May 14, 2020 / 3:43 PM / 17 days ago

False claim: “Middle finger” gesture derives from English soldiers at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415

A widely shared image on social media purportedly explains the historic origins of the “middle finger”, considered an offensive gesture in Western culture. The image makes the claim that the gesture derives from English soldiers at the Battle of Agincourt, France in 1415. This claim is false.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

The post alleges that the French had planned to cut off the middle fingers of all captured English soldiers, to inhibit them from drawing their longbows in future battles. It goes on to state that after an unexpected victory, the English soldiers mocked the defeated French troops by waving their middle fingers ( here ).

The image makes the further claim that the English soldiers chanted “pluck yew”, ostensibly in reference to the drawing of the longbow. The “pl” sound, the story goes, gradually changed into an “f”, giving the gesture its present meaning.

Although it could be intended as humorous, the image on social media is historically inaccurate.

ANCIENT ORIGINS

It may be difficult to pinpoint exactly when the middle finger gesture originated, but some historians trace its roots to ancient Rome. In Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome, Anthony Corbeill, Professor of Classics at the University of Kansas wrote:

“The most familiar example of the coexistence of a human and transhuman element is the extended middle finger. Originally representing the erect phallus, the gesture conveys simultaneously a sexual threat to the person to whom it is directed and apotropaic means of warding off unwanted elements of the more-than-human.” ( here )

In the book, Corbeill points to Priapus, a minor deity he dates to 400 BC, which later also appears in Rome as the guardian of gardens, according to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Greece and Rome ( here ). The decorative use of the image of Priapus matched the Roman use of images of male genitalia for warding off evil. The Roman gesture “made by extending the third finger from a closed fist”, thus made the same threat, by forming a similarly phallic shape.

A BBC News Magazine report similarly traces the gesture back to Ancient Greek philosophers ( here ).

“PLUCK YEW”

In a book on the battle of Agincourt, Anne Curry, Professor Emeritus of Medieval History at the University of Southampton, addressed a similar claim prescribed to the “V-sign”, also considered an offensive gesture:

“No chronicle or sixteenth-century history says that English archers made any gesture to the French after the battle in order to show they still had their fingers. There is no evidence that, when captured in any scenario, archers had their finger cut off by the enemy” ( bit.ly/3dP2PhP ).

In 1999, Snopes debunked more of the historical aspects of the claim, as well as the component explaining how the phrase “pluck yew” gradually changed form to begin with an “f” ( here ).

VERDICT

False. The “middle finger” gesture does not derive from the mutilation of English archers at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Some historians trace its origins to ancient Rome.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts here

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