novel, Ruling Ambition: The Story of Perkin Warbeck (Gee & Son, 2000). Hume also contributed to Religion and Society in Kent, 1640-1914 (Boydell, 1994).

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