Bk 1. xxvi. Hand signs (de notis digitorum)



There can be little doubt that the subject of Roman military signalling installations has generated an excess of enthusiastic but misguided speculation” – Donaldson.

  • G.H. Donaldson, ‘Signalling Communications and the Roman Imperial Army’, Britannia, Vol. 19 (1988), pp. 349-356.
  • Polybius, Histories, Bk X 43-47 describes a method for sending signals over a distance, using torches in combination with tablets dividing the letters into groups. That section can be read at the Project Gutenberg site [HERE]
  • D.J. Wooliscroft, Roman Military Signalling. (2001). Largely concerned with speculation on how Roman sites in England were designed to facilitate signalling according to the method described by Polybius. Described in the following review:

“There has never been a study of Roman signalling in English… [but Wooliscroft] is not guessing whether the Romans could have signalled from these towers, he knows for a fact that it was at least possible. He then illustrates the proposed signalling systems in a series of easy-to-understand illustrations which make his thesis quite plausible. Woolliscroft is wise enough to introduce the obvious caveat himself, that is, that just because the Romans could do something does not necessarily prove that they did do it. techniques described in the classical manuals”. – Sheldon

  • Rose Mary Sheldon’s review of Wooliscroft’s book  in The Journal of Military History 67.1 (2003) 219-221 – online through Project Muse.
  • ‘Military Signalling Systems’ – a page by the ‘Romans In Britain’ group has much information [HERE] but lacks references.
  • Fritz Graf, ‘Gestures and conventions: the gestures of Roman actors and orators’ Ch.2 (pp. 36-58) from his thesis for the University of Gronigen, downloadable as pdf.

If the Roman military had a formalised system of hand-signals, Isidore’s sources for it are plainly better than ours today. On the other hand, Isidore seems to associate this practice – like all involving deception and secrecy – with the unchristian and/or immoral. In fact, within a couple of centuries, the severely ascetic ‘Egyptian’ style of western monastic life would encourage the development of silent signals to reduce the need for speech.

There’s an enormous amount available on that subject too –  but be wary of supposed illustrations because a good many are posted by people unable to read Latin, and therefore unaware that their  ‘illustrations’ might come from monastic manuscripts but are not actually illustrations of the monastery’s sign-language but of gestures used by merchants in the public markets.  I’ll include these signs when we get to  ‘Arithmetic’ – in  Book III of the Etymologies.


  • An Annotated Bibliography on Monastic Sign Lexicons (MSL), Finger Alphabets and Mnemonics until 1600 CE‘. Compiled by Rebecca Lucas.
  • Scott G. Bruce, Silence and Sign Language in Medieval Monasticism: The Cluniac Tradition, c.900–1200. (CUP., 2007)
  • Debbie Banham,  Monasteriales Indicia: Anglo-Saxon Monastic Sign-language. (1991)
  • (if you read Anglo-Saxon …) Brit.Lib. MS Cotton Tiberius A III.
  • (if you don’t read Anglo-Saxon…) ‘Silence is a Virtue: Anglo-Saxon Monastic Sign Language’ is a post at the  British Library’s Medieval Manuscript’s blog (28th. November, 2016), talking about the Cotton manuscript.  N.B.  links given in the blogpost do not work.  To see the manuscript go directly [HERE].
  • Bruce’s book reviewed by Debbie Banham for The Catholic Review, (Volume 95, Number 1, January 2009 pp.112-113) is  available through paid subscription to Project Muse [HERE]
  • also … Oxford, Bodley MS Douce 262 (Luna link to one image – only – HERE)
  • Very helpful site [HERE] has resources ordered by centuries.


Asian dance traditions include a large number of meaningful gestures of hand and finger.  Lists and illustrations are easily found online.

In religious use, some of these are also found in Buddhist and Taoist works.

  • ‘Mudras’ of Buddhist art – well illustrated by Buddhists online. [HERE]

Mudras of the Daoist tradition are mentioned by

  • Livia Kohn, The Daoist Monastic Manual: A Translation of the Fengdao Kejie (OUP, 2004 ) Section 5, note 14. Reference given is Keiko Mitamura (2002).

Kohn writes that “Daoist handsigns developed independently in a medical, qi-guiding context, then merged actively with the Buddhist culture of mudras in (i.e. during) the Tang dynasty’ .

Ornaments to this post:

  1. modern military gestures from googleimages.
  2. monastic hand-signs‘ illustration –  detail from a fresco by Fra Angelico in the Convent (not ‘Basilica’) of San Marco in Florence. The figure is St. Peter Martyr.  A good history of the convent and its art [HERE]
  3. ‘hand-signs in other traditions’ – illustration of the Buddha’s hands in Dharmachakra mudra. Image unattributed.
  4. end-bands: detail from a mosaic now in the Bardo Museum, Tunis. Dated to the imperial/early Christian era (2nd- 3rd C AD).

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