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In contemporary America, the locus of legal meaning is habitually deemed to be the written word. This article pushes our conception of law’s “text” beyond its traditional inscripted bounds by focusing on physical gesture as a legal instrumentality. The few studies of legal gesture undertaken to date have explained its prominence in various legal systems and cultural environments, the significance of specific legal gestures in specific historic contexts, and the depiction of legal gestures in particular manuscripts or other specific physical settings, but no one has considered the general functions of legal gesture as a modality.

In an effort to remedy this situation, Section II of this article outlines eight broad categories of function which legal gesture has historically served and, on occasion, still serves; it then describes specific functions that specific gestures serve or have served within each of those categories. Section II of the article suggests how an appreciation of legal gesture’s multiple capabilities can provide important new insights into gesture’s survival on the margins of contemporary legal culture, into its checkered history, and even into its future as legal instrumentality.