Weddings Vows Performed in 'Sign Language', and Signs in Other Ceremonies.

In the modern-day Deaf community, 'Deaf' is capitalised to indicate that a cultural community of hearing impaired individuals is being discussed. In the late medieval/early modern period, there is no evidence of such a community so people referred to on this webpage with hearing loss are described as 'deaf'.
No offence is intended.

It occasionally is noted in the literature, that 'the medieval church permitted the deaf to marry in a ceremony conducted in sign language' (Groce, 1988; 72) or more specifically, that in England there is a recorded instance of a groom making 'his vows with signs.' (Johnston and Schembri, 2007; 55) It appears that this revolves around the story of Ursula Russell and Thomas Tilsye, and at a deeper level, if the gestures used would count as a 'sign language.'

On February 15, 1576 the couple...

"maryed; and because the sayde Thomas was and is naturally deafe, and also dumbe, so that the order of the form of marriage used usually amongst others, which can heare and speake, could not for his parte be observed. After the approbation had from Thomas, the Bishoppe of Lincolne, John Chippendale, doctor in law, and commissarye, as also of Mr. Richd. Davye, then Mayor of the town of Leicester, with others of his brethren, with the rest of the parishe, the said Thomas, for the expressing of his mind instead of words, of his own accord used these signs :
First, he embraced her with his arms, and took her by the hand, putt a ring upon her finger, and layde his hande upon his hearte, and then upon her hearte, and held up his handes toward heaven. And to show his continuance to dwell with her to his lyves ende, he did it by closing of his eyes with his handes, and digginge out of the earth with his foote, and pullinge as though he would ring a bell, with diverse other signes."
(Cox, 1910; 84)

These gestures are abstractions, as for example the gesture of placing his hand over his heart indicates love, not that he merely owns a heart or a chest. (Marschark et al. 2002; 21) But it's unlikely that without already knowing what spoken wedding vows entail, that his gestures would otherwise have been as widely understood. The non-universal nature of such gestures, although it was believed that such signs were universal, and therefore their unintelligible nature to non-home signers, was a source of mocking humour for the hearing.(Saint Loup, 1993; 384) Furthermore, with very little detail of what the signs used were, it is impossible to know if the groom used 'a home sign system, or an older variety of signing related to modern [British Sign Language].' (Johnston and Schembri, 2007; 55)

Although an early 17th century example, another wedding was held on the 7th of November 1618, between Sarah Earle and the deaf-mute Thomas Speller.

"...the said Thomas Speller the dumb parties willingness to have the same performed, appeared, by taking the Book of Common Prayer and his licence in one hand and his bride in the other, and coming to Mr. John Briggs, our minister and preacher, and made the best signs he could to show that he was willing to be married, which was then performed accordinglie.
And also the said Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench, as Mr. Briggs was informed, was made acquainted with the said marriage before it was solemnized, and allowed to be lawful. This marriage is set down at large, because we never had the like before."
(Dyer, 1898 141)

The issue of communication in the pre-modern era revolves not around deafness, but muteness. Medieval laws distinguished people who were pre-lingually deaf, and therefore were mute, and those who became deaf post-lingually or ex accidente, and so could speak. "Only the latter were recognised as persons at law" (Plann, 1993; 7). However, "partial command of speech" may be enough to retain ones' legal rights, depending on the geographic area or local culture (eg. in the Jewish Mishna and Talmud. See Zwiebel 1993; 405) Customs and laws varied, so in France the deaf could make their own wills, but in Wales they lacked inheritance rights. (Covey, 1998; 201-2) In Spain, deaf and mute noblemen were unable to inherit titles (Dimmock, 1993; 7), and Martin Luther argued that "it is a dirty rotten business that... a blind and dumb person should not be allowed to enter into wedlock" in Germany (Miles, 2001 rev. 2005). However, the exception, once again in Jewish sources (Zwiebel 1993; 405) and from the 11th century in parts of Europe, appears to be marriage (Saint-Loup 1993; 389). Still, it is not until the 1576 marriage, quoted above, that the earliest account of "signing in a legal context" in Britain was recorded (Stone and Woll, 2008; 227).

These restrictions in essence can be traced back to Aristotle, as speech was believed to be an innate instinct of "thinking" humans, not an acquired skill that depended on hearing (Dimmock 1993; 1). So, without the ability to speak, the deaf obviously were incapable of coherent and logical thought, so should be protected from legal responsibilities. This view was questioned in the 16th century, in Europe, by gentlemen such as Solomon Alberti, who in 1591 wrote in Discourse on Deafness and Speechlessness that "deaf people were rational and capable of thought even though they lacked speech." (Vickrey van Cleve, 1989; 8)

The communication of the deaf by gestures, however, dovetails with the medieval practice of using gesture to reinforce speech. Itinerant preachers from the 13th century onwards had been using gestures 'to their sermons to be more persuasive' (Saint-Loup, 1993; 398), possibly in the tradition gestures used in Roman debate. (Corbeill, 2004; 2-3) In a parallel to the fealty and fidelity sworn in a marriage ceremony, there is evidence in the 15th century of gestures being used to swear homage to his lord.

"In a 15th century illustration of a homage, a vassal needed to express:

  1. That he swore to his lord to be 'his man'
  2. He will serve him loyally in exchange for protection
  3. In the name of the bond he will receive an estate.
  4. He binds himself in gestures and in speech before witnesses."
    (Saint-Loup, 1993; 396)
The gestures performed to indicate these points, are:
  1. Place his index finger in his mouth.
  2. Place both of his hands, over the clasped hands of his lord.
  3. Points towards the sheaves of grain nearby.

According to Saint-Loup, this co-existence of spoken word and gesture, is because gestures were seen as being more honest than words. "Accepting them in a sacred context was the best way to make them worthy," and what better way than in an approved marriage? (Saint-Loup, 1993; 396) Within the context of ritualised gesture by hearing people, the approval and utilisation of bodily movement by deaf individuals seems a logical step.

By the beginning of the 17th century, the use of gesture and signs to communicate appears to have become widely discussed in England, if not accepted. For example, King James I of England attempted in the 1630s to establish 'signing as a professorship' (Covey 1998; 203) and Sir Edward Gostwicke, a deaf Baronet, and his brother William were fluent users of the gestures described by John Bulwer in Chirologia (1644) and Philocopus (1648). (Kyle et al. 1985; 50)


  • Corbeill, Anthony Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome (Princeton University Press, 2004)
  • Covey, Herbert C. Social Perceptions of People with Disabilities in History (Charles C. Thomas: Springfield, Ill, 1998.)
  • Cox, J. Charles The Parish Registers of England (Methuen: London, 1910)
  • Dimmock, A.F. Cruel Legacy (Scottish Workshop Publications: Edinburgh, 1993)
  • Dyer, T.F. Thiselton Old English social life as told by the parish registers (E. Stock: London, 1898)
  • Groce, Nora Ellen Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1988)
  • Johnston and Schembri, Australian Sign Language: An Introduction to Australian Sign Language Linguistics (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007)
  • Kyle, JG, Woll, B., Pullen G., Maddix, F. Sign Language: The Study of Deaf People and Their Language (Cambridge, New York : Cambridge Univ. Pr. 1985)
  • Marschark, Marc, Lang, Harry G., and Albertini, John Anthony Educating Deaf Students: From Research to Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)
  • Miles, M. 2001, revised 2005. "Martin Luther and Childhood Disability in 16th Century Germany: What did he write? What did he say?"
    Available online:
  • Plann, Susan “Pedro Ponce de Leon: Myth and Reality” in John Vickery Van Cleve [ed] Deaf History Unveiled (Gallaudet University Press: Washington DC, 1993) pp. 1-12
  • Plann, Susan A Silent Minority: Deaf Education in Spain, 1550-1835 (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1997)
    Available online:
  • Saint-Loup, Aude de “Images of the Deaf in Medieval Western Europe” in Renate Fischer et. al. Looking Back: A Reader on the History of Deaf Communities and their Sign Languages (Signum Verlag: Germany,1993)
  • Stone, Christopher and Woll, Bencie "Dumb O Jemmy and Others: Deaf People, Interpreters, and the London Courts in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries" Sign Language Studies 8(3) 2008. pp. 226-240
  • Vickrey van Cleve, John and Crouch, Barry A. A Place of their Own (Gallaudet University Press: Washington DC 1989)
  • Zwiebel, Avraham “The Status of Deaf in the Light of Jewish Sources” ” in Renate Fischer et. al. Looking Back: A Reader on the History of Deaf Communities and their Sign Languages (Signum Verlag: Germany,1993)

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