How do you say “beer me” when you’ve taken a vow of silence? You “knead one hand over the other.”
Living under a vow of silence with other people presents certain difficulties, as a manuscript entitled Monasteriales Indica, discovered at Christ Church at Canterbury in England, reveals. To facilitate life together without resorting to speech, the monks came up with a language of hand gestures.
Here are some of the hand signals medieval monks used, according to a translation from Old English in a paper on monastic sign language in 11th-century England by Lord Dmitri Skomorochov and Anakhet al-Badawiyya.
• First, the abbot’s sign is to set two fingers on your head and at the same time grab your hair.
• The deacon’s sign is that one should make a motion with one hand hanging, as if to ring a small bell.
• To indicate the prior, raise your forefinger over your head, for that is his sign.
• If you would have a sacramental wafer, bend your forefinger to your thumb.
• When you would have a censer, move your hand downwards and move it back and forth, as if swinging.
• If you would have a candlestick, blow on your forefinger and hold your hands locked together as if you had a candlestaff.
• If you need a small candle, blow on your forefinger.
• If you would have a Bible, move your hand back and forth, raise up your thumb and set your hand flat against your cheek.
• If you wish a sitting man to rise, turn your hand and move it up quickly in stages.
• If you wish him to sit, then turn it downward and move it down in stages.
• When you would have a whip, move your fist back and forth as we described before, and raise up your two fingers.
• If you need a knife, cut with one finger over the other as if carving.
• The sign of porridge is to move your fist back and forth as if stirring porridge.
• When you would like cheese, set your two hands flat together, as if pressing.
• If you would like milk, stroke your left finger with your right hand as if you were milking.
• The sign of honey is to set your finger on your tongue.
• When you would like fish, move your hand back and forth the way a fish moves its tail, when it swims.
• When you wish to drink, lay your forefinger along your mouth.
• The sign for beer is to knead one hand on the other.
• The sign of the razor is to put one forefinger over the other, as if carving and then to stroke your cheek with your finger as if shaving.
• The sign for a fur garment is to stretch forth your left sleeve and pluck the inside with your left hand.
• The sign of the king is to move your hand down, then seize your head on top with all your fingers in the shape of a crown.
• The sign of a layman is to take yourself with both hands by the chin as if taking yourself by the beard.
• The sign of a laywoman is to move your fingers across your forehead from one ear to the other in the sign of a headband.
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