In praise of manicules

Discover how manicules are used as a visual device in manuscripts

Manicules are hand-drawn small hands with one or more pointing fingers, directing the reader’s attention within text and are still used today in a digital format.

Article by Amanda Double, Cataloguer

“Manicules? You mean like handcuffs?”

“No, no, no, you’re thinking of manacles. MANICULES are something different entirely!”

Basically, manicules are pointing hands, either hand-drawn or printed, directing our attention.

The Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) of the American Library Association provides this definition: “drawings of a small hand with one or more pointing fingers, intended to direct attention to a passage of text.”

The Art & Architecture Thesaurus, used by cataloguers, defines manicules further: “Drawings of a pointing hand that were used as symbols in marginalia for marking noteworthy passages in texts, particularly during the 12th through18th centuries in the Western world.”

The name derives from the Latin root “manicula”, meaning “little hand”. A variety of other names have been used over the years, including pointing hand, mutton fist, bishop’s fist, and indicator.

Although reportedly used in the Domesday Book of 1086, manicules seem to have been most common in handwritten manuscripts from the twelfth century onwards. Their use changed once books began to be printed, from adding individual commentary in the margins to directing the reader’s eye to significant phrases within the text.

Examples of manicules

Below are examples of manicules from three different items in the Libraries Tasmania collection:

Jerome, Saint, -419 or 420. Hieronymi opera 1524–1537 (9 titles in 4 volumes):

This was a real find – there are numerous delightful hand-drawn manicule specimens among the many annotations added in black ink in the margins of this book, drawing the reader’s attention to something the annotator finds significant, and heralding their own commentary – all in Latin, of course. I just love the exaggeratedly long pointing finger, and the little circle of sleeve cuff surrounding the hand!

A photo of a page in a sixteenth century book
Image Credit: Libraries Tasmania (Amanda Double)
A photo of a page in a sixteenth century book
Image Credit: Libraries Tasmania (Amanda Double)

Somerton, W. H. (William Henry). A narrative of the Bristol riots, on the 29th, 30th and 31st of October, 1831, consequent on the arrival of the recorder, Sir C.Wetherell, to open the Commission of Assize Second edition. Bristol: Printed and sold at the Mercury Office …, [1831]. ‘A full report of the trials of the Bristol rioters …’ includes a printed manicule at the base of several pages.

A photo of a page in a nineteenth century book
Image Credit: Libraries Tasmania (Amanda Double)

Huon, Channel, and Peninsula Steamship Co. (Tas.). S.S. Nubeena leaves Brooke St. Pier for Port Arthur …: [handbill].  [Hobart]: Huon, Channel, and Peninsula Steamship Company, [between 1890 and 1910].

This more recent handbill includes a printed pointing finger manicule directing attention to the text: “Route – Direct by Steamer”.

A photo of a handbill (poster) from the twentieth century
Image Credit: Libraries Tasmania (Amanda Double)

Manicules today still exist as a typographical symbol to arrest the eye and draw attention to text. The Art &Architecture Thesaurus acknowledges this: “In modern use, the manicule is a typographical symbol employed for similar purposes in texts, the Internet, as bullet symbols, and other contexts.” I’ve seen pointing hands as clip art (often trying to imitate the older forms). But the most common modern version of a manicule is of course the pointing hand emoji:

The Pointing Hand Emoji

Sometimes these make me think of the old adage: “When you point a finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you”. But the saying I like best is: “Before you start pointing fingers – make sure your hands are clean!”