Gestures and Looks in Medieval Narrative

Burrow, J. A. 2002. Gestures and Looks in Medieval Narrative. Port Chester: Cambridge Unviersity Press.

Modern experts have studied, often in minute detail, such things as facial expression, gaze, gesture, and posture. When medieval commentators touched on these matters, as they sometimes did, tney were most often concerned with gestures, and in particular with what was proper improper in such bodily movements - the disciplines of decent gesture. Tere was also at that time, however, a scholastic tradition which considered non-verbal messages as part of a general theory of signs, signa - for semiology, though the term is modern, was not the creation of Peirce or Saussure, as their successors sometimes claim. A main authority for such discussions 'de signis' was a section of the De Doctrina Christiana of St Augustine; and since Augustine's understanding of the matter lies quite close to that adopted in this book, it seems appropriate to start with what he has to say. (Burrow 2002: 1)
The concern with appropriateness seems valid, as they lacked methods to study these matters in finer detail. I am especially interested in this scholastic tradition, as I currently have little to nothing from medieval ages on nonverbal behavior. Also, I should one day read 'de signis' section in English.
Here Augustine raises in passing the question of whether animals can be credited with that voluntas significandi upon which his prime distinction turn: do cocks or doves intend to signify when they crow or coo?
Leaving that question aside, Augustine passes on to treat signs 'given' by human beings. He classifies them according to the sense at which they are directed: some to the eyes, most to the ears, and a few to the other sense. Words form by far the most important type of audible signs (he also mentions the music of trumpet, flute, and lyre); but especially relevant here are his observations on signs directed to the eyes:
When we nod, we give a sign just for the eyes of the person whom we want, by means of that sign, to make aware our wishes. Certain movements of the hands signify a great deal. Actors, by the movement of all their limbs, give certain signs to the cognoscenti and, as it were, converse with the spectator's eyes; and it is through the eyes that flags and standards convey the wishes of military commanders. All these things are, to coin a phrase, visible words [verba visibilia].
(Burrow 2002: 2)
I don't exactly agree with verba visibilia, but voluntas significandi sounds interesting. So does the idea to divide signs by sensory channels or body parts - mainly because it opens up the possibility of dividing signs further by signs directed "to the feet" (locomotion), "to the back" (postures), to the skin (touch, texture), etc. Also, that the hands signify a great deal made me think of self-communication as a signification process necessary for everyday living - the practical techniques of prepating and eating food, for example, must signify a great deal for the person whom they serve.
The texts studied in this book deal mostly in visible signs such as gestures and looks, and it is with these that I shall be chiefly concerned, for only a few involve (non-verbal) sound: laughs, an occasional meaning cough, and a diabolical fart. (Burrow 2002: 3)
Haha, yes, coughs and farts are also part of nonverbal behavior.
Some modern observers object to the criterion of intentionality on the grounds that, since intentions are themselves not open to inspection, they can only be inferred, and that uncertainly. But this objection hardly has any force for a student not of behaviours but of texts. Unlike real people, persons in texts have no inaccessible insides, nor can they harbour intentions beyond what their author states or implies. So one can apply the Augustinian test with some confidence, even to the less straightforward cases. (Burrow 2002: 3)
Wow. Burrow is to my current knowledge the first to implicate concursive apprach with such liberties.
Non-verbal communication in the medieval West is, needless to say, a vast and varied subject, and only some few patches of it have so far been investigated. One approach taken by scholars has been to focus on the evidence provided by a single author or artist. Thus, R. G. Benson selected Chaucer's writing for his study of 'medieval body language', and the art historian M. Barasch devoted an excellent book to the 'language of gestur' in the paintings of Giotto. An alternative method is to concentrate on a single type of action, as Barasch does in his other book, on gestures of despair, or P. Ménard does in a remarkable survey of Old French smiles and laughter. Or a study may confine itself to some particular genre of writing, as in D. Peil's comparative investigation into some Arthurian romances in medieval French and German. So far as medieval English is concerned, the only really substantial study to date is W. Habicht's monograph on body language in Old and Middle English poetry, a book to which the present study owes a debt. (Burrow 2002: 5)
Invaluable information for my concursive project. That is, all these seem to be concursive studies. It is about time to recognize the interconnectedness of nonverbalist study of literature, art and other forms of culture.
My own interest in the subject was prompted first by the non-verbal signs in Middle English poems, notably Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. It seemed to me that readers, myself included, were inclined to underestimate the weight and force of many of these signs. Nor could their meanings always be taken for granted, as we are also inclined to do - as if fourteenth-century kisses, for example, had just the same range of meanings as modern ones. (Burrow 2002: 5)
This is exactly why concursive approach is useful - to bring to the fore the importance of otherwise unremarkable references to bodily behavior. It is important to recognize the concourse of nonverbal and nonverbal as the analysis might yield a deeper insight into the time, place and practices in question - in this case, for example, the act of kissing in the fourteenth century.
In life, non-verbal signs form a frequent, sometimes a continuous, accompaniment to speech; but in texts, not least in medieval texts, they are recorded only sporadically. Hence they can readily be neglected by readers. It is the general purpose of this study simply to help remedy that neglect, by drawing attention to occasions when such acts as gestures or looks play a significant part in the medieval writer's representation of exchanges and relationships between characters. A secondary aim is to encourage the realisation that non-verbal signs, like words, need to be understood historically. One must be prepared to find that they too may have undergone change over time. Some of the more formal gestures, such as bowing and kneeling, are now largely obsolete in the West; so we are inclined to underestimate their significance and force, and also fail to appreciate the subtleties that may attend their performance: in medieval Europe, as in modern Japan, an underperformed bow does not pass unnoticed. Other actions, more familiar in themselves, lie open to misreading because the conventions governing their use have changed. They are the non-verbal equivalents of those misleadingly familiar words sometimes referred to as false friends. It should cause no surprise, after all, to find that certain of these signs - headshakes and winks, for example - had somewhat different meanings then from what we are accustomed to today. (Burrow 2002: 6)
Very insightful. Also, the false friends analogy had not occurred to me.
Other observers are inclined to see NVC as functioning much more like the distinctively human institution of language, its items being generally determined not by evolutionary or rather natural factors, but by the diverse cultures of humanity. The social anthropologist Edmund Leach presents a particularly challenging statement of this position. He asserts that 'cross-species ethological comparisons between men and animals are nearly always thoroughly misleading' (p. 331); and he is equally sceptical about attempts to establish 'any consistent relationship between non-verbal signals and response when such signals are observed in differing cultural environments' (p. 329). Such signals are, he says, 'related to one another as a total system after the fashion of a language' (p. 318); so comparison between individual items abstracted from their different systems must be misleading. (Burrow 2002: 8)
Burrow goes on to discuss Birdwhistell, but this suggestion in itself is enough to suggest a semiospheric approach to nonverbal communication. That is, not only systemic relationships between various nonverbal signals, but also interrelations between language, art, myth, and other symbolic forms of culture.
The most distinctive gesture in these ceremonies was the immixtio manuum. By placing his hands palm-to-palm between the palms of his lord, the vassal both symbolically and in reality ceased to be his own man. (Burrow 2002: 12)
This seems like a voluntary act by which the vassal has decided to "do fealty and homage with joined hands"; very different from comulsory military service where no such personal decision and dedication to my knowledge is made.
  • M. Mostert, ed., New Approaches to Medieval Communication (Turnhout, 1999).
  • J. Bremmer and H. Roodenburg, eds., A Cultural History of Gesture: From Antiquity to the Present Day (Oxford, 1991, paperback, 1993), pp. 255-7.
  • M. Barasch, Giotto and the Language of Gesture (Cambridge, 1987).
  • R. G. Benson, Medieval Body Language: A Study of the Use of Gesture in Chaucer's Poetry, Anglistica 21 (Copenhagen, 1980).
  • M. Barasch, Gestures of Despair in Medieval and Early Renaissance Art (New York, 1976).
  • P. Ménard, Le rire et le sourire dans le roman courtois au moyen áge (1150-1250) (Geneva, 1969).
  • C. Davidson, Gesture in Medieval Drama and Art (Kalamazoo, 2001).
  • D. Peil, Die Gebärde bei Chrétien, Hartmann und Wolfram: Erec-lwein-Parzival (Munich, 1975).
  • W. Habicht, Die Gebärde in englischen Dichtungen des Mittelalters (Munich, 1959).
  • H. Roodenburg, 'The "Hand of Friendship": Shaking Hands and Other Gestures in the Dutch Republic', in Bremmer and Roodenburg, eds., A Cultural History of Gesture, pp. 152-89.
  • D. Morris, P. Collett, P. March, and M. O'Shaughnessy, Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution (London, 1979).
  • Institutio Oratoria, ed. and transl. H. E. Butler, Vol. IV (New York, 1922), XI iii 87.
  • D. Knox, 'Ideas on Gesture and Universal Languages, c. 1550-1650', in J. Henry and S. Hutton, eds., New Perspectives on Renaissance Thought (London, 1990), pp. 101-36.


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