“It’s rude to point!” As youngsters, we are taught this – but we quickly learn that it’s necessary to point, if we need to bring something important to someone’s attention.
It’s no surprise then, that a hand-drawn pointing finger (known as a manicule) was sometimes used to highlight important entries in parish records. Although, as our own volunteer transcribers have found, what was deemed ‘important’ varied greatly according to clergy, as did the manicule itself!
What is a manicule?
Not to be confused with ‘manacles’ (as Wikipedia helpfully points out), manicule is Latin for ‘little hand’. It usually takes the form of a hand with its index finger extended in a pointing gesture.
Appearing in handwritten text as far back as the Domesday book (1086), manicules were also used later in printed works to draw the reader’s attention to important text. They became very popular in advertising, too, during the nineteenth century.
Manicules in parish records
Manicules appear in some parish records, but by no means in all. Indeed, in a recent survey of our volunteer transcribers, only 40% had encountered them – and, even then, only very occasionally. Some transcribers felt they were perhaps more common in the older (16th/17th century) records.
So, what are the manicules highlighting in the parish records? Two main reasons have been found by our transcribers: either to highlight illegitimate children; OR to indicate someone of note, such as a member of the local gentry. Interestingly, transcribers found that the use of manicules sometimes ceased with the arrival of new clergy - perhaps indicating that the subject’s social standing mattered less to them!
Another reason for the use of manicules was simply to mark the start of a new year in the records, but one transcriber reported that the meaning of the manicules never became clear, even as they continued through the rest of the document.
As for the drawing of the manicules themselves, this appears to fall into three categories. Some are barely more than two squiggly strokes with the sketch of a pointing hand; some are amusing with strangely proportioned, extra-long fingers; and others are elaborate and artistic.
The latter usually include sleeves and cuffs; and these reveal, in turn, something of the fashions of their time. Flowing sleeves, for instance, give way to delicate, lace-trimmed cuffs in later centuries.
Very few records are written by hand these days and, with options such as highlighter pens and sticky notes, there’s little need for hand-drawn manicules.
With printed text, too, there are other ways of bringing important content to the attention of readers – for example, text can be highlighted, emboldened, coloured or italicised, to make it stand out.
But, while we may not refer to it by name, a version of the manicule is still with us. Think of the cursor on our computers and the upward-pointing ‘hand’ that appears to indicate an object that can be manipulated or a clickable hyperlink. They may have a slightly different purpose, but manicules still have an important point to make!
We would like to thank the FreeREG volunteer transcribers for all the work they do – did you know that they have now transcribed a staggering 57.4 million records?
We would particularly like to thank those who took part in our survey, and we look forward to seeing examples of manicules they uncover in the future.
- Our volunteer transcribers