Left-handedness

Is there evidence of prejudice against left-handers in the medieval period, and if not, when did prejudice begin to be reported?
Illustration by Glen McBeth

There are a multitude of first-person accounts of left-handedness being treated as a disability, often involving school pupils having one hand tied behind their back until they’d learned to use their right hand. In fact left-handedness has long been associated with negative aspects of the personality in many different cultures, a bias that survives in our languages today.

The French word for left – gauche – translates in English as ‘clumsy’ or ‘awkward’, while the word ‘left’ itself comes from the Latin sinistra.

The Bible features more than 20 negative references to left-handedness, mostly along the lines of this passage from Matthew: “Then shall the king say unto them on his right hand, ‘Come, ye blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ ... Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels’.”

The Italian doctor Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), often referred to as the father of
modern criminology, had some rather strong views on left-handedness. According to Lombroso it was a sign that a person had biologically regressed to a more primitive, savage mentality. He wrote in 1903: “[As] man advances in civilisation and culture, he shows an always greater right-sidedness as compared to… women and
savage races, [who] even when they are not properly left-handed have certain gestures and movements which are a species of left-handedness.”

Lombardo was good enough to concede that not all left-handed people were wicked, but remained certain “that left-handedness, united to many other traits, may contribute to form one of the worst characters among the human species”.

It’s not all bad news. While current research into the difference between right- and left-handers suggests that around 10 per cent of us are left-handed, it could also be argued that increased intelligence is one signifier – three of the last four US presidents have been left-handed.
 

Answered by: 
Mark Blackmore, freelance writer
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