Have you ever been curious about the first scene in Romeo and Juliet, when the servingman Sampson declares that he will… bite his thumb at another character? There’s a story behind that peculiar gesture, which in real life was more meaningful outside of England.
From insults to slovenliness and plain old rudeness, the people of Elizabethan England had a multitude of ways to behave badly—some of which are equally repellant today and some of which now make little sense or just seem silly. In her new book, How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England, author Ruth Goodman explores what we know about such misdeeds, from the sometimes laughable side of social offenses to the more painful issues they reveal.
To learn more about the tale of biting one’s thumb, the “fig of Spain” mentioned in Henry V, and still other rude gestures, with some illustrations we have added from the Folger collection, read the excerpt below.
“Abr.: ‘Do you bite your thumb at us sir?’ vide Romeo and Juliet, scene 1st, act 1st.” I.E.C. (artist). 19th century. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Paradoxically, you may be more familiar with sixteenth-century continental rudeness than the British period versions. This is all the fault of William Shakespeare, who seems to have had a good working knowledge of just what annoyed a foreign aristocrat. In Romeo and Juliet, which is set in Italy, he has a character who declares that he will ‘bite [his] thumb at you’, and in Henry V Pistol refers to the gesture known as ‘the fig of Spain’. The first of these obviously required a little explanation to his largely English audience, as Sampson says, ‘Nay, as they dare. I will bite my thumb at them, which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it’, carefully pointing out to those who had never come across it that this was a gesture that attacked the victim’s honour, and that letting it pass unchallenged would mark them as cowards. Within the play the ruse is successful in starting a street fight. This was excellent ethnographic knowledge upon the playwright’s part, but also rather handily got around any censorship and offence issues. Here was a rude gesture, rude enough to provoke a fight, that Shakespeare could use upon the public stage without upsetting anyone except a few foreign diplomats and traders.
In modern Sicily you can still see a form of this gesture in use. An upright thumb held so that the pad points outwards is tucked behind the top front teeth and then flicked forwards out of the mouth towards the intended insultee. I have also seen a version in action on the outskirts of Venice – although I don’t know if it was a native Venetian performing it – where the pad of the thumb was placed horizontally between the top and bottom teeth in a bite and then flicked out, rotating as it went so that the bitten pad was thrust forwards.
The ‘fig of Spain’ gesture warranted no explanation in the text of the play; this was a much better-known action as far as the London public were concerned. But whereas the thumb biting was expected to be enacted upon the stage, the ‘fig of Spain’ gesture is only spoken of and did not need to be physically performed to move the plot onwards (once again avoiding offence).
Known across Europe, but particularly common in both Spain and Italy, the gesture appears to have been popular as far back as ancient Rome and was then associated with fertility. In both Renaissance countries the words for fig and vulva were very similar (fico and fica in Italian, for example) and the name of the gesture had clearly become mano fico in a polite, euphemistic move. In English it was generally translated as ‘fig of Spain’, although it more literally means ‘fig hand’. The hand is held in a fist with the thumb tucked inside protruding between the index and middle finger. Again, this one is still current in both Spain and Italy. It had also crossed over into English use, if only among the plebs, and perhaps only in the port cities where Spanish and Italian sailors were present to spread the habit.
“Sampson & Gregory, Abram & Balthasar: Do you bite your thumb…” Painted by H.P. Briggs, engraved by Henry Hoppner Meyer. 1822. Folger Shakespeare Library.
So, biting your thumb would probably not have been all that effective within these shores. A person needs to understand a particular movement in a deep and visceral manner if it is to create a genuine feeling of hurt and insult. Both parties must share a mutual interpretation of the movements for such a symbolic attack to take effect. When, for example, an Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at US President George W. Bush in 2008, the thrower meant it as a deep personal insult; in Iraq it is regarded as an expression of disgust and contempt. But if you look at the footage of the incident, it is clear that Bush experienced it simply as a random projectile; concerning from a security point of view, but of minor significance in and of itself. He missed the insult entirely. Rude gestures are deeply imbedded in cultural context, so de-contextualized they are empty and easily dismissed. Foreign Shakespearean gestures, therefore, were wet and wimpy things.
We do, however, have one English gesture that is recorded as actually provoking duels. It was known as a ‘filip’, and James Bulwer reports that Francis Bacon had a lot of trouble because of it when he was Attorney General during the reign of James I. Apparently, a number of rather persistent gentlemen petitioned him to have it made illegal. The law, they argued, granted redress to people whose honour and reputation were damaged by words, both written (libel) and spoken (slander), so why not provide protection for those whose social standing was attacked by gestures? The ‘filip’ was causing great offence, damage to reputations and was inciting daily violence, particularly among the top echelons of society. Duels might well be illegal, they argued, but they were not going to stop until men had some recourse to justice for such insults, other than the sword.
The filip was a gesture of contempt: it demonstrated your assertion that the other person was worthless, useless, a bag of hot air with no substance and no true honour. With a filip you dismissed a person, their opinions and social pretensions. You performed it by bending your elbow and bringing your hand up to shoulder height. The palm was to face outwards and then you bent your middle finger and caught it upon the pad of your thumb, held for a moment and flicked it straight. When James Bulwer described this gesture in his Chirologia of 1644 he made it clear that it could be both a small ‘triffling punishment’ and ‘a slur of disgrace if used to a man’. It all depended on how you wanted to take it, but it may also have depended upon how it was delivered.
Excerpted from How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England. Copyright © 2018 by Ruth Goodman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Listen to our conversation with Ruth Goodman on a host of topics in her book in our recent Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode:
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