Chiromancy and the Mediaeval Church

It has often been thought that there was considerable ecclesiastical opposition to the occult arts and divinatory sciences of astrology and chiromancy, especially during the mediaeval period. However, it is quite clear from the kind of people who were writing on these arts and the places in which these subjects were both studied and preserved that this really was just not the case at all. For, as we have already seen, it was within the context of the church itself that chiromancy first flourished! Its gaining acceptance at this time can also be seen by reference to the lives of several important mediaeval figures, the writings of whom show quite clearly how little likelihood there was of being persecuted by the church for a belief in chiromancy at this time, much less for its actual practice.

Michael Scot (c1195-1236?) was a clergyman, a doctor of theology and court astrologer to King Frederick II of Italy and is renowned for being the author of several treatises on astrology and physiognomy. At one point in his life, he was offered an ecclesiastical position as an Archbishop by the Pope, but he declined the offer. He was also responsible for translating several of Averroes' works from Arabic into Latin, including Aristotle's 'De Historia Animalium' and other commentaries on Aristotle's works by Averroes and Avicenna. It is perhaps this translation work which sparked off his interest in hands, for a section of 'De Physiognomia' (Bodleian Library, Oxford Ms Bodl 266) concerns itself with the chirognomy of the hand, wherein he pays particular attention to the nails, and a copy of an astrological treatise of his from the fifteenth century also contains a short fragment on chiromancy. A further manuscript on chiromancy 'Chiromantia Scientia' has also been attributed to him. What is clear from the writings of Scot is that both chiromancy and astrology were taken to be subjects worthy of serious consideration in theological circles as well as in the arena of scientific thought.

Albertus Magnus

Further substantiation of this lack of ecclesiastical opposition to the study of chiromancy comes from the writings of one of the dominant ecclesiastical figures of the thirteenth century, Albertus Magnus (c1193-1280?). Albertus was a theologian and a Bishop and a member of the Dominican Order but was also something of a scientist and a philosopher as well as having a strong interest in the divinatory arts. He is known to have travelled widely and to have held several lecturing posts at different universities. Together with his pupil St Thomas Aquinas, the two were amongst the foremost philosophers of their time and were the two people most responsible for adapting the natural philosophy of Aristotle to the tenets of Christianity. In addition to his biblical commentaries, his theological writings and his commentaries on Aristotle, Albertus also wrote on natural science, alchemy, astrology and the practice of divination from dreams. In some of his works he even goes out of his way to defend the mantical arts; in 'Speculum Astronomiae', he writes specifically for the defence of judicial astrology to demonstrate its compatibility with Christian belief. He also wrote on physiognomy and moreover, several treatises on chiromancy are attributed to Albertus, including 'Chiromantia Alberti' and 'Alberti de Colonia ars Chiromantiae'. One manuscript dating from the latter part of the fourteenth century can be found today in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris (Ms 7420a) and may well be a later copy of one of Albertus' own texts. Albertus is also freely quoted in the anonymous fifteenth century text 'Cyromancia Aristotelis cum Figuris' and other early chiromantic manuscripts. Evidence such as this only serves to strengthen the evidence for the suggestion that Albertus did indeed write a chiromantic text.

In any case, it is most unlikely that he would have considered chiromancy a heretical or dangerous art. In his physiognomical writings, he describes physiognomy as a science which divines mans character from the physical form of various parts of the body. From this, it would seem reasonable to infer that he would have held no objections to chiromancy as a divinatory art, given its relation to the study of physiognomy. Moreover, Albertus is also quite happy to accept magic and divination as quite natural phenomena and therefore natural things to study. Whilst he distinguishes between 'good' magic and 'evil' magic, all natural forms of divination which do not involve communication with demons were considered acceptable. From the texts of his that we still have, it is clear that he does not find any particular problem with or see any contradiction in studying the divinatory arts such as astrology and chiromancy and, at the same time, in being a member of the Christian church.

Thomas Aquinas

Such a sympathetic disposition towards the divinatory arts is again to be found in the writings of St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Aquinas became a Dominican monk from the age of sixteen and is perhaps the most well known of all the mediaeval scholars, his saintly life occasioning him to be canonised eventually by the Roman Catholic church. In addition to his theological writings and his commentaries on Aristotle, Aquinas also wrote on natural science, where he declared that alchemy was a true art and where he also asserted that astrological theory had an important part to play in the study of natural science. Although he condemned most forms of divination (such as necromancy) as the work of demons, he grants that those divinatory arts which have a natural basis are permissible. Hence, forms of divination such as the interpretation of dreams and those arts which are based on or related to astrology, such as chiromancy and physiognomy, are perfectly acceptable. Any method of divination based on astrology was already considered to be amply justified at this time. Whilst there are no writings from his pen on the study of the hands, that he knew of it as an art is certain and, indeed, he had the opportunity to disclaim it should he have wished to; but he mentions chiromancy in passing without disapproval. It is quite clear from this and from his remarks in general that he saw chiromancy as a natural art and, hence, a perfectly legitimate form of divinatory study.

The writings of Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus were instrumental in bringing Aristotelian thought into wider general acceptance within Europe at this time. It is perhaps more than just coincidental that this occurs at the same time as the increasing interest in the study of the hand. For whether it is true or not, many people have thought that the study of chiromancy came directly from the authority of Aristotle himself. With the influence of Aristotelian ideas at its height at this time, it was not unusual for works of unknown origin to be attributed to Aristotle, particularly if they were works on the divinatory arts and other forms of esoteric knowledge. But we can understand the attribution of texts to his name more as a means of asserting the respectability and validity of the study of these arts rather than as being a poor attempt at fraud and deception. For it is undoubtedly the increasing acceptance of Aristotelian thought in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that was responsible for the flowering development of chiromancy and all the other divinatory arts at this time. For it was the intellectual re-connection with ancient Greek thought that paved the way for the revival of the study of the natural sciences in all their forms, and, without doubt, it was the acceptance of Aristotelian ideas that had the most significant impact on liberating European thinking from the confines of the intellectual straight-jacket imposed by the Catholic Church throughout the whole of the Dark Ages.


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