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.