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Sign-Language-bib - 11/1/09


"An Annotated Bibliography on Monastic Sign Lexicons (MSL), Finger Alphabets and Mnemonics until 1600 CE." by Lady sfrðr Ulfvðardttir.


NOTE: See also the files: Sign-Lang-Wed-art, Deaf-History-bib, disabilities-msg, SCA-SL-art, sign-lang-msg, Sign-Lang-Wed-art, 15C-Eyeglsses-art, eyeglasses-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


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Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



An Annotated Bibliography on Monastic Sign Lexicons (MSL), Finger Alphabets and Mnemonics until 1600 CE.

Compiled by sfrðr lfvðardttir


In general, studies and articles about this broad topic can be divided into two fields: Deaf history, and 'traditional' classical and medieval history (Bragg, 1997; 2). These two groups generally do not overlap, which is a shame as both fields can provide a more complete picture than just one or the other ever could.


I prefer to refer to the sign lists that were written down and used by medieval monks as a sign lexicon rather than a sign language, as there is no known accompanying grammar with these lists. As illustrated by Bakarat (1975), these lexicons were likely designed to inhibit idle chatter of monks and nuns, instead of facilitate communication as a sign language would.


      Ambrose, Kirk "A Medieval Food List from the Monastery of Cluny" in Gastronomica (6:1 2006) pp.14-20

      Just as it implies, a list of all of the monastic signs used to indicate different foods from an 11th century manuscript at Cluny, also known as "Signa Loquendi".

      Aungier, George James The History and Antiquities of Syon Monastery: The Parish of Isleworth, and the Chapelry of Hounslow. (J.B. Nichols and son, 1840) pp. 405-409

      The 15th century sign list used at the Brigittine monastery at Syon, England.

      Bakarat, Robert A. The Cistercian Sign Language (Cistercian Publications: Kalamazoo, Michigan 1975) ISBN 0-87907-811-1

      Discusses modern, 20th century monastic sign lexicon.

      Provides the best example of how the monastic sign systems were designed to hinder communication between hearing people, rather than improve communication for deaf people. It severely restricted idle chatter between monks as it is difficult to form complex sentences.

      Banham, Debby Monasteriales Indicia: The Anglo-Saxon Monastic Sign Language (Norfolk, England: Anglo Saxon Books, 1993) ISBN: 0951620940

      Discussion and translation of the Anglo-Saxon manuscript Cotton.Tiberius.A.III.

      Barley, Nigel F. "Two Anglo Saxon Sign Systems Compared" in Semiotica Volume 12 (1974) pp. 227-237
also in
Umiker-Seboek, Jean and Seboek, Thomas A. [eds] Monastic Sign Languages (Mouton de Gruyter: Berlin 1987) ISBN: 3-11-010927-1 pp. 53-66

      Discusses monastic signs and memory aides

      Has a different manuscript of the Monisteriales Indicia, with pictures of monks making the hand signs.

      Bonet, John Pablo Reduccin de las letras y arte para ensear a hablar a los mudos (Simplification of the Letters of the Alphabet and Method of Teaching Deaf-Mutes to Speak) (1620)

      Is believed to be derived from the 1593 text Refugium infirmorum by Fray Melchor de Yebra, that has since been lost. See Plann (1997) for more information.

      Online at the Biblioteca Nacional de Espaa:

      Online at Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes: http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/servlet/SirveObras/signos/12826516449063734198624/index.htm

      Bragg, Lois "Visual-Kinetic Communication in Europe Before 1600: A Survey of Sign Lexicons and Finger Alphabets Prior to the Rise of Deaf Education" Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 2:1 Winter 1997

      Highly recommended read.

      Discusses monastic sign lexicons

      Mentions a finger alphabet published in 1592 which is almost identical to the modern one-handed 'international alphabet' of today.

      Bruce, Scott Gordon Uttering no human sound: Silence and sign language in western medieval monasticism. (Ann Arbor, Mich. : U.M.I. 2000) [Princeton Univ. Dissertation]

      This is the bible of monastic sign . Not only does it focus entirely on the social aspects of MSL, the appendices in the back contain translations of numerous medieval MSL lists. Amazing!

      Translation of Hirsau Sign List

      Bruce, Scott G. Silence and Sign Language in Medieval Monasticism: The Cluniac Tradition, c.900–1200 (Cambridge: University Press, 2007) ISBN: 0-521-86080-6

      More polished, publication based on PhD thesis. Appendices not as large as original thesis.

      Translation of Hirsau Sign List

      Carruthers, Mary J. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)

      Focus on finger alphabets and gestures as mnemonic devices.

      Conde-Silvestre, Juan C. "The code and context of monasteriales indicia: a semiotic analysis of late Anglo-Saxon monastic sign language." Studia Anglica Posnaniensia (36) 2001. pp. 145-169

      Available online at The Free Library:

      Daniels, Marilyn Benedictine Roots in the Development of Deaf Education (Bergin & Garvney: Westport, USA, 1997) ISBN: 0-89789-500-2

      Argues that Pedro Ponce de Leon successfully taught deaf students to speak through a monastic sign lexicon.

      Finger spelling possibly used by Ponce may have been based on system devised by Melchor Yebra.

      Chapter three describes how Juan Pablo Bonet taught students in the 17th century.

      Eriksson, Per The History of Deaf People (Daufr: Sweden, 1993) ISBN: 91-630-6822-2

      Different drawing of Bedes' counting system, than the pictures usually used.

      Jarecki, Walter "Signa loquendi: Die cluniacensischen Signa-Listen" Saecula Spiritalia, IV (Baden Baden: Koerner, 1981) ISBN: 3873204045

      German language

      Is source for majority of Bruce's MSL lists.

      Kluge, F. "Zur Geschichte der Zeichensprache. Angelschsische Indicia Monasterialia" in Internationale Zeitschrift fr allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft Vol. 2 (1885) pp. 117-140

      German translation of the the Indicia Monasterialia (Cotton.Tiberius.A.III).

      Also has transcribed 15th century Syon list, in contemporary English.

      Kylie, JG and Woll, B. Sign Language: The Study of Deaf People and Their Language (Cambridge, New York : Cambridge Univ. Pr. 1985) ISBN: 0-521-26075-2

      p.51 The finger spelling published in 1680, Digiti lingua, is very close to British (and associated languages) finger spelling.
Note:Every other reference says Digiti lingua was published 1698.

      Lee, Raymond [ed] A Beginner's Guide to Deaf History (British Deaf History Society: Doncaster UK, 2004) ISBN: 1-902-427-18-1

      Lots of pictures, is a good overview of MSL and Deaf history.

      pp. 9-23: development of manual communication, including lots of pictures from manuscripts about manual alphabets.

      Meyvaert, Paul "The Medieval Monastic Garden" in Elisabeth B. MacDougall [ed.] Medieval Gardens (Washington, D.C. : Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1986) pp. 23-54

      Some signs from the Hirsau sign list directly mentioned in the footnotes.

      Padden, Carol and Gunsauls, Darlene Clark "How the Alphabet Came to be Used in a Sign Language" in Sign Language Studies (4:1, 2003) pp. 10-33

      Focus of the article is on finger spelling, and its' development through history.

      Main interest is 19-20th centuries, but does mention up to 1600.

      Penna, Mario "I 'Signa Loquendi' Cisterciensi in un Codice della Bibliotheca National di Madrid" in J Umiker-Seboek and TA Sebeok [eds.] Monastic sign languages. (New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1987) pp. 495-532

      Italian Language

      Translation of the 11th century Cluniac sign list.

      Plann, Susan "Pedro Ponce de Leon: Myth and Reality" in John Vickery Van Cleve [ed] Deaf History Unveiled (Gallaudet University Press: Washington DC, 1993) pp. 1-12 ISBN: 1563680211

      Plann, Susan A Silent Minority: Deaf Education in Spain, 1550-1835 (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1997)

      See: http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft338nb1x6/

      This book is very dense, but has extremely detailed information about the education of deaf Spanish nobility in the 16th century.

      Romberch, Johann Host von Congestorium Artificiose Memorie (1533)

      See: National Library of France http://gallica2.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k594964.r=.langEN

      Originally published in 1520

      Is full of grids of 'memorial heuristics' of variations upon each letter of the alphabet, and its' possible representation. Along with animals, such as A for Aquila (eagle), and shapes of tools (C is a horseshoe) there is also a section devoted to shapes made with ones' hands.

      Rossellius, Cosmas Thesaurus Artificiosae Memoriae (1579)

      Rossellius was more interested in mnemonics for individual use, rather than developing a communication system between people.

      Online at the Internet Archive: http://www.archive.org/details/thesaurusartifi00padogoog

      Saint-Loup, Aude de "Images of the Deaf in Medieval Western Europe" in Renate Fischer et.al. Looking Back: A Reader on the History of Deaf Communities and their Sign Languages (Signum Verlag: Germany,1993) pp.379-402. ISBN 3-927731-32-3

      Lots of pictures, including artwork showing how people counted on their fingers.

      Schmitt, J.-C. "The rationale of gestures in the West: Third to thirteenth centuries." In J. Bremmer & H. Roodenburg, H. [Eds.], A cultural history of gesture. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 1992) pp. 59-70

      Sherlock, D. "Anglo-Saxon monastic sign language at Christ Church, Canterbury". Archaeologia Cantiana, 107, 1989: 1-27.

      Umiker-Seboek, Jean and Seboek, Thomas A. [eds] Monastic Sign Languages (Mouton de Gruyter: Berlin 1987) ISBN: 3-11-010927-1

      This book has copies of articles and translations from numerous sources, including the Brigittine sign list from Syon.

      van Cleve, John Vickrey and Crouch, Barry A. A Place of their Own (Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press, 1989)

      Focuses on Deaf history, but discusses de Yebra's fingerspelling from his 1593 Refugium Infirmorum.


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Bibliography by Rebecca Lucas, 2009. E-mail: rebe.lucas at gmail.com


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


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Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
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Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org