Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.04.03


Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg (edd.), A Cultural History of Gesture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992. Pp. xiv + 268. $44.95 (hb). $15.95 (pb). ISBN O-8014-2744-4 (hb). ISBN 0-8014-8023-X (pb).


Reviewed by Christiane Hertel & John Baker, Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges.

"But is it worth studying?"

In his introduction to this book, Keith Thomas gives two reasons why gesture is worthy of historical study: first, "gesture formed an indispensable element in the social interaction of the past"; second, gesture "can offer a key to some fundamental values and assumptions underlying any particular society." (p. 5) Calling for a "grammar of gestures," Thomas appeals to "anthropologically-minded historians," yet this book, a collection of essays first presented in a conference at Utrecht in 1989, is less a cultural history of gesture than a chronologically ordered series of ten very different inquiries into gesture as "meaningful behaviour" (p.6). Its location "ranges" historically from classical antiquity to the present, geographically from Greece to Poland, and representationally from everyday life to portraiture. While as a common denominator for these essays "cultural history" may be a misnomer, the individual texts are very specific about what they are or propose to accomplish and what not. To start with the latter, none among the contributors studying the, in the rhetorical sense, non-classical gesture explicitly raises the question of what is implied in the writing of history through gesture; that is, none asks what it is to write history metonymically, trusting a detail to epitomize the complexities of history, society, culture and politics. Accordingly, certain names, such as Aby Warburg or Walter Benjamin or Michel de Certeau or, except for a single mention by Roodenburg, Sigmund Freud, are conspicuously absent from the book's discourse. The one critic named frequently, though mainly in order to score him for simplifying the details of empirical reality through the imposition of a thesis on the "Process of Civilization," is Norbert Elias (3, 79, 157f, 161). That said, Elias's achievement is acknowledged by Robert Muchembled, whose contribution counts among the more synthetic and, for the unpracticed, exemplary demonstrations of what "a cultural history of gesture" might be (133). Nevertheless, the primarily empirical approach taken in the essays and the flexibility of what one is to understand by "gesture" leaves some authors uneasy. Joaneath Spicer cautiously labels her work on the "Renaissance Elbow" a "chronicle" (p. 85); Willem Frijhoff confesses his desire for sound methodology, given the potentially voyeuristic, fetishistic and ethically dubious nature of his topic, the kiss (p. 210f); and Peter Burke shows himself concerned about the requisite knowledge still missing for the writing of an "Alltagsgeschichte" of gesture, such as its linguistic composition, before he settles on the stereotype of the gesticulating Italian (pp. 71-73).

The straight chronological organization of the book's contents somewhat disguis es a basic difference between the studies of modern and pre-modern cultures. The first three studies, those on ancient and medieval times, survey a wider because less richly documented social and gestural field. These are the cultures and epochs which, in the history of the West, seem to have been most strongly marked by a prescribed rhetoric of gestures. But in the case of the ancient cultures and especially as regards aspects of the lives of women and slaves or as regards private life in general, much of that gestural world is simply "irretrievably lost" (16). Still, it is precisely in these periods that many of the influential, hierarchical determinations of the value of gesture as well as the interpretation of gesture as the visible manifestation of the soul were first established. This fact is nowhere more apparent than in one of the most amply attested discussions, Fritz Graf's "Gestures and Conventions: the gestures of Roman actors and orators." Graf makes a nicely cogent presentation of the rhetoric of "body language" in Roman oratory. What will be perhaps most striking to any reader of this volume is how lastingly familiar the tropes of Roman rhetoric are and yet how alien to the presuppositions and findings of the contributors. Consider the following quotation by Graf from Cicero: "Every motion of the soul has its natural appearance, voice and gesture; and the entire body of man, all his facial and vocal expressions, like the strings of a harp, sound just as the soul's motion strikes them" (40).

The book's first essay, "Walking, standing, and sitting in ancient Greek culture" by Jan Bremmer, deals primarily with gait and posture as iconic indices of social rank and honor. Bremmer is quick to point out that documentation, especially for the attitudes of standing and sitting, is sparse. Documents are sufficient though to make clear the origin of certain norms, such as the slowness of gait that was said to mark members of aristocracy and then in Christian times became the recommended habit of all adult Christians. In his conclusion Bremmer argues indeed for a remarkable continuity between the ancient understanding of the relation of gait and bearing to individual identity and rank on the one hand and a later, Christian understanding of that relation as reflected by Erasmus on the other (pp. 27-9).

Erasmus, however, is perhaps too overtly humanistic a figure to characterize adequately the relationship between a Christian civilization emerging from the Middle Ages and antiquity. Muchembled indirectly suggests as much when he notes that Erasmus's De civilitate, written for the education of a Burgundian prince, found its greatest success among the new urban elites of the north (149). In other words, the perceived continuity could unintentionally reintroduce the view of western history as consisting of mountain peaks divided by valleys. Much else after all lay between the gestural norms of Periclean Athens and Quintilian's Rome, outlined by Bremmer and Graf, on the one hand and the humanist renaissance on the other. By the time of the Carolingian Renaissance a refashioning of the language of gesture had begun. In the collection's most summary chapter, "The rationale of gestures in the West: third to thirteenth centuries" (the précis, to be fair, of a book), Jean-Claude Schmitt notes that profound changes in religious life, the growth of mysticism, and an increasingly complex society substantially redefined the role and meaning of gesture by the late Middle Ages. In this, by comparison with antiquity, already far more varied context gesture, regarded necessarily as a function of the body, evolved from being an object of distrust and constraint to being the very stuff by which new differentiations could be made in the spheres of society, theology, ritual, and the arts, confirming thereby Augustine's earlier distinction between superstitious and legitimate gesture (pp. 66-9).

Differences in approach and its reflectedness may be observed by looking at the uses to which several authors who are not literary critics put common material, namely, conduct literature drawn in part from the same sources in Castiglione, della Casa, and de Courtin. In "The Renaissance Elbow," Joaneath Spicer gives a rich and eye-opening iconographic account of a motif in European Renaissance and Baroque portraiture. The motif's many occurrences in Dutch portraiture, for example, reflect "a collective perception of social ties and duties rather than pure artistic invention" (p. 86). The Renaissance elbow is thus taken to have a double root in the imitation of "real movements from daily life" and in civil conduct literature and codes of military posture (p. 86). Occasionally artistic invention transcends societal prescription, as when Rembrandt, in his Self- Portrait of 1652, lends the arm akimbo "more significance" as a gesture of "profound, personal stock-taking" (p. 97). Spicer contrasts very instructively the individual's "elbow" as a sign of "aggressive self-possessive display" both with its multiplied appearance in the "front-line" of corporate portraits as a sign of "good-natured bravado" towards the "outsider-spectator" and of internal identity and protection for the group, and also with its function as a sign used by fathers and husbands to mark off territorial boundary in family and marriage portraits. Spicer's close reading of gesture in the context of composition and pictorial space bears out her claim, made against Eddie de Jongh, that for the interpretation of art representing everyday life the study of gesture lies next to the study of emblems and popular literature (p. 110). Herman Roodenburg, in "The 'hand of friendship': shaking hands and other gestures in the Dutch Republic," opens up an exemplarily footnoted and documented archive of conduct literature, letters and travel journals to account, somewhat ironically, for the historic and geographic variables in the meaning of such "non-verbal communication" as the hand-shake and the doffing of the hat. Along the way he raises briefly a number of interesting issues, for instance of body control as avoidance of "non-verbal leakage," thereby suggesting a linkage between gesture as symptom and expression and gesture as formal code (p. 161). Maria Bogucka, in her "Gesture, ritual, and social order in sixteenth- to eighteenth-century Poland," takes this notion of gesture further to inquire about the possibilities of what might be called gesture as political dissimulation and gesture as the individual's solution to social crisis. As one of the few contributors who bring with them an overarching thesis, albeit one without some of the others' profound documentation, Bogucka uses conduct literature, letters and travel journals to trace the development over three centuries of the Polish gentry life from a restrained body-language, exhibited for example by the gravity of the Polish Dance, to a demonstratively emotional, yet conventional, body-language for both proper and improper behaviour. She then proposes that this development is not only indicative of an artificial and theatrical Baroque Zeitgeist coloured by both western and eastern European influences, but stands in a reciprocal relation to the disintegration of social and political order in that same time period.

Willem Frijhoff, in "The kiss sacred and profane: reflections o n a cross-cultural confrontation" tests the reliability of empirical study of gesture in a way that might have repercussions for those who trust as historical sources such things as observations conveyed in letters. As an alternative he presents a somewh at uneven account of how a written source about what Roodenburg called "non-verbal communication" comes into being. Starting from his own uneasy experience as observer of and hesitant participant in the ritual of kissing the foot of the bronze statue of St. Peter in Rome, he investigates the range of gestures within the same religious ritual as an intersection between the individual's imitation of a model and the heritage he or she brings to the event. This range is then used to reflect upon issues such as the outsider's inability to "read" the sacred kiss, the false urge to decide between authenticity or routine enactment, and feelings oscillating between admiration, anger, shame and disgust. Tracing his own behaviour's cultural background, the Dutch history of the sacred and the profane kiss, Frijhoff exposes the falsity of common-sensical conclusions from the contrast between Mediterranean ostentation and northern restraint, claiming that the distinction "between the public and the private sphere" matters much more than that between the sacred and the profane and, presumably, the Mediterranean and the North (p. 230). To find out whether this conclusion is borne out by the time-honored method of a cleverly organized "confession", we refer the reader to Franz Kafka's story "Das