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Fingers, Compensation and King Canute

Fingers, Compensation and King Canute

By Arne Bertelsen and Norman Capener

Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, Vol.42:B (1960)

Introduction: The search for the origin of ideas is a fascinating exercise ; but it can lead one far into the forests of history. We started with digital nomenclature and modern schedules of compensation for injury ; we rapidly got to King Canute, but that was by no means the end of the story.

During August 1959 in Copenhagen one of us (N.C.) gave a lecture upon “ The Hand” and in the course of it referred to the ancient nomenclature of the digits which the other (A.B.) knew from the laws of Canute. All that most of us in Britain know about Cnut is that he was a Danish King of England from 1016 to 1035 and that he rebuked the flattery of his courtiers by showing that the advancing tides paid no heed to his commands. Some may even know that his bones are preserved in Winchester Cathedral. King Canute was also King of Denmark and of Norway, and for all three countries he drew up a code of laws. The fact that in them he laid down certain principles of compensation for injuries is of special interest when, in modern times, we regard the schedules of disability published by the Welfare State as a sign of social advancement.

The naming of fingers was well discussed by Wood Jones, first in his classical work on The Principles of Anatomy as seen in the Hand’ and again in his delightful essays on Lfe and Living. In the latter, on The Mammalian Toilet and its Biological Implications, he gave an interesting account of the anatomical adaptations which facilitate such things as cleaning the teeth and keeping one’s fur tidy.

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