Figure 1: Hand gestures: The Bayeux Tapestry – the arrival of Halley’s Comet in the sky (Source: Thames & Hudson, The Bayeux Tapestry (London: Thames & Hudson, 1985), p. 32)

The other day I was watching my dog scrabbling to get at a treat that had slid under the sideboard. He couldn’t reach it. As I rose to get an implement that I could use to sweep it out, I mused how much easier life would be if he had hands.

It occurred to me that whilst there are theories related to human evolution and our developed brain, I think the hand is much overlooked. It is the hand that makes creation a reality by the ‘doing process’. Putting a few stones on top of each other starts to build a wall and then a better way is found of making that wall. The fundamental need for shelter starts to become something else than a constructed cave. It is the doing that stimulates the brain to think further and initiate ideas.

Figure 2: It was dexterous hands that wove the Bayeux Tapestry (embroidery made in England circa 1070 – commissioned probably by Bishop Odo, William the Conqueror’s half-brother)

(Source: Thames & Hudson, The Bayeux Tapestry (London: Thames & Hudson, 1985), p. 13)

It is through the employment of hands that humankind has developed experience and knowledge. The hand co-ordinates with other human parts such as the arms, eyes, back and legs to make things happen. Data is whizzing backwards and forwards between the hand and the brain. The data informs the brain how to direct the hands and fingers.

We also have the ability to feel with our fingers. We can experience whether something is soft and velvety (like my dog’s coat) or rough and hard like quarried limestone. The hand involves the sensory experience.

When a medieval cathedral was built, hand power was a key resource. Every element and process had to involve the hand. Whether picking up an adze, carving a boss, drawing the tracery for a window, making lime mortar and laying it, sawing timber, working the forge, loading carts or making coloured glass – it needed the skill of the hand.

An apprentice in the master mason’s lodge (the physical yard on site) would spend seven years learning their skill. Then they moved onto be a journeyman for several more years. They may have eventually progressed to a master mason. Their hands would have been their unique tools of mastery and livelihood.

Hands too are extremely useful in communication. One can count or communicate numbers with hands. One can convey meaning quickly by pointing or positioning the hand in a gesture. In the busy and noisy medieval cathedral lodge, the hand was a key method of communication.

Without hands we humans could not have created the civilisations and buildings that exist or have existed in the world.

So next time you are going about your day spare a thought for the human hands that have enabled the world we live in and celebrate your own wonderful hands. How else could we raise a glass!