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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


French history myths: France is the birthplace of wine

You might be surprised that France - one of the world's top wine exporters - is not where wine originated.

French history myths: France is the birthplace of wine

Myth: France, known across the world for wine, is where the drink originated.

When thinking of France, wine is often one of the first things that comes to mind. A sip of a nice Bordeaux or a clink of Champagne can make even non-Francophiles dream of visiting the land of wine.

Thus, many make the understandable mistake that based on France’s deep ties to the growth and exportation of wine, this is where the alcoholic beverage must have originated.

On top of that, it is easy to presume that since the term terroir –  the environmental impacts on a wine’s character, used to determine the authenticity of certain wines – is French in origin, so is wine.

France and Italy flip back and forth each year to top lists of ‘best wine countries’ or ‘best vineyards to visit,’ yet neither France nor Italy is the homeland of wine.  

Wine may feel fundamentally French, but in actuality it has existed for ‘only’ about 2,600 years in the territory that is now France.

Winemaking is actually thought to have originated in the Caucasus region – around 6,000 BC. What is now Georgia is most likely the birthplace of wine (of a sort), with early Georgians having been the ones to discover how to turn grapes into alcohol by “burying them underground for the winter.”

Most historians agree that this is where humans first ‘conquered the common grape,’ as Georgia is where the classic Vitis vinifera wine grape variety first appeared – far from Western Europe.

For France, it was not until approximately 600 BC where wine as we know it began to appear. Historians often link this to the arrival of Greek settlers in Southern Gaul. Later, the Roman Empire institutionalised winemaking in France – with Bordeaux eventually developing an industry big enough to export to Roman troops stationed in what is now Britain. 

Roman techniques did introduce wine-making technologies as we might recognise them today, and in the Middle Ages it was the Catholic church who played a large role in viticulture and helping European vineyards to gain international acclaim.

Prior to the Romans, it is unclear how much Celtic and Gallic tribes produced what we currently think of as wine, although grape pips found around Lake Geneva could be over 10,000 years old. That being said, based on current evidence, it is the Georgians, not the French, who win the viticulture race.

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