A manicule, from the Latin maniculum or ‘little hand’, is a punctuation mark created by or for readers to assist in marking noteworthy passages or finding a section of text. Medieval and Renaissance scholars commonly used the symbol, consisting of a hand with an extended index finger, to direct attention to important text alongside other punctuation marks such as the trefoil (a three-leaved plant) and the asterisk.
The manicule, also known by numerous other names such as pointing hand, index and bishop’s fist, was in common usage between the 12th and 18th centuries, until its complex design appears to have made it too slow for handwriting and readers stopped taking the time to draw their little pointing hands.
Many of the earliest books in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection, including the incunabula currently being catalogued, have margins full of wonderful examples of hand-drawn and printed manicules which vary widely in size, shape and quality, ranging from a simple sketched outline to a detailed pointing hand complete with ornate sleeve and ruffled cuffs. William Sherman, who has traced the history of the manicule all the way back to Spanish medieval manuscripts, describes the hands used in fourteenth- and fifteen-century Italy, for example, as “shockingly fanciful and delightfully stylized”. Early printers, concerned with replicating the medieval traditions and aesthetics of book production as closely as possible, were careful to incorporate the pointing hand into their new typefaces.
Although now rarely used by readers, the manicule survives as a visual symbol in signage and printed advertisements and has made it into the digital world as a cursor on your computer screen. Even in this new digital environment, the little pointing hand is still performing the original purpose of the manicule, acting as an interface between the reader and the text.