Silence and Sign Language in Medieval Monasticism

The Cluniac Tradition, c.900–1200

Silence and Sign Language in Medieval Monasticism

Silence and Sign Language in Medieval Monasticism explores the rationales for religious silence in early medieval abbeys and the use of nonverbal forms of communication among monks when rules of silence forbade them from speaking. After examining the spiritual benefits of personal silence as a form of protection against the perils of sinful discourse in early monastic thought, this work shows how the monks of the Abbey of Cluny (founded in 910 in Burgundy) were the first to employ a silent language of meaning-specific hand signs that allowed them to convey precise information without recourse to spoken words. Scott Bruce discusses the linguistic character of the Cluniac sign language, its central role in the training of novices, the precautions taken to prevent its abuse, and the widespread adoption of this custom in other abbeys throughout Europe, which resulted in the creation of regionally specific idioms of this silent language.


"The originality of Bruce's argument is clear in the first chapter."
Gregory Carrier, University of Alberta, Comitatus

"Up until now, monastic sign language has been something of a specialist interest, even among medievalists, but Scott G. Bruce’s study, by situating the topic firmly in its context of reforming theology, should allow it to take its place in the mainstream of scholarship on the Middle Ages." -Debby Banham, The Catholic Historical Review

"This is a smart and lively book. A brief summary cannot discuss at length its important sub-themes, including the pedagogical and acculturating purposes of the Cluniac lexicon and its variations, the essential unity underlying apparently diverse developments in religious life in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and the deep influence of Cluniac practice across Europe." -American Historical Review

"This work is a fascinating and valuable contribution to an understudied field, and offers much besides to the reader interested more generally in medieval monasticism or the origins of modern sign language. The intersection between theology, which is too often studied as an abstraction, and the attempt to live a religious life is illuminated here in considerable detail, allowing us a glimpse not only of a remarkable tool for communication, but also of a mindset and a world-view articulated in daily living." --Robin Sutherland-Harris, University of Toronto: Canadian Journal of History


University of Colorado Kayden Book Award in History 2009 - Winner