The rationale of gestures in the West: Third to Thirteenth Centuries
By Jean-Claude Schmitt
A Cultural History of Gesture, edited by Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg (Cornell University Press, 1992)
Introduction: The culture of the Middle Ages has sometimes been called a ‘culture of gestures’ or a ‘gestural culture’. Such expressions have a double meaning: first the movements and attitudes of the human body played a crucial role in the social relationships of the past. Second, medieval culture itself thought about its own gestures, and indeed constructed a medieval theory of gestures.
According to some historians, the weakness of literacy explains the importance of gestures in the Middle Ages. Marc Bloch, for example, pointed out the ritualization of feudal society, the formalism that was expressed by gestures and words more than by written records.
We would scarcely imagine today that a simple gesture could possess legal power or could commit people more efficiently than a written form drawn up by a notary and signed by both parties. At least until the thirteenth century, however, when cities and commercial activities began to develop rapidly and when growing state bureaucracies helped to spread literacy, gestures were much more powerful than such documents.