Wednesday, December 30, 2009

There's a popular legend that the V sign originated with English longbowmen at the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years' War. Because of the proficiency of English archers, the French threatened to cut off their bow fingers. When the English army prevailed (spoiler!), their archers are believed to have raised their two (intact) fingers in a gesture of defiance.

(My favourite part of this story when it's retold is how often there is extensive detail lavished on the unassailable technological prowess of the English longbow. An impressive weapon, definitely, but we've moved on, haven't we? I find indoor plumbing and heating much more amazing, and those technologies still live with us and affect us every day -- hell, Claudian aqueducts still bring water to modern Rome -- while the longbow has been obsolete for centuries.)

The problem with this story is that it doesn't appear in any surviving contemporary accounts. It's a bit frustrating having to cobble a thought from various bits on the internet, but it seems to lean closer towards being a legend or myth rather than verifiable historical fact as often believed.

The closest comes from historian Jean Froissart who, according to Associated Content, did record a story of English soldiers (not necessarily archers) who used finger gestures at the French during a siege -- though he didn't specify which fingers. Without reading Froissart's firsthand account, it's hard to say, but it's possible he could have been referring to the (middle) finger gesture or a form of it, since that has been documented as far back as the 1st-2nd century CE.

There's also the question of whether the French really did threaten to cut off archers' fingers. There are doubts as there are no recorded incidents. However, according to Wiki, historian Juliet Baker quotes an Agincourt soldier as saying that Henry V included a reference to the French cutting off longbowmen's fingers in his pre-battle speech. It's worth noting this doesn't necessarily mean the French themselves actually said anything to the effect -- just that the English believed as much.

(This led me to think ... what if it Henry V made the story up for the sake of riling up his troops? I can only imagine how confused the French were as Englishmen started flashing Vs at them. "Que font-ils? Les Anglais sont si bizarres!")

A seldom-repeated addendum -- only saw it on Wiki -- is that the finger gesture was adapted into a V in honour of Henry V. Dubious. Associated Content points out that Froissart was a major source for Shakespeare, and since the sign is not mentioned in Henry V, it's probably just a coincidence. Moreover, that kind of literal visual connection is fairly rare in etymology -- "looking like" something is usually not a trustworthy qualifier.

(I don't know nearly enough about the subject, but would English archers know enough of Roman numerals -- or in the case of medieval European math, numbers -- to understand the significance of the V? Did they refer to the king as the fifth of Henrys, or merely "King Henry"?)

Although the soldier's account is a solid connection, I mostly feel that the setting of Agincourt is a red (amber?) flag.

First of all, if Froissart is indeed the source of this story, it couldn't have been at Agincourt because Froissart died before it happened. This doesn't mean the story still isn't true, mostly -- details get changed or misremembered all the time.

Second of all, the longbow had been in existence well before; why then? Agincourt was an important victory, so that may explain it.

But this carries to my third point, which is that folk etymologies tend to draw most commonly on broad knowledge -- the vague drabbles of history that everyone sort of knows. A myth or legend is more likely to pick a famous battle because it resonates easily with the most people and it's more sensational. For example, the Associated Content article also mentions the longbow's decisive edge at the lesser-known battles of Crecy and Poitiers. As I said, it's very possible that Agincourt, being the third major victory for the longbow, simply provided the greatest impetus. But it seems just a tad too convenient.

Finally, this isn't the fault of the historical story (if it is historical), but the Agincourt story has been rehashed for various purposes -- to explain the origin of the middle finger salute and to explain the origin of the phrase "fuck you." (Look it up.) Both are total nonsense and end up casting an unfortunate suspicious light upon the V sign aspect of the Agincourt tale.

posted at 2:06:53 pm

December 31, 2009   01:31 PM PST
In a certain english town, I forget which, you can still legally kill a french man, provided it's done from a specific distance with a longbow (details escape me)

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Glo'ri'a'na, noun:
1. An alternative form of "Gloria."
2. As "Americana" defines itself as artefacts of American culture, "Gloriana" consists of the artefacts of my culture.


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