Saturday, July 25, 2009

Left-Handedness in the Middle Ages

This comic strip (which I suspect is supposed to be about homosexuality) depicts the medieval church as being intolerant of the left-handed.

I've heard this idea before -- that left-handedness was somehow associated with evil or witchcraft in the Middle Ages. The problem is that I can't recall ever having run across any such reference.

I asked a historian friend of mine who's done a bit of work in witchcraft and sorcery from the late-classical/early-medieval period, and he too had never seen any good scholarly reference for this idea.

So, folks, is it true? Can someone give me an actual medieval reference -- or is this like the "fact" that people in the Middle Ages didn't eat tomatoes because they thought they were poisonous: just a load of bunk?*


h/t Ninalog

*For those who don't know, tomatoes are a New World plant. Medieval Europeans did not eat tomatoes because they had never seen (nor even heard) of them, yet somehow this myth won't die.

8 comments:

  1. One thing we know for sure, those left-handed people are Sinister.

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  2. Michael12:53 AM

    They had an interesting session at K'zoo a couple of years back on Italian food before the tomato. I have heard something about left handed people in Classical Rome, hence the modern connotation of sinister, but nothing on the MA. When I was in kindergarten, however, my teacher tried to force me to write w/ my right hand by making me sit on my left. It didn't work. Still a lefty...

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  3. Wikipedia (I know, I know) cites Ambrose of Milan and offers a footnote but I can't find anything to back it up in Google Books (this is why page numbers were invented, wiki editors!).

    (The word verification is "flogr", which is not a Web 2.0 site I care to visit.)

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  4. If I can recall, the ancient Romans believed that the left-hand was "evil" and would often use it in curses. You'd make a sign sort of like the ASL "I Love You" sign and point it at the person you wanted to curse.

    Also, Romans liked to play ball games that emphasized catching with the left hand. No, that's not a euphemism.

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  5. Ambrose did include this quote in Letter 37 (http://tinyurl.com/m5uhxr):

    "Apame the concubine of King Darius was once seen sitting at his right hand, taking his diadem off his head, and placing it on her own, and with the palm of her left hand striking his face...."

    So that's a strike (ha!) against the left.

    And let's not forget that Jesus is always described as sitting at God's right hand.

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  6. Ambrose is probably more late classical than medieval -- and I'm still missing a strong connection to sorcery & witchcraft.

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  7. Anonymous10:11 PM

    'Sinister' means left in Latin, so even if the Romans did not consider being left-handed bad, it seems logical that some sort of shift occurred, hence the modern meaning of 'sinister'.

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  8. Anonymous2:25 PM

    http://www.dpjs.co.uk/lefthandpath.html

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