French history myths: The ‘two fingers’ insult comes from the Battle of Agincourt

In French, it is called the 'doigt d'honneur,' in English it is 'flipping the bird' but does sticking up a finger or fingers at someone as an insult have anything to do with the Battle of Agincourt?

French history myths: The 'two fingers' insult comes from the Battle of Agincourt
The Battle of Agincourt forms a key part of Shakespeare's Henry V. Photo by Nick Ansell / POOL / AFP)

Myth: During the Hundred Years War, the French cut off the first and second fingers of any English archers they managed to capture, to stop them from being able to shoot their bows. In response, the English taunted them by flicking their fingers at them, which is where the ‘two finger’ insult originated.

Many cultures have a rude ‘finger’ gesture, either sticking up two fingers or the middle finger at someone as an insult.

Myth says that during the Hundred Years War between England and France, when the Frenchmen were able to capture their English enemies, they would cut off their index and middle finger. This would render the archer unable to use their longbow. 

When the English unexpectedly won the Battle of Agincourt, they supposedly taunted the French by raising their intact middle fingers toward them. Allegedly, the insult was born here.

However, there is no contemporary record that English archers “made any gesture at the French after battle to show they still had their fingers,” according to the book “Agincourt” by Anne Curry. Additionally, although mutilation was used as punishment during this period, both for criminals and captured soldiers, there are no reports of the French cutting off English archers’ fingers.

In fact ‘finger’ gestures go all the way back to antiquity; in ancient Greece, the raised finger was an explicit insult making reference to the phallus. It was also used by the Romans.

Anthropologists believe the gesture made its way to the United States via Italian immigrants during the 19th century. The first documented appearance was when Old Hoss Radbourn, a baseball pitcher on the Boston Beaneaters team, flashed the gesture in a photograph.

This article is part of our August series looking at popular myths and misconceptions about French history.

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French history myths: The Bastille was stormed to free hundreds of political prisoners

The storming of the Bastille has become the iconic moment that symbolises the French revolution - but how did the event actually play out?

French history myths: The Bastille was stormed to free hundreds of political prisoners

Myth: The storming of the Bastille was done to free the hundreds of political prisoners held captive there

This myth is as old as the French revolution itself and the subject of numerous pieces of art.

The story goes that huge Parisian crowds came together at the Bastille prison on July 14th in 1789,  well armed and prepared to fight their way past the guards and military to free the hundreds of prisoners wrongfully convicted by the crown.

It’s true that the Bastille was stormed by a crowd, but at the time it was only housing seven prisoners, and none of them were known to have been rebelled against the crown in any notable way. According to records, the seven prisoners in the Bastille at the time were four counterfeiters, two ‘madmen’ and a nobleman accused of sexual perversion.

It is true that during previous centuries the giant prison was used to lock up those accused by the monarchy of sedition.

In the 17th century, King Louis XIV imprisoned over 2,320 people in the Bastille prison over the course of his reign, many of whom were protestants. 

The prison had also been known for incarcerating seditious writers, and eventually it built up a very reputation amongst the French public in the 18th century. By the mid-1700s, the prison was less frequently used, and during the reign of Louis XVI, only 306 people were imprisoned in the building. 

However, the structure still represented a symbol of the monarchy in the middle of the capital city, and once it was stormed, it helped demonstrate to the King – and the rest of the world – the seriousness of the revolutionaries’ demands.

Another reason the storming of the Bastille was a key victory for revolutionaries was what was being stored there: gunpowder. The Parisians succeeded in seizing both gunpowder they needed for their weapons, as well as the cannons housed there.

Ultimately, storming the Bastille marked a symbolic victory and, by many historians’ accounts, a clear start to the Revolution – which is why France’s Fête nationale is celebrated on July 14th.

In the years following, several authors, such as Alexandre Dumas and Charles Dickens, immortalised the Bastille prison as a place of torture for political dissidents and every day people alike. 

Now, the Place de la Bastille stands on most the former location of the famed prison. 

This article is part of our August series on popular myths and misconceptions about French history.