What gesture comes to mind after reading this pioneering book? Undoubtedly a thumbs-up, in the form of a raised and extended arm, with the fingers lightly clenched into a balled fist and the thumb pointing firmly upwards. If this gesture is accompanied by an emphatic nod, raising and lowering the head briskly, while the face shows a broad smile, then the verdict of approval will be clear – at least to most modern Western onlookers: approbation without words.
Clearly, such strange and silent gesticulations depend for their success on shared assumptions between the person transmitting and the person receiving the signal. Without that, the message could easily be misunderstood. Body language, like all language, is constructed and communicated within human societies, past and present. Some facial actions, such as the yawn, may have near-to-universal meaning. But even then societies have different conventions about the acceptable context and style of yawning. And some other aspects of body language entirely lack universality. Consequently, the history of wordless communication has much to tell historians about past diversities and past convergences. That is the key message of the ten essays in this volume and of the special introduction by Keith Thomas.
One obvious problem is that gestures by their very nature are evanescent. Joaneath Spicer responds to this in an engaging essay on the 'The Renaissance Elbow', which studies the representation of gesture in art. She accepts that paintings were not candid snapshots of body language in action. But the element of posing indicates contemporary assumptions. The confident hand-on-hip and jutting elbow of powerful Renaissance males plainly signalled pride and assertion, while less powerful men and most women kept their elbows close to their sides.
Another important source for the study of gesture is the prescriptive literature of any era, whether in the form of etiquette books or guides to education. Historians – rightly – do not assume that the advice of these handbooks was invariably followed. There were always plenty of people who either did not know or did not care about 'good form'. Nonetheless, these social handbooks were a guide to social expectations, which were often in themselves highly revealing. Thus Jan Bremmer reviews the advice given to the ancient Greeks on the arts of walking, standing and sitting. The warrior was expected to advance with 'long strides', his head held high, while slaves were to be submissive in demeanour and movement. Modest women walked inconspicuously with short, neat steps and downcast eyes, while those wilful females who promenaded with swaying hips were immediately suspected of being courtesans or over-enthusiastic followers of Dionysos, the god of revels.
Yet another source are primers on rhetoric and its accompanying body language. These are ably used by Fritz Graf to study the repertoire of orators' gestures in classical Rome. Some signs are still familiar, such as the hand on heart to indicate sincere emotion; but others are less instantly recognisable, such as slapping the thigh to show anger. Time travellers, like modern globe-trotters, are therefore well advised to study local customs. In a contrasting essay, Henk Driessen does just that, as he investigates 'gestured masculinity' in modern Andalusia. His fieldwork in taverns and bars discovered an intricate set of signals used by men wishing to communicate an array of messages, from humour to rage, via a graduated set of jokes and insults.
ColIectively, these essays, which are supplemented with a helpful bibliography, do much to advance their subject. As often happens, they do so by pointing out the complexities. They show that the history of gestures is not a simple story of 'progress' from crude barbarism in antiquity to refined civility in modern times. For example, the ideals of restraint and politeness that were advocated by Erasmus in the sixteenth century were equally praised by writers in classical Rome. And further complexities in the story are shown in essays by Jean-Claude Schmitt on gestures in the early Middle Ages, by Hans Roodenburg on the hand-shake in the Dutch Republic, and by Willem Frijhoff on the diverse social meanings of the kiss.
Nor was there a simple contrast between different nationalities and regions. Some have claimed to see a basic cultural division in Europe between cool northerners, restrained in the chilly winds, and extrovert southerners, gesticulating in the Mediterranean sunshine. But Peter Burke on early modern ltaly, Robert Muchembled on eighteenth-century France, and Maria Bogucka on modern Poland show that social mores evolved over time, and were not simply refIex responses to the local climate. Gestures prove as complex as spoken language itself. Therefore 'hats off and 'thumbs up' to a stimulating volume of essays, which open up a fruitful new field for research.
About the Author:
Penelope Corfield is the co-editor of Work in Towns 850-1850 (Leicester University Press, 1990).
A Cultural History of Gesture: From Antiquity to the Present Day
Polity Press, xiv + 268 pp.