Monastic Sign Lexicons (MSL)

One day, I read the most interesting paragraph in Dress in Anglo Saxon England about the sign 'language' used by monks to communicate during times of silence (Owen-Crocker, 2004; 203). It was written down in the Monasteriales Indicia, which I had never heard of before, but there was a book about it at a university library, so I drove down to look at it. I was instantly hooked.

So began what is possibly one of my stranger interests. I still am a very poor signer of Auslan (Australian Sign Language) since knowing how a 10th century monk may have communicated has absolutely no bearing on what a 21st century Australian may sign. However, I still find the historic aspects fascinating.

Why a Lexicon, and not a Language?

Monastic sign lexicons are often, it seems, the first time an academic interested in linguistics or monastic daily life may come in contact with sign languages. But, despite the popular description of monastic sign languages, it is more accurate to describe them as a signed lexicon.

All that has survived to this day, are sign lists, and a handful of monasteries that continue the monastic signing tradition (Bakarat, 1975). What becomes apparent, reading about these modern signers, is that the lexicon is intentionally limiting. It is impossible to discuss the outside world, the weather, or chat at all. Monastic sign lexicons cannot be truly considered a language because it is solely composed of nouns and the occasional verb, and were artificial gestures. It is believed that the signs used by monks, were strongly rooted in the grammar of their usual spoken language, 'the syntax of the monastic sign used at Oña [in Spain] would reflect the syntax of the monks' spoken Spanish, while the same signs on the hands of their brethren in France would reflect the syntax of spoken French.' (Plann, 1993)

It would be misleading to compare a medieval signing lexicon with a modern day, natural sign language, as they ultimately have very different aims. MSL restricts communication to only the bare essentials during times of silence. Signed languages, however, are independent of any spoken syntax and grammar, and facilitate communication (Bragg, 1997).

For bibliographic details of the references above, see the annotated bibliography.