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Herman Roodenburg

Gestures are perhaps the most ephemeral subject ever studied by social historians. Scholars studying gestures in present-day societies can always photograph and film their subject; historians have to do without such devices. They have to work with texts, not the most convenient medium to capture any gesture, or with such visual media as prints, paintings, sculpture, or, beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, photographs and films made by other parties. Studying gestures in the past is a complicated but also a very rewarding task. Gestures are not only ephemeral; most of them are also, to the men and women employing them, self-evident and taken for granted. It is the naturalness and unreflectedness of gestures that may offer important and quite unexpected insights in the culture under study. So far most studies have focused on the early modern period. The sources on Antiquity and the Middle Ages are scarce. The relative paucity of studies on gestures in the nineteenth and the twentieth century may be explained by a lesser interest among the historians of these periods in the history of the body and the new cultural history in general.


According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, "gesture" refers to "a significant movement of limb or body" or the "use of such movements as expression of feeling or rhetorical device." This is a broad definition, encompassing essentially the whole carriage and deportment of the body. Though this was the original meaning of the term, it generally has been limited to indicating a movement of the head (including facial expression) or of the arms and hands. A gesture may be inadvertent (blushing, fumbling with one's clothes) or deliberate (nodding, making the V-sign). Most scholars agree that a degree of voluntarism should be implied. They also acknowledge that no watertight divisions exist between posture and gesture or between voluntary (or conventional) and involuntary (or natural) gestures. Indeed these divisions have a history of their own.

Many gestures function independently of the spoken word. A lucid survey of such "autonomous" gestures is in Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution (1979) by the ethologist Desmond Morris. The revised edition is Bodytalk: A World Guide to Gestures (1994). Particular types of autonomous gestures are the sign languages of the deaf and various tribal and monastic communities.

After the 1970s most studies undertaken by anthropologists, sociolinguists, and social psychologists focused on gestures that accompany speech, or gesticulation. Video and other audiovisual techniques have shown that speech and gesticulation are produced together, as though they are two aspects of a single underlying process. Many studies have been devoted to the nature of this matching, that is, to the question of how phrases of speech production are related to phrases of gesticulation. In addition older classifications of speech-related gestures were qualified and new ones introduced. A well-known classification includes beats, pointers, ideographs, and pictorial gestures. Beats or batons beat time to the rhythm of the words. Pointers or indexical gestures point to the object of the words, either a concrete referent in the immediate environment or an abstract referent, such as a point of view brought forward by the speaker. Ideographs only refer to abstract referents, and they diagram the logical structure of what is said. In contrast, pictorial gestures, essentially the gestures of mime artists, refer to concrete objects and activities.

Gesture has been studied and practiced from many perspectives. Since antiquity speech-related gesture has been a part of rhetoric. For example, both Cicero (106–43 b.c.) and Quintilian (c. a.d. 35–c. a.d. 100) wrote extensively on delivery, in Greek hupokrisis and in Latin actio or pronuntiatio. They deemed it no less important than the other four departments of oratory: inventio (invention), dispositio (disposition), elocutio (elocution), and memoria (memory). Quintilian was the first to explicitly distinguish delivery into vox (voice) and gestus (general carriage of the body). Interestingly Cicero was already using notions such as body language (sermo corporis) or the eloquence of the body (eloquentia corporis).


Both Cicero and Quintilian's writings were crucial to the flowering of rhetoric in the Renaissance. Delivery, however, had a modest impact. It is true that classical contrapposto was more or less reconquered by Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) and later authors, such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Michelangelo (1475–1564), Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), and Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo (1538–1600), on the basis of a passage from Quintilian. However, it is significant that the text in question was not on delivery. It merely referred to the Discobolos (c. 450 b.c.) of Myron (fl. c. 480–440 b.c.), one of the finest examples of classical contrapposto, as an illustration to elocutio. Just as this statue, in abandoning the straight line, suggests movement and grace, the speaker, too, should favor an ornate style and introduce grace and variety. Even at the beginning of the fifteenth century, when the complete text of Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria and Cicero's rhetorical works became available, scholars complained about the impracticability of classical delivery. They found it hardly conducive to contemporary oratory, and some, including the German rhetorician Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), disposed of classical pronuntiatio altogether.

The tradition of the civilization of manners is another perspective in which the study and practice of gestures has been prominent. In his ground-breaking study on the development of manners, the German sociologist Norbert Elias (1897–1990) strongly emphasized the rules governing the essential activities of life. He discussed the more psychoanalytically significant prescriptions concerning urinating, defecating, and hiding one's nudity and also the lesser ones concerning blowing the nose, sneezing, coughing, and spitting—in short, all those activities that "we share with the animals," as the author of one of the most important manners books, the Frenchman Antoine de Courtin (1622–1685), explained. But the manuals are far richer than Elias, with his strongly Freudian point of view, suggested. They also deal at length with phenomena such as postures, gestures, facial expression, and even paralingual phenomena (the pitch or intensity of the voice). The sixteenth century experienced an explosion of such texts, though many display a disinterest in classical actio or pronuntiatio similar to that in sixteenth-century texts on rhetoric. Jakob Burckhardt (1818–1897) and several later historians, including Elias, inaccurately said the rules propounded in these manuals originated in the classical or courtly tradition. As the English historian Dilwyn Knox argued, many of these texts derive from the disciplina corporis (body discipline), the monastic and clerical precepts of comportment that from the thirteenth century on were communicated to the laity. For example, reaching back to De institutione novitiorum (on the instruction of novices) possibly composed by the canon regular Hugh of St. Victor (1096–1142), this tradition provided the framework for Desiderius Erasmus's idea of civilitas (civility) set forth in De civilitate morum puerilium (On the Civility of Children's Manners) (1530) and the texts based on it, including other manuals on proper comportment, the numerous Latin school curricula, and the regulations of the new Catholic orders, such as the Jesuits.

The second half of the sixteenth century witnessed a new interest in gestures. At this time both the courts and the urban elites in most European countries adopted notions of civility. Generally this development followed a course of restraint compared to the excess of gestures attributed to the peasant population; the inhabitants of southern Europe, particularly the Italians from the seventeenth century onward; and the newly discovered peoples in the East and West. Many of the new codes were adopted in the arts of dancing, acting, painting, and sculpturing. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the concept was increasingly set off against the mere appearance of manners and all exaggerated civility. The background to this was the late medieval aesthetic-cum-moral conviction, already implied in the monastic and clerical codes of comportment, of a close correspondence between physical expression and inner disposition.

The emphasis on the moral or universal rather than the conventional nature of gestures brought civility and the study of physiognomy together. An informative example is De humana physiognomonia (On human physiognomy), published in 1586 by the Neapolitan dramatist Giambattista della Porta (1535?–1615). Later studies related physiognomy to the passions, as in the Conférence de M. Le Brun sur l'expression générale et particulière (1698) by the French court painter Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), or from a new psychological perspective, related to the so-called moral sentiments, as in the Ideen zu einer Mimik (1785–1786) by the German scholar Johann Jakob Engel (1742–1802). These works reveal that gestures were now also studied and practiced from the perspective of contemporary painting and stagecraft.

The late sixteenth century and the seventeenth century also witnessed a philosophical interest in gestures. In 1572, for example, the Spanish scholar Arias Montanus (1527–1598) published Liber Ieremiae, sive de actione, (The book of Jeremiah, or on delivery), in which he argued for the universality of gesture. Similarly Giovanni Bonifacio's L'arte de' cenni (1616) and John Bulwer's Chirologia; or, the Naturall Language of the Hand (1644) were conceived as manuals of rhetorical delivery. However, both authors professed a belief in a natural, universal language of gesture, opining that its often-noted diversity could be reduced to a few general principles and thus facilitate the conduct of trade in Europe, the New World, and the Far East. In the process classical delivery was revalued as natural gesture in contrast to merely conventional gesture and was increasingly identified with the Greco-Roman tradition. Eventually this philosophical interest inspired discussions on universal language schemes in the late seventeenth century and the eighteenth century.

The Neapolitan scholar Andrea de Jorio (1769–1851) offered a quite different, strongly antiquarian approach to classical gestures in La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire Napoletano (1832). Based on the idea that the lively gestures of his poorer townspeople, the volgo, were a direct legacy of the Romans, he interpreted gestures as a key to understanding the mimic codes on antique vases, murals, and reliefs. Offering an extensive survey of all the gestures he witnessed in the streets of Naples, De Jorio's study was highly original. At the same time he was very much a nineteenth-century scholar in his selection of a contemporary phenomenon among the lower classes not for its concrete significance to these individuals but as a relic or survival from the past. In the same decades the romantic folklorists, in particular Jacob Grimm (1785–1863), professed a similar approach aimed at the Germanic past. Later in the century well-known evolutionists, including E. B. Tylor (1832–1917) and Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920), took an interest in gestures not for their roles in the contemporary culture but for the entry they supposedly afforded into the origins of language. Remarkably both evolutionists were careful not to associate the more lively gesticulation of Italians and southern Frenchmen with a lack of civilization or primitivism.


In his famous essay "Les techniques du corps" (1935) the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1872 – 1950) discussed gesture indepently of any evolutionary schemes. Defined as "the ways in which from society to society men know how to use their bodies" his "techniques" included a wide range of phenomena, from sitting, standing, walking, dancing, swimming, and sleeping to table manners and matters of hygiene. At the same time his comparative approach ranged from the gait of American nurses, whom he observed in a New York hospital, to the delicate balancing of the hips displayed by Maori women in New Zealand. Anticipating the writings of American anthropologists, in particular those of Ruth Benedict (1887–1948), and of Mary Douglas, Mauss was greatly interested in the ways physiology, psychology, and sociology converged in his techniques. He emphasized the role of education, adopting the notion of habitus in its Aristotelian and Thomist sense of hexis or acquired ability well before Pierre Bourdieu.

Mauss's essay research along with David Efron's Gesture and Environment (1941) inspired later research. Reissued as Gesture, Race, and Culture in 1972, Efron's work was the first systematic study of cultural differences in gestures. Encouraged by the anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1942), Efron studied the use of gestures in two ethnic groups, Jewish Yiddish-speaking immigrants and immigrants from southern Italy, in New York City for two years. Using drawings, photography, and film, Efron and his colleagues found some significant differences. The Italians, for example, used both arms, generally needed more space for their gesticulations, and mostly stood apart from one another. In contrast, the Jewish immigrants gestured in front of their faces or chests, stood together in small groups, and touched one another frequently. The Italian immigrants displayed a range of symbolic gestures, many corresponding to De Jorio's inventory, while the Jews displayed a preference for beats and ideographs. Arguing against theories that regarded gesture as racially determined, Efron also showed that the various differences were less conspicuous in the second generation of the two groups, who absorbed much of the American mimic code. Efron's study was also one of the first to focus on speech-related gestures.

In the 1950s a group of anthropologists, sociolinguists, and social psychologists turned to the study of nonverbal communication. The anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell coined the notion of kinesics, the study of communicative body movements. His colleague Edward T. Hall and others introduced proxemics, the study of the distance people keep from each other when talking, and haptics, the study of the way people touch each other during conversations, or social space. In the following decades the fast-growing studies of face-to-face interactions and semiotics gained many insights. In the 1970s art historians, such as Michael Baxandall and Moshe Barasch, studied gestures in Italian paintings of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In the 1980s intellectual historians; literary historians; historians of rhetoric, the stage, and dance; and a wide range of historians of everyday life, including Jean-Claude Schmitt and Peter Burke, developed a much broader interest in gestures, posture, and comportment. Keith Thomas said, "The human body is as much a historical document as a charter or a diary or a parish register . . . and it deserves to be studied accordingly."

See also other articles in this section.


Barasch, Moshe. Gestures of Despair in Medieval and Early Renaissance Art. New York, 1976.

Baxandall, Michael. Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style. Oxford, 1972.

Birdwhistell, Ray L. Introduction to Kinesics. Louisville, Ky., 1952.

Bremmer, Jan, and Herman Roodenburg, eds. A Cultural History of Gesture. Ithaca, N.Y., 1992.

Efron, David. Gesture and Environment. New York, 1941. Reprinted as Gesture, Race, and Culture. The Hague, 1972.

Hall, Edward Twitchell. The Silent Language. Garden City, N.Y., 1959.

Jorio, Andrea de. Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity: A Translation of La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano. Translated by Adam Kendon. Bloomington, Ind., 2000.

Knox, Dilwyn. "Late Medieval and Renaissance Ideas on Gesture." In Die Sprache der Zeichen und Bilder: Rhetorik und nonverbale Kommunikation in der frühen Neuzeit. Edited by Volker Kapp. Marburg, Germany, 1990. Pages 11–39.

Le Brun, Charles. Conférence de M. Le Brun sur l'expression générale et particulière. Amsterdam, 1698.

Mauss, Marcel. "Les techniques du corps." Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique 39 (1935): 271–293. Reprinted in Mauss, Sociologie et anthropologie. Paris, 1950. Pages 365–386. Also reprinted in Sociology and Psychology. London, 1979. Pages 97–123.

Morris, Desmond, P. Collett, P. Marsh, and M. O'Shaugnessy. Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution. New York, 1979.