Gesturing in the Early Universities
Dynamis: Acta Hispanica ad Medicinae Scientiarumque. Historiam llustrandam, Vol.20 (2000)
Research into the oral and literary traditions of scholastic education usually emphasizes the significance of the word in late medieval pedagogy. This paper suggests that coded hand signals provided early university scholars with an important non-verbal means of communication too. Using illustrations of classroom scenes from early university manuscripts, this paper analyzes the artistic conventions for representing gestures that these images embody. By building up a typology of these gesticulations, it demonstrates that the producers of these images and their audience shared a perception of scholastic education that embraced a sophisticated understanding of the activities associated with university education.
The part that gestures play in human communication has been extensively explored with respect to their anthropological and psychological significance. Less work has been done, however, on the role of gestures in history, either in terms of what they might tell us about social structures and cultural traditions in the past or what they might reveal about how people communicated with one another. Certainly, some work has been done on decoding sign languages that were used by particular social groups in certain circumstances. In the courtly life of the eighteenth century, for example, ladies gestured with their fans to communicate with their swains in situations where spoken language was impossible or forbidden. For instance, a lady might gesture to her lover with her fan to indicate to him that «the coast is clear—come to me» or maybe «go away—my husband is near at hand». But so far, nobody has examined the role that gestures played in the transmission of knowledge, particularly in the context of classroom teaching. This is the topic that this paper seeks to open up, at least in a preliminary way, as an important yet hitherto unexplored avenue of research in early university education.