How Monks Sworn To Silence In Medieval Times Found A Way To Communicate

In the Medieval period, some monastic orders adopted vows of silence which forbade speech for at least part of the day (via English Heritage). The first Christian monks were hermits, who often went out into the desert to live a quiet and solitary life, and this sort of existence became a Christian ideal during the middle ages. In theory, silence encouraged contemplation, and prevented idle chatter and wicked words.

But while silence may be golden, it is also a pain when you need to get anything done. Deciding they needed a system to communicate their most basic needs, various monastic orders developed a medieval form of sign language. The most famous system was created by some enterprising 10th-century French monks from the Monastery of Cluny, but medieval signing is even older than this. The use of signs is mentioned in the 5th-6th century rule of St Benedict (via Archaeologia Cantiana), and a formal system was first codified in A.D. 816 (via "The Cistercian Order in Medieval Europe: 1090-1500").

The system designed at Cluny in particular was a great success and it appears to have spread to Anglo-Saxon England (via The British Library). We still have some vocabulary lists which explain how these different systems worked, and the words the monks felt were essential tell us some interesting things about medieval life.

Revealing vocabulary

Monastic sign language was not like modern sign language; it was mostly made up of nouns, making it the most basic possible form of communication. The vocabulary included on lists of signs also varies from place to place.

A manuscript from Anglo-Saxon England, for example, contains a sign for underpants, a gesture which involves the caressing of both thighs (via The British Library). A monastery based on an island near Oslo, Norway, on the other hand, instructs brothers to make fish like movements with their hands, presumably to communicate at dinner that somebody needs to pass the herring (via Science Norway).

Food in particular is covered quite extensively, as silence at dinner was an important rule for many orders. French Cluniac monks had hand signs for crêpes as well as a range of fish, while British monks at Canterbury recorded a much more bland food list, proving the disparity between British and French culinary skills goes back a long way. The Canterbury list also tells us exactly what the monks used to wear, and it includes a gesture for soap, in case you believe the old myth that medieval people didn't bathe.

Idle hands

While the use of hand gestures spread far and wide, not everybody thought it was an especially holy innovation. The sixth century "Rule of St. Benedict," which delineates how monastic life should be lived (via, notes that monks should not use signs unless absolutely necessary (via Archaeologia Cantiana).

As the sign languages developed, it was evidently sometimes possible for misbehaving monks to hold entire conversations using just their hands. For example, the disapproving Welsh chronicler Geraldus Cambrensis was shocked to discover that monks at Christ Church in England were using hand gestures so much they resembled "... actors and jesters."

In the U.K., one Anglo-Saxon monk, the famous Venerable Bede, also mentions another sign language system that used finger counting as an alphabet to spell out codes. The reason he gives for using it is a little less sacred; he recommends readers adopt it to secretly communicate about their enemies (via The British Library). Monastic sign language survived a surprisingly long time after the middle ages, and it was still used by Trappist monks all the way up to the late 1960s (via Trappist).