6
$\begingroup$

What digit, if removed, would hamper a human from fighting using medieval weaponry? (I'm toying with both thumbs but this may be too limiting in the work that the slaves can do or both little fingers as I believe they are important for grip.) See below for more context:

A humanoid race in a typical fantasy setting with roughly medieval technology keeps humans as slaves. They view them as little better then vermin and to reduce the effectiveness of any uprising they "dock" or remove a digit from both hands.

Thank you for your time in reading.

$\endgroup$
11
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ For highly formalized martial arts (Japanese swordsmanship), removing the pinky might suffice... but in more pragmatic scenarios it simply does not matter if they have a bad grip on the dagger that is stabbing a slaver in the throat. He's just as dead. Averaged out over thousands of fights, it might make the slave a less effective fighter, but their numbers are so high that they don't need to achieve fighter-for-fighter parity. They just have to overwhelm them with pure numbers. On the other hand, if their tools were redesigned to not require hands at all, you could remove all their fingers. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Mar 9, 2023 at 14:00
  • 21
    $\begingroup$ (1) This is like asking removing which part from a car would make it harder to steal. Rational slave owners do not remove parts of their slaves; that would diminish the value of their own capital. (2) The last large scale slave uprising in the Roman Empire was the Third Servile War, a.k.a. the War of Spartacus, around 70 BCE. Then no more large scale slave revolts for centuries. How did the Romans achieve this kind of social piece? Not by cutting off bits and pieces. Research! (3) I think you may be confusing slaves and livestock. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 9, 2023 at 14:37
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @PipperChip: Slaves are not outlaws; mutilation of outlaws and prisoners of war was indeed very common. And as for eunuchs, that was how they were made; rather essential for the purpose. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 9, 2023 at 15:09
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @AlexP It's not rational, but there are extensive records of Belgian slavers chopping off limbs in the Belgian and Congo Free States in the 1800s. $\endgroup$
    – Brady Gilg
    Mar 9, 2023 at 22:03
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @BradyGilg that was done as punishment, usually for fleeing or attacking their owners. It wasn't done to prevent them from fleeing, but as a warning to other slaves of what happens to those who try to flee. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Mar 10, 2023 at 11:33

8 Answers 8

33
$\begingroup$

As a person who studies European Martial Arts, I feel qualified to answer this question. It's rather morbid, but swordsmen also lost a lot of fingers, too. It just so happens that getting hit in the fingers is a realistic risk when fighting without full basket-hilted weapons!

You Cannot Remove a Digit without Removing Utility

There is an unfortunate dependency upon hands for both manual labor (the word "manual" comes from "manus," meaning hand) and fighting. Simply, the capacity for a person to use a farm tool and a weapon rely on the same fingers. Remove a finger and both fighting ability and manual labor ability decrease.

The Thumb and Index Fingers: Too Much

Cutting off a thumb simply makes most tools totally unusable. Maybe they can pick up some rocks and bash with that, or throw punches, but don't expect proficient use of most weapons.

Likewise, the index finger is too important to most tool use to remove. It may remove too much grip strength to let people use polearms or swords effectively, but also farming implements and most manual trade tools. It simply removes too much value!

Pinky or Ring: Not Enough

These can be used for subtle changes in grip, changing the weapons position enough to be a consideration while fighting. This becomes important when binding and winding: controlling the opponents blades when in contact with your own.

As you may guess, this doesn't prevent someone from taking a threshing flail, stealing a sword, or taking their fruit-harvesting bill hook and smashing another person in a violent slave revolt. The use of these fingers is important but not crippling enough, especially to the untrained individual!

The Middle Finger: Likely Best Choice

Legend has it that the French would remove this finger (and in some versions, also the index finger) from English archers so they could not draw their bows. Thus the rude gesture of "flipping the bird," developed so those English could show those Frenchies that they're not yet beaten and have better missile weapons. It's a myth, but maybe slaves of this world can use a similar gesture as mild defiance of their masters.

Anyways, removing this finger does decrease grip strength and prevents some sword grips. Specifically "fingering the guard," which gives a fair amount of control on the point. This is actually a big step in how we get things like the "pistol grip" for modern fencing and basket hilts.

Additionally, this finger helps significantly with grip strength, though not as much as the index finger. So you could expect them to be able to handle tools but not take the rigours of blocking an incoming weapon and fancier fighting techniques.

$\endgroup$
4
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ The "flipping the bird" thing is a myth. The gesture predates the Hundred Years War by at least two millenia. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Mar 10, 2023 at 0:17
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Mark thanks for the link! I'll add it. $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Mar 10, 2023 at 3:08
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ The legend about french removing fingers from english archers is about the reversed V sign, using the index finger and the middle finger, a common rude gesture in the UK and Australia, not "the bird", which is a rude gesture everywhere. It is still a legend and not true, but the myth has never been about the middle finger alone. $\endgroup$
    – Phil D
    Mar 10, 2023 at 14:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @PhilD that's the thing about legends and myths... It all changes based on what people hear, misremember, and tell to each other. I have only really heard the middle finger. In any case, I added your version and I think it's pretty clear that it's a myth, legend, and bunk. $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Mar 10, 2023 at 19:53
22
$\begingroup$

Slave Rebellions Always Fail

I can not emphasize enough how often they fail. In the thousands of years of human history where the majority of civilizations employed large scale slave populations, a slave rebellion has literally never won a total military victory and secured themselves as a sovereign nation all on thier own. The very few successful slave insurrections such as the Haitian Rebellion were only won with the heavy support of foreign military and logistical aid.

A lot of this boils down to how big of a difference proper weapons, armor, training, and tactics makes. Boudica's Revolt is a good example of this. While Boudica's army was estimated to be at least 8 times as large as the Roman army, her rebellion was still a total failure. The big issue was that most of her army was just peasants sent to the battle field with whatever improvised weapons they could muster. The issue with sending poorly trained and equipped troops into battle is that most individual soldiers care if the battle will be won or lost a lot less than they care if they will survive said battle. When the superior Roman weapons and training led to the decimation of Boudica's first few lines of troops, the guys next in line saw how badly they were losing and tried to run. As they broke, the guys behind them saw things were not going well so most of them tried to run too. Those who may have been brave enough to stand and fight were no longer in a proper battle formation, making them easy to isolate and kill. This sort of panic is called a rout, and is the real winner of ancient and medieval battles way more so than just fighting until all the enemies are dead. The routed army suffered 80,000 casualties as Roman soldiers and cavalry chased down the panicked rebels. In all, Rome only lost 400 men.

The difference in quality of arms and training between an army and slave tools only grew larger in the Medieval period. For a slave to even hope to beat an army fielding armored knights and men-at-arms, they needed weapons and tactical knowledge that they generally did not have. The longest improvised pole-arm a slave could muster would be farming implements no more than 4-6 feet in length, and they would have known nothing about pike blocks or phalanx tactics to even know that they needed more. They would very rarely have any access to shields, armor, or bows of any sort, and a knights lance was typically 10-15ft long such that knights could just charge down rebel slaves with impunity, shoot them down with bows, or dismount and decimate them using shield wall tactics.

All this said, there was one weapon easy enough for slaves to secretly make a lot of that could threaten a mediaeval army: the sling. A sling can be fashioned easily from found scraps in what little free time a slave may have, it can be hidden very easily, and trained with quietly. On top of that, slings are excellent weapons against armored enemies. The Romans for example actually preferred slings over bows as weapons of war because the impact of a sling could kill a person from internal injuries, even when the actual stone failed to penetrate the armor. While a bunch of poorly trained slaves with slings may still not be able to beat a professional army of archers, pikemen, and cavalry, they will still be able to inflict enough heavy casualties to make their masters understand that the sling is the most dangerous of all slave weapons.

Why removing fingers does not work

In the Medieval period, the French would allegedly cut off or cripple the ring and middle fingers of captured English archers to prevent them from ever using a bow again, but crippling a slinger is much harder. When using a string, you typically pinch the release string between the index finger and thumb, and the stay string is either looped on the middle finger or pinched by the lower 3 fingers... however, typical is not the same as the being the only way to do it. Longbows had very high draw weights that made them pretty much unusable with the weaker lower fingers, but slings don't put nearly so much stress on the hand for equivalent stopping power. If you remove the index and middle finger, they can just loop the pinky and pinch the thumb to ring finger... in fact, with a bit of ingenuity, a sling can be used even with any 4 fingers missing. Cutting the fingers off of a rebellious slave actually reduces his options for what weapons he can wield directing him towards the dangerous sling.

For a slaver, it is in many ways better to let a slave have all 5 fingers, and to cut him down when he tries to fight you with a pitchfork, than it is to cut off fingers forcing him to consider his other options.

This is before you even consider how much missing fingers devalues your slaves. Also, dismembering your slaves as a matter of policy is a good way to trigger a rebellion, not prevent one. If a slave thinks he can have a tolerable life by doing what he is told, then he's a lot more likely to be compliant than if he knows he will be maimed either way. Using violence to control people only works when you leave some hope that they have the means to avoid that violence by submitting to your control.

$\endgroup$
14
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @Mark Most British Archers were not commoners, exactly. They were Yeomen, the highest class of freemen before true nobility, they were more or less equivalent to lesser barons in everything other than title so most were still worth a respectable ransom. Many were also lesser nobility, men-at-arms, or members of wealthy mercenary companies. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 10, 2023 at 16:21
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ There are known historical records of archers being ransomed. That said, the credibility of the sources about the finger dismemberment is more of a grey area. The Myth that "flipping the bird" originates from this has been debunked because it is much older than the battle of Agincourt, and accounts of this seem to arise from Shakespearian historical fiction, but proving whether or not archer's fingers were actually maimed is much harder. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 10, 2023 at 16:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There are many accounts from the time period of prisoners of war being maimed in various ways before being ransomed; so, whether or not Shakespeare was citing historical fact or simply reflecting a much bigger trend in a more specific way is almost impossible to determine one way or another. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 10, 2023 at 16:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Mark This said, I've updated my answer by prefacing the statement with "allegedly" since the actual facts in this case are rather muddy. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 10, 2023 at 16:33
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ The Haitian revolution is an incredibly complex struggle, and I think the statement that it was "only won with the heavy support of foreign military and logistical aid" is greatly underselling the role of the slave uprising. Ultimately the precedent of a successful slave uprising was not one any of the great powers wanted to be set, and the position it put the country in post-revolution of being unable to find any powerful allies can be directly traced to its current status as one of the poorest countries in the world. $\endgroup$
    – Chuu
    Mar 10, 2023 at 18:32
13
$\begingroup$

Counter suggestion:

Removing their Tongues

Okay, granted your question called for Fingers, but allow me to present the alternate proposal - Removing their Tongues.

Without a Tongue, they cannot speak. Medieval type slaves I think we can presume cannot read or write.

Without a means to communicate effectively between themselves, it's much much harder to organize a rebellion

Now - for your framing - removing a tongue doesn't stop them from doing hard work - it doesn't stop the Slave from being given orders 'Do this, Do that, do this like so', nor does it prevent the slave from acknowledging an Order (e.g. nodding) - but it removes the Slaves ability to talk amongst themselves, without that organizing a complex thing like a Rebellion becomes almost impossible.

Plus, you get to through in a little speciesism about how 'they don't want to listen to that innane human babble they call 'talking'

$\endgroup$
8
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I can see some form of sign language developing but it would be limited both in scope and effective range. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2023 at 12:51
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ The extent to which removing a tongue removes the ability to speak is widely exaggerated in media. In fact someone without a tongue is still quite capable to communicating - if less clearly (source: I know someone who lost their tongue due to cancer). It's actually a bigger problem for eating than speaking. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2023 at 14:16
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @JackAidley I'd argue that making communication less clear is still an advantage to slaveholders. $\endgroup$
    – Doktor J
    Mar 10, 2023 at 16:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @BenHocking Working under the assumption made in this answer (Medieval type slaves I think we can presume cannot read or write.), it would be difficult to develop a complex sign language in a group that has no secondary form of communication. This may be my own biases as a speaking and hearing person, but I assume that would take generations to develop a language that can be used to discuss complex, abstract ideas. If OP's story is set long enough after the practice started, the sign language would be established and provide an interesting plot point when the slavers discover it. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2023 at 20:49
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @EngineerToast You might want to look into spontaneous language generation. Put together people will generate their own, complete, language in shockingly short periods of time. $\endgroup$ Mar 11, 2023 at 7:41
11
$\begingroup$

Frame challenge: based on historical examples, not even cutting both hands is sufficient to prevent uprising and usage of weapons.

Let me introduce Galvarino:

Galvarino (died c. November 30, 1557) was a famous Mapuche warrior during the majority of the early part of the Arauco War. He fought and was taken prisoner along with one hundred and fifty other Mapuche, in the Battle of Lagunillas against governor García Hurtado de Mendoza. As punishment for insurrection, some of these prisoners were condemned to amputation of their right hand and nose, while others such as Galvarino had both hands cut off. Galvarino and the rest were then released as a lesson and warning for the rest of the Mapuche.

When returning to the Mapuche he appeared before Caupolicán and the council of war, showing them his mutilations, crying out for justice and a greater rising of the Mapuche against this Spanish invader like the one of Lautaro. For his bravery and gallantry he was named by the council to command a squadron. With knives fastened on both mutilated wrists replacing his hands he fought next to Caupolicán in the following campaign until the Battle of Millarapue where his squadron fought against that of governor Mendoza himself where he was able to strike down the number two in command.

As the saying goes

Corner a dog in a dead-end street and it will turn and bite

$\endgroup$
1
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ +1, Galvarino definitely needs the Hollywood movie treatment. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2023 at 17:57
4
$\begingroup$

Are testicles 'digits'?

Removing testicles lowers your male slaves' aggression, competitiveness, strength and dexterity. That's useful for preventing rebellion. Not so good for heavy labour, though.

$\endgroup$
1
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Gross, but useful. Eschewing all morality and from a completely cold viewpoint, you only need a few bulls to fertilize a whole herd of cows. Most of the males can be neutered. Perhaps the loss or productivity can be offset by the economy in surveillance and security, now that they are less aggressive. Though I would... post a different WB.SE question for that. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2023 at 15:57
3
$\begingroup$

The Toe

The digit that keeps a human being from running away without declining their productivity for menial tasks is the toe. This type of mutilation was practiced commonly in America. (See links 1 and 2.) Since balancing becomes difficulty, and running impossible, this effectively diminishes the fighting capability of a human being.

Alternative: Ears

Historically, removing ears were also a common mutilation practice in European slavery in the Americas. (3) This is also part of the American slavery culture, disfiguring the face is another way to mutilate a human without impacting their productivity, and value to their owner - it's somewhere in the book in the fourth link. While this would not change a human's ability to fight, it would impact the social standing and probably impact their ability to form connections and networks, which is crucial for organizing resistance.

Addition: Does Mutilation Always Decrease the Value of a Slave? Mutilation is undesirable to the human being that is mutilated, but not necessarily undesirable to the owner of the said human. The value of a slave whose genitals were removed would be twice the original on average in the Ottoman Empire. (I cannot remember the specifics, but the author is going to be either Halil İnalcık or Şevket Pamuk.)

Here are some relevant links:

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Slaves are not very dangerous. Taking away swords and spears is the best way to prevent slace uprisings.

This is the most efficient, because it comparatively, not having a decent weapon is a much larger gap than being crippled in some way. That's just how big a difference good weapons make. Not only that, but crippling a slave will also make him less useful. Typically, only highly specialized slaves were crippled in some way. Think harem guards being castrated, certain types of craftsmen having their tongues cut out, or being made lame so they couldn't flee, that sort of thing. and they were all to prevent personal betrayal, not to prevent general rebellion. (Also remember that while these specialist slaves were still property, and so it was immoral, they also typically lived much better lives than the average freeman, so such positions were often competed for, inspire of the crippling. History is fucked up)

More general slaves like the type we usually think of weren't worth the effort. If a slave master thinks they will revolt, he will just kill them. The whole point of general labor slaves is usually something to do with undesirables. Like the modern prison system, it's a place to send people who you aren't comfortable letting roam free.

Running an economy on slavery is actually not very common, and not very effective either. Slavery is usually a way to keep specialist workers, or a dumping spot for people who the power structure doesn't want to be free to do other things. In the bronze age, it was typically both. Only a couple cultures tried to use slaves as the main labor force, and all of them regretted it. not because the slaves revolted, but because they just make a very poor base work force.

What? People who do not benefit from a society are not very motivated to cultivate it? If only someone could have foreseen this!

$\endgroup$
3
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The persistence of the Spartan system for centuries would seem to belie that conclusion. The Spartiate class was forbidden to do useful work, and were allocated a share of enslaved people to support their lifestyles. acoup.blog/2019/08/23/… $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2023 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ @jeffronicus 1. Sparta was one city, and it's satellite towns. 2. Helots and slaves were destinct classes (I'm not saying one was better, only that they were destinct) and the main economy was based on the helots not the slaves. 3. Sparta was not the same through it's whole history. 4. Even if none of that was true, I never said nobody ever had slaves do all the work, I said only a few civilizations did, and they didn't turn out well for it. And Sparta is an excellent example of a group that didn't turn out especially well. $\endgroup$
    – user102593
    Mar 11, 2023 at 6:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @jeffronicus Sparta might have been persistent, but it was never particularly efficient and was slowly but steadily losing significance compared to the other city states around it. The article you link notes that Sparta was always huge for its significance, and still left no art or monuments since the economy never produced enough of a surplus to make them. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Mar 12, 2023 at 19:44
-1
$\begingroup$

Big and or Pinky Toe

These toes are crucial to maintain ones balance. Given wielding a weapon and practicing martial arts both require a strong sense of balance people without such features would have an inherent disadvantage.

Also consider damaging the vestibular system in the ear.

$\endgroup$
2
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ A slave that has trouble maintaining balance is going to be a slave that has trouble: carrying things, performing manual labor while standing, moving efficiently, etc. This is just as problematic as removing their thumbs, IMO. $\endgroup$
    – Doktor J
    Mar 10, 2023 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ @DoktorJ Fair, I’d contend such a slave would have to perform their daily duties slowly and deliberately. IMO a slightly slower/clumsy slave is the better option when compared to a thumbless one. Especially when the former would struggle in combat and the latter could still put up a fight. $\endgroup$
    – 0x263A
    Mar 10, 2023 at 16:30

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .