From early in our lives, most of us will demonstrate what is known as ‘lateral preference’, the consistent use of one limb or sense organ to perform a task. While we have a tendency to favour one hand over the other, we also have a foot, eye and ear preference. For drawing and writing, our use of one hand over another becomes obvious by a very young age, with only a small percentage of us becoming left-handed. It seems that this is genetic, but researchers are still investigating exactly how and why.
Every ‘lefty’ is familiar with the exasperation of living in a right-handed world and there have been a few notable names. Barack Obama is left-handed, as were seven other former US presidents. Winston Churchill was a ‘lefty’, as were Lewis Carroll, Leonardo da Vinci (though possibly due to a paralysis of his right hand), and Peter Paul Rubens.
Left-handedness has been discouraged as recently as the mid-20th century. At times, physical restraints have been used, such as tying a child’s left hand behind their back. Starting in the Middle Ages, here’s a look at how our ancestors viewed the left-handed trait…
For those who lived before the invention of the printing press, writing by hand was the only way to record information. This work was almost always done by scribes, who were usually right-handed. Aside from any ideological reason for preferring right-handers, writing was a practical nuisance for a left-handed scribe – it made his life very difficult. So, many natural left-handers might have been steered away from becoming a professional scribe in the first place. In contrast, it might be speculated that a left-handed monk or nun, for whom writing was not their main occupation but just part of their religious duties, would be more likely to write, though with great frustration.
In his book Their Hands Before Our Eyes (2008), Professor Malcolm Parkes, an authority on medieval manuscripts, points out that as that western writing involves moving from left to right, writing would have been much easier for a right-handed scribe. In addition, medieval scribes had to do this on a sloped desk using quill and ink. A left-handed scribe would have made this controlled movement with much more difficulty than a right-handed writer. A right-handed scribe, Parkes explains, would pull each stroke to the right, distributing ink onto the parchment as they went, whereas a left-handed writer had to learn to push – a more laborious movement. Problems with smearing the ink would also be frustrating. The resulting slow and laborious writing might have been impractical for a professional scribe who was paid per book, or per page.
Despite the impracticality of left-handed writing, Parkes detected several features in surviving medieval writing that were caused by writing this way: awkward rhythms, blotting, and difficulty in maintaining a controlled movement from the left to the right. Most artistic depictions of scribes show them with quill in the right hand, and knife in the left. The knife was used to pin down and stabilise the parchment on the desk as the right hand glided from left margin to right margin. However, as historian Timothy Graham mentioned when reviewing Parkes’ book, there is a rare depiction of Saint Jerome writing with his left hand, in a 15th-century manuscript kept in Chicago’s Newberry Library. Suzanne Karr Schmidt, curator of rare books and manuscripts at the Newberry, states that it is possible that the depiction is a transfer copy from a drawing where Jerome was right-handed, but there is no conclusive evidence to prove this theory.
Being a left-handed scribe would have had further practical implications for a medieval writer. As modern left-handers, struggling with right-handed scissors, might invest in a pair that have been specially designed for left-handed use, similarly, a left-handed scribe would find it hard to use a quill made from the left wing of the bird, which has a slight curve to the right. They would need to select one from the right wing instead.
Rather than being ashamed of being left-handed, some writers could might use it to their advantage. Medieval scribes were at pains to emphasise the arduous nature of writing – after all, they applied a great deal of physical and intellectual labour to make a manuscript. Writing was a back-breaking process, and accentuating this could gain a writer extra recognition. For a monastic scribe, the process of writing was also an act of worship, so the more laborious the work the better.
In her book The Scribes for Women’s Convents in Late Medieval Germany, Cynthia J Cyrus has pointed out that being a rare left-handed scribe gave one nun, called Margaretha, special ‘bragging rights’. In the colophon, the part of the manuscript where the scribe could claim recognition for their work, the nun boasted: “Amen, amen. Margaretha von Schonbergk has written this with her left hand… pray to God for me. Amen.”
Since writing with the left hand was so much harder for a scribe, she felt able to claim greater recognition. It seems that Margaretha was not a one-off either: Malcolm Parkes found several other colophons stating that the scribe was left-handed, usually using the Latin phrase manu sinistra, or “with the left hand”. These accompany the physical evidence in the writing itself to show that left-handed writing in the Middle Ages, though rare, was not unknown, and did not necessarily carry negative connotations.
‘Impressive spectacle’ or ‘natural defect’
A preference for the left hand did not seem to be a problem for the artists of the Renaissance. In the 1560s, the artist Raffaello da Montelupo reminisces that his teacher did not mind that he wrote with his left hand, because his handwriting was good.
He wrote from right to left – highly unusual for a Western writer – and so attracted attention from other scribes. At one time, ten notaries gathered to watch him write; the professional writers were fascinated by his unconventional style and could not believe that the resulting script was readable. As Carmen Bambach, curator of Spanish and Italian drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art has noted, it is striking that Raffaello’s teacher never attempted to train him out of using of his left hand. It seems that practicality was the biggest concern to pre-modern teachers of writing. If a writer found it possible, or indeed preferable, to write with the left hand, then that was acceptable if the resulting work was good.
Lauren Julius Harris, an expert on handedness, writes that in the 18th and 19th centuries, left handedness was dismissed as a ‘defect’ by some writers. In her article, ‘On teaching infants “the right use of their hands”’, Harris reveals that one 19th-century parenting manual gives mothers reassurance “lest their children should be left-handed”. The author, an American woman named Mary Palmer Tyler, quotes an earlier poem La Balia (The Nurse), advising: “that as soon as its hands are free to move, the child should be taught, but gently (‘with reprehension light’), to use its right hand in preference to the left.” Harris reveals that other writers advocated sterner methods in correcting this ‘defect’, but in The Maternal Physician (1818), Tyler herself expressed resignation to the fact that it could never be entirely ‘overcome’:
“It is my decided opinion, that if a child is left-handed, it is a natural defect which it will be impossible ever entirely to overcome; and although the infant might, as it advanced in life, be taught to use the right hand so well as greatly to obviate the inconvenience and awkward appearance arising from it, yet the propensity would always predominate.”
Later in the 19th century and into the 20th, attempts to train children out of left-handedness were common. As the teaching of writing became widespread and children were taught the skills of reading and writing in schools, teachers employed a variety of methods to encourage right-handedness, including tying the left arm behind the back and knuckle-raps for writing with the ‘wrong’ hand. Psychologist Chris McManus has suggested that the Industrial Revolution encouraged this, due to the right-handed design of the machinery in mills and factories. McManus, in his book Right Hand, Left Hand, finds an account from a school near Falkirk, Scotland, in 1880, noting that “eight children had come to school left-handed”. The phrase “had come” implies that they were not allowed to remain so.
With the decline of these harsh methods, the numbers of left-handers has risen sharply over the course of the 20th century – with awareness of the struggles that they face lagging somewhat behind. Imagine a world, right handers, where all of your scissors were made for the comfort of left-handers.
Deborah Thorpe is a Research Associate at the University of York. Her current research focuses on ageing and neurological disorders in medieval scribes.
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2017