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Author Topic: Making Rune Signs  (Read 10287 times)

Bowerthane

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Making Rune Signs
« on: June 18, 2011, 01:18:07 AM »


Last year I received a copy of The Anglo-Saxon Monastic Sign Language, Monasteriales Indicia edited by Debby Banham ( 1991 Anglo-Saxon Books, ISBN 0-9516209-4-0).  This gave me the lowdown on the branch or ‘dialect’ of sign language used by Old English Benedictines.  So wiggling your hand like a fish means ‘fish’, pretending to shake a little handbell means ‘deacon’, patting your belly means ‘I’m off to the cesspit’, and so on.

So now, also, do the child characters starring in my upcoming pot boiler, who pick up this sign language from the nuns who, the way I tell it, took refuge with the household of Lord Athelred, the de facto ruler of Free Mercia, during King Alfred’s reign.  Three stayed on and help Lady Ethelflæda run a stripped-down ‘court school’ she quite possibly did host during her husband’s rule, because we do know her brother, King Edward the Elder of Wessex, sent the future King Athelstan ( the relic collector) to be educated at his aunt’s knee.  So thanks to Debby’s neat little book I’ve revised all the ad libbing I had to do, and referred to it for new signs ever since.  My child characters call them ‘rune-signs’ or ‘hand-runes’ because rūn can, of course, mean simply ‘mystery, secret; secret discussion’ or indeed ‘writing’, rūnung meant ‘whispering, soft speech’ and the verb rūnian ‘whisper; mutter; conspire' survived, if memory serves, into the seventeenth century as ‘rowning’, meaning by then ‘to whisper secretly’.  And may an under-fourteen readership, of both sexes, please find all this fun and alluring ‘cause that’s how I’m hoping this puppy’ll sell…

Only now I’m running out of historical signs and it occurred to me that ġesīþas might enjoy suggesting some new ones.  Plus I’d avoid the worst of an Out Of Back-up Experience if I arrived at new ones with the knowledge, experience, right attitude etc. of fellow Anglo-Saxonists.  I’m deliberately not looking further into sign language for deaf people, or not yet, for fear that this will queer the pitch of my Dark Agey judgement.  I’m rather pleased with my idea for ‘bird of prey' ( patting one’s right fist with the V-sign, fingertips down, made by one’s left hand) because I feel that to be consonant with the way an Old English mind would look at it.  But it’s rather the point that I’d value criticism and suggestions from ġesīþas first, the better to pinch what may seem sensible from modern sign language if, after all, that proves necessary.

My excuse for making up new signs in principle is, firstly, because then as now sign language naturally diversifies.  The UK, US and Europe have different sign languages because the pressure to ad lib is constant, which is why Esperanto keeps trying to break up into dialects too.  Secondly because my child characters are quite consciously making up new signs purely for their own use.  Similarly they use ‘king’ and ‘queen’ to mean Lord Athelred and Lady Ethelflæda, and by the ‘rule’ sign ( properly for the Rule of St Benedict) they mean ‘Lady Ethelflæda Says’ or ‘that’s how Lady Ethelflæda wants it done, no arguments’ ( for instance quietly, when Lord Athelred and his rūnwitas are in earnest conclave, the court ladies are dressmaking with their handmaids, or the high folk are listening to a bard).  Yet outdoors they take part in several hunting scenes and, in the second half of the book where they are adults, many take part in the Reconquest of the Danelaw.  So now I’m realizing that the Benedictines didn’t have ( or didn’t record) signs for ‘boar’, ‘wolf’, ‘deer’, ‘bow’, ‘spear’, ‘axe’, ‘Viking’ etc. or even ‘horse’ and willy-nilly I’d better come up with something suitable.  The sign for ‘clothes’ was to brush downwards on your chest with both hands, but how to specify when you mean ‘mail-shirt’?  What about running a forefinger down the bridge of your nose for ‘helm’, granted that Old English helms seem to have long nose-guards?  Or pretending to pop a lump of cheese in your mouth for ‘Welshman’ ( bringing forward a few centuries a medieval idea that Welshmen were like Ben Gum for cheese)?  Or pretending to grip a sword-hilt at your waist and slapping it with the other hand for ‘thane’ ( on the grounds that only warriors of that social status and higher would have swords)?

And, er, so on.  And by all means any double entendres or historical punning would be welcome, as I’ve got keep the under-fourteens turning the pages somehow…


Thanks in hope.



___________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The moral right of the author to identify Herbie Rides Again as “true to the spirit of The Lord of the Rings” by the standards of Peter Jackson’s scriptwriters has been asserted.

   

Jayson

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Re: Making Rune Signs
« Reply #1 on: June 20, 2011, 06:51:01 PM »
----may I suggest that for 'bow' you might use the two-finger salute which our soldiers gave the French at Agencourt?
Wessex Woman

Bowerthane

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Re: Making Rune Signs
« Reply #2 on: June 20, 2011, 09:49:57 PM »
____________________________________________________________
[ T]he two finger salute which our soldiers gave the French at Agencourt?
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Sniff.  The lack of replies was making me suspect that’s what everybody did, Jayson.  But besides the anachronism, I feel that’s a bit on the wrong side of rude for a book marketed at under-fourteens.  Not because the children will mind but their adult relatives, and the education authorities, will and my advice is that they are the big spenders in children’s literature.  Anything they think is too rude and they won’t cough up.  That ( unspoken) pun on ‘rude signs’, the ejaculation “Christ on the Rood!” and “worshipping with the woses” as a courtly euphemism for “using the cesspit” is how I finesse anything risqué, if I risk any such thing at all.

But you’ve given me an idea.  Bowstrings are drawn with the hand’s first and second fingers, the ones the French chopped off if they took an English bowman captive.  Just clenching those two fingers and holding them with your thumb against the knuckles, as when drawing a bow, says ‘bow’ clearly enough, don’t you think?  Doesn’t even have to be by your jowl with your elbow up ( though that might help, if the other character’s at the opposite end of the mead-hall) since I can’t find any sign similar enough to create confusion.

Also, what does anyone think of simply touching a canine tooth for ‘dog/ hound’ and licking the tip of your forefinger for ‘cat’?

But it’s ‘wolf’ that’s bothering me, because whatever it is it’ll probably form half of a sign for sæwulf/ sea wolf, a synonym for Danes or Vikings my characters often use.  That and how to distinguish an eagle from a peregrine from a merlin in that ‘bird of prey’ sign I made up. 

Also, since the boar was the totem of the goddess Frey, something to do with her in a ‘wild boar/ eofor’ sign would build cultural depth and social realism into my masterpiece, bearing in mind this was a different thing to a domesticated boar ( which is all bār meant to the Old English).  In the battle scenes I portray some warriors touching the eofor symbols, or boar-crests, on their helmets in the last few seconds before the enemy charge whallops into their shield-wall – “for luck” as they tell the mass-priests.  But there is a ( historical) sign meaning ‘abbot’, for which you touch your temple with your forefinger, that looks too much like it, give or take the sign for ‘queen’ for which you draw a horizontal line across your forehead ( which on its own is ‘woman’, because you’re pointing out a snood) then pat your crown.

Mugging up I learned that boarhounds, to which Great Danes are the nearest thing left, were trained not to bark when tracking, stalking and in hot pursuit of wild boars because boars are the only prey wise to the sound of hunting hounds.  Even when going in for the kill they were trained to bait a boar by gnashing their teeth so as not to tip off others nearby.  Boars and pigs are petty much as intelligent as dogs ( I’m told that modern pigs are notorious for finding their way out of whatever pen you put them in) so quite possibly for the humans to avoid verbal communication would be an advantage, too.

But most curious of all is that boarhounds were also warhounds: trained to kill humans and taken to the battlefield for that purpose. ( Or in my book, a disrespectful Danish emissary from Leicester is threatened with them if he doesn’t bugger off).

Now with all that to go on, I feel sure my wīse ġesīþas and wineliċe can throw off their historiographic inhibitions and share in all this fun I'm having...




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« Last Edit: June 20, 2011, 09:55:58 PM by Bowerthane »

Linden

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Re: Making Rune Signs
« Reply #3 on: June 20, 2011, 11:03:17 PM »
Sniff.  The lack of replies ....................
But it’s ‘wolf’ that’s bothering me.................
Now with all that to go on, I feel sure my wīse ġesīþas and wineliċe can throw off their historiographic inhibitions and share in all this fun I'm having..............................................................

Patience, patience.  There was me giving it some serious thought for  you .....................................

For wild animals, look for one of their defining characteristics
‘boar’ - head down and forward and use fingers for (protuding from bottom jaw) tusks
 ‘wolf’ - head raised right up and silent howl
 ‘deer’ - use hands as antlers

For weapons,  imitate the action in using them
 ‘bow’ - drawing action
 ‘spear’ - javelin throwing action
 ‘axe’ - two-hand chopping action

‘mail-shirt’ - one term for a mail shirt is a 'hring-nett' so why not first indicate the linked rings with the hands and then make the sign for clothes?

‘helm’ - 'helm' means 'cover'  - why not make the action with both hands of putting a heavy head cover/crown on the head spreading both hands wide to show that the item is rounded and solid?

I give up with distinguishing people of different nationalities and ranks generally but a possibility for the Welsh. In 'Henry V' Shakespeare refers to an ancient (already to Shakespeare's audience) custom of the Welsh wearing a leek to show their nationality. So how about an action of tugging up a leek and attaching it to one's tunic?

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Jayson

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Re: Making Rune Signs
« Reply #4 on: June 22, 2011, 07:41:10 PM »
---May I suggest that for cat the sign would be clearer if the hand were clenched lightly and then a lick were given to the back of the hand, rather than the forefinger?
Wessex Woman

Horsa

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Re: Making Rune Signs
« Reply #5 on: June 22, 2011, 11:15:50 PM »
Why are the children using and expanding upon monastic sign language? Monks and nuns obviously used it so they could communicate when they were being silent. I would imagine that the appeal of this language for children would be silent secret communication that the adults were not party to.

If so then I'd suggest slightly more discreet and abstract signs. I had an idea for the boar - a spider man web shooting fist, but with the index and little fingers slightly curled - representing tusks. Perhaps, domestic swine and wild pig could be differentiated by having the boar sign do a little charge. I liked the idea of the connection with Freya, and have actually read a bit about the vanir a few years back, but I couldn't think of anything along those lines.

You suggested the boar sign be based on the 'good luck' gesture of touching the boar likeness on the helmet. Perhaps this boar sign could be differentiated from the abbot sign by touching with not a pointing forefinger but with the middle finger and with the other fingers together a little like the old Metropolitan police salute.

The different types of raptors could be signified by modifying the 'eagle' sign slightly and/or by adding prefixes.

Bowerthane

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Re: Making Rune Signs
« Reply #6 on: June 24, 2011, 01:17:15 AM »
__________________________________________________________
Why are the children using and expanding upon monastic sign language?
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Well firstly because they can.  All three nuns use it and, kids being kids, they copy.  From a more practical point of view, however, they are having to live, learn and do indoor chores cheek by jowl with high-status adults who, in a pre-democratic age, wouldn’t expect to argue with not-so-high-status adults, never mind “witless weans”.  The Rule of St Benedict enjoins his monks and nuns to stick to it as closely as they reasonably can if they must perforce be away from their cloisters, and its instruction to keep the talking to a minimum was the spur to the whole idea of Benedictine sign language.  So my child characters get used to “the Greysisters” signing to one another for this or that whether to help Lady Etheflæda run the ‘palace school’, or to pop outside to sing lauds at dawn or, since vespers ( at 5 p.m.) and sext in summer ( midday, not nones which was then at 2.30 p.m.) coincide with secular mealtimes, the Court, or the household hosting it, sometimes incorporate these as a way of saying grace.     

Also I portray many household servants being in many ways more snooty than the 2000-shilling folk and having an attitude about “war weans”.  Children who grew up during King Alfred’s wars have a reputation for being uncouth and unruly, ex hypothesi their elders were too busy worrying about the Sea-wolves to bring their kids up properly and teach them their place.  Since I’m writing the book I can tell you this is mostly bullshit but, again, it’s an adult attitude my child characters can’t expect to do much about.  Instead the hearthside staff are merely reduced to breathless bewilderment at just how well-behaved my little heroes and heroines are.  At one lord’s hall in the Forest of Arden, visited by Lord Athelred and his court to hear some capital crimes, the steward and his men had cut birchen rods, and the benchmaids brought in their brooms, fearing they’d have to fight an infestation of imps.  Like ringing up the DVLC in Swansea and asking them the time of day, it throws them into confusion at what good little cherubs they actually are.

But hearing capital crimes is just the sort of high-status, grown-up activity the children have to live and learn near and look out for whilst laying mead-boards, feeding the hounds, trimming wicks, changing rushes etc., so that is where the hand-runes come in handy.  Being seen and not heard. 

By all means they enjoy most grown-ups not understanding it too, though!  That does indeed have its advantages in a steeply hierarchical society where beating children was normal.




As for which signs however, I think I’m sold on your ‘wolf’, ‘cat’ and ‘mail-shirt’ Jayson and your ‘boar’, Horsa.  A quick mime of a wolf howling is pretty distinctive, isn’t it?  Also I’ve since realised my ‘cat’ already exists historically, the Benedictines used it for ‘honey’.  And I think I like ‘deer’, ‘helm’, ‘axe’ and the distinction between wild and domesticated boar you suggest, Horsa, too.


Apropos of ‘wolf’ forming part of ‘sea-wolf/ Viking/ Norseman’, but a while back I managed to find out that a gesture to ward off the evil eye was, like as not, known in pre-Conquest England.  At least, amongst medieval Christians one simply drew a quick crucifix in the air and jabbed a pointed forefinger at whatever evil spirit/ devilish thingie/ Tracey Ullman etc. one wished would back off.  Suppose one combined that with Jayson’s ‘wolf’ sign?  You can do both simultaneously and coming from Benedictines it’s surely consonant with historical fact, albeit made up?  They were the ones who prayed to be delivered from the wrath of the Norseman, right?

With that or with the historical sign for ‘water’ ( you “make as if you are going to wash your hands”, pushing one’s sleeves up I’m guessing because rubbing your hands together means ‘soap’) or with a fingers-do-the-walking downward twiddle with your first two fingers, maybe to mean ‘the sort on two legs’?
     
I’m just a bit worried about ‘spear’ and ‘deer’.  Shaking your fist “as if you were going to hit [ someone]” is the historical sign for ‘rod’ and I fear this is what miming a javelin throw will boil down to, on most days of the week.  The ‘deer’ gesture especially appeals to common sense Jayson and I can see children making it up, but one thing I noticed when I did look into sign language for deaf people was how quickly and slickly signs become abbreviated, or ‘casualized’ as I’ve developed the habit of calling it.  It reminded me what Gaffer Gamgee meant when he said “Make it short, then you won’t have to cut it short before you can use it.”  Likewise your ‘bow’ looks like what’s supposed to happen, whereas mine looks like what actually happens ( if mine wouldn’t work better as ‘arrow’, do you think?).     

Not that I’m pretending there’s much in it.  The historical sign for ‘scancbend/ ankle-band’ was to bend down and mime winding one on, so it’s not as if everything got skimped down to some vestige obscure to all but the fluent.  Maybe using your hands as antlers can mean ‘stag’ and ‘deer’ should be something else?

Speaking of Freya, Horsa, but I’m already committed to making out some special customs apply when slaying wild boar.  Because historically, at least in Germany and in the later middle ages, they did.  In medieval Germany a special herb was lain under a wild boar’s tongue after it was killed, an idea I’ve pinched only my characters call it “St Hubert’s Herb” ( St Hubert is the patron saint of hunters) but it is “the lady of the hunt” ( the huntswoman of highest social standing who, when deer were still hunted in the British Isles, had the first cut of the venison – IIRC Sir Walter Scott’s Lady Diana of Northumberland does this office in Rob Roy) who puts it under the tongue.  But not before the panting hunters touch their forelocks or raise their signalling horns, as if mead-horns, in its honour.  This, I mutely allege, is a Christian veneer over a custom originally meant to appease Lady Frey for killing one of her totems.  By all means suggest which herb because I haven’t made up my mind, yet!  Mugging up about hunting customs I developed a hunch that the distinction between ‘noble’ and ‘non-noble’ game may originate in whether or not a species was closely associated with one of the Old Gods. 

So suppose one combined the touching-the-boar-likeness gesture with your Spidermanesque sign for ‘boar’ to stand for the goddess Frey, herself?  Or followed by a sign for ‘day’ to say ‘Friday’?  Or as a Christian veneer upon her, use it to mean St Margaret of Antioch, who seems to have been used to trump Frey much as St Michael seems to have been used to trump Woden. 
   
Just food for thought.



—oo0oo---



Incidentally, when I re-checked I noticed there is a V-type sign.  It stood for ‘scourge’.   Again you wave a fist “as if you were going to hit [ someone]” but for your first two fingers, which stick out.  Now I wonder if Benedictines still used this during the Hundred Years War, and whether our longbowmen knew it as they took to the field, waving ‘em to give the willies to le Frogeaters?  And incidentally incidentally, but am I the only one to suspect that the sign for benediction used to be given with the thumb inwards, and only turned round after the Agincourt salute came along?  Only in early medieval manuscripts I’ve only ever seen the benediction sign given as if, somewhat amusingly, Jesus was doing a ‘Brian of Nazareth’ from his donkey as he rides up to the gates of Jerusalem.

Check for yourselves…





Linden

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Re: Making Rune Signs
« Reply #7 on: June 24, 2011, 02:49:04 AM »
As for which signs however, I think I’m sold on your ‘wolf’, .... and ‘mail-shirt’ Jayson .........A quick mime of a wolf howling is pretty distinctive, isn’t it?  ..........................The  ‘deer’ gesture especially appeals to common sense Jayson ............................  Maybe using your hands as antlers can mean ‘stag’ and ‘deer’ should be something else? ..............................

OK - so I'm invisible   :'(
Will now sulk and go off to bed    :(
Cræft biþ betere ðonne æhta

Bowerthane

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Re: Making Rune Signs
« Reply #8 on: June 24, 2011, 08:39:22 PM »
Whoops, sorry Linden!  For no good reason I've muddled you up with Jayson. Consider yourself spooned chicken soup and reassured of the worth and respect in which we all hold you.

Don't worry about the invisibility either.  Hounds can see ghosts, you know.

( Jayson, stop basking in Linden's reflected glory and find him a pat-dog, who have great therapeutic value did you know?).


Linden

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Re: Making Rune Signs
« Reply #9 on: June 25, 2011, 06:15:14 PM »
Whoops, sorry Linden!  ............. Consider yourself spooned chicken soup...........Don't worry about the invisibility either.  Hounds can see ghosts, you know.................... find him a pat-dog........................
Thanks Bowerthane  :-*(although I've never before been asked to think of myself as a boiled chicken) :D.

Incidentally, I'm a 'her' not a 'him'  :-[- but how could you tell with my invisibility cloak on. ;)
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Jayson

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Re: Making Rune Signs
« Reply #10 on: June 26, 2011, 04:59:00 PM »
---about children and the sign language they might use, if they're anything like the kids today they would try to do everything they can to prevent adults from understanding what they're saying and as nuns and monks are adults I have a feeling they would try to invent something completely different
Wessex Woman

Horsa

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Re: Making Rune Signs
« Reply #11 on: June 27, 2011, 07:45:47 AM »
---about children and the sign language they might use, if they're anything like the kids today they would try to do everything they can to prevent adults from understanding what they're saying

I have the same feeling especially if they can get a beating for minor infractions and honest mistakes (like breaking a pot). If the children are tight enough as a social group and have enough time and opportunity to use the sign language they could develop a rudimentary grammar. The monastic sign language seems to consist of one word utterances. Nicaraguan sign language, if I remember correctly, was developed in isolation among deaf children in a residential school, where (as was the custom at the time) sign language was not taught; in fact, they discouraged it, trying to teach them to talk and lip read.

I have a bit of a fascination for sign language and strongly believe that it should be taught as a second language everywhere. This would do two things: bring the deaf into the community and serve as an auxiliary language where you can't rely on sound. Imagine being in a loud club being able to chat up a girl at the bar without shouting and spitting in her ear. I know of a person who during his graduation, had a chat with his parents. He was on the stage, they were quite a ways back in the audience.

So, I don't know if this sign language plays an important role in the book, but in many childrens' books, the children of the story find themselves being useful or 'making it' in the adults' world. Your Enid Blighton book has the children playing at being detectives and finally actually helping out the police catch a criminal like real adult detectives. I was wondering if the children using and developing this sign language get discovered by the adults who then have an application for it like, I don't know, warriors on stealth missions and guerilla actions.  They then become students of the children.

Wulfric

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Re: Making Rune Signs
« Reply #12 on: August 16, 2011, 11:29:30 AM »
For alternative signs for animals you could refer to kalahari bush hunting signs...