Under the misguided aegis of the powerful Catholic Church, left-handedness was vigorously oppressed in medieval Europe, albeit not in any systematic way. Left-handers were routinely accused of consorting with the devil and, during the excesses of the Inquisition and the witch hunts of the 15th and 16th Century, left-handedness was sometimes considered sufficient to identify a woman as a witch, and to contribute to her subsequent condemnation and execution.
Despite the limited reforms of the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment, the 18th and 19th Century were particularly hard on left-handers, and discrimination against them became engrained and institutionalized. Even in the relatively free societies of North America and Western Europe, deliberate and sometimes brutal attempts to suppress left-handedness and impose conformity in the education system were endemic during this time, including such practices as tying a child’s left hand behind his chair or corporal punishment for anyone caught writing with the left hand.
The infamous (but influential) 19th Century physician Cesare Lambroso, who identified various facial and racial characteristics with criminal traits, turned his attention to handedness at the end of the century and the start of the next and, perhaps not surprisingly, he identified left-handedness as a mark of pathological behaviour, savagery and criminality. It was not until Paul Broca’s discoveries about the lateralization of the brain in the 1860s that scientific interest in handedness began, and some tentative and simplistic studies were carried out towards the end of the 19th Century. There was another peak of interest in the 1930s, but serious study did not really take off until the 1970s.
In a classic example of Victorian idealism at the end of the 19th Century and start of the 20th, there was a movement to promote ambidexterity. The Ambidextral Culture Society, established by John Jackson, claimed it would improve the lot of all humanity if everyone would learn to use both hands equally. Among others, Lord Robert Baden-Powell was an avid subscriber of this learned ambidexterity movement, although it was short-lived and did not have any lasting influence (Lord Baden-Powell, incidentally, was naturally right-handed, contrary to the claims of many websites, and the left-handed handshake he instituted among his newly formed Boy Scouts movement was probably based on an African tribe he encountered on his travels, who greeted each other with their lefts hands to show trust by lowering their shields).
But discriminatory practices and attitudes against left-handers persisted well into the 20th Century. At mid-century, eminent American psychoanalyst Abram Blau was still suggesting that left-handedness was merely due to perversity and the result of emotional negativism, on a par with a child’s obstinate refusal to eat everything on its plate. As adults, Blau asserted, left-handers became stubborn, rebellious, rigid and (for some reason) obsessed with cleanliness. Around the same time, the influential British educational psychologist Cyril Burt was also describing left-handers as “stubborn and willful” as well as “awkward” and “clumsy”.
It was only in the Post-War years, under the influence of John Dewy’s progressive education movement, that a certain amount of tolerance for individual differences and non-conformity developed. But, even then, indeed as late as the 1960s and 1970s, Catholic school teachers in particular routinely inflicted corporal punishment and psychological pressure on left-handed students, ranging from accusations of being in cahoots with the Devil to, bizarrely, being Communist.
Soviet bloc countries continued to maintain strict policies against left-handedness that persisted well into the 1970s. Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia and the Iron Curtain countries all made right-handed writing compulsory in school. In Albania, left-handedness was actually declared illegal and was punishable as a crime.
Even in the relatively open-minded and informed society of today, parents and teachers may encourage a left-handed child to switch out of the best of motives, such as a genuine desire to make their lives easier in a largely right-handed world. The children themselves may impose their own peer pressure to conform to majority norms, and a good percentage of natural left-handers tell of their own self-inflicted attempts to switch hands during childhood.