Chiromancy in Renaissance Europe

The advent of the Renaissance heralded the birth of a new spirit of intellectual endeavour and enquiry throughout the whole of Europe. From the end of the fifteenth century, the history of chiromancy becomes illuminated with a multitude of handreaders and texts in many different countries throughout Europe. Whereas the period from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries only gives us anonymous manuscripts about which very little of the origin and background is known, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are illuminated with the chiromantic writings of scholars of medicine and science about whom we know a great deal more. For the period from the late fifteenth century to the middle of the seventeenth century is the period in which chiromancy achieved its greatest popularity and renown. In conjunction with physiognomy and astrology, it formed a vital part of the spirit of intellectual enquiry that pervaded Europe during the whole of the Renaissance.

It is important to remember that at this time there was no real distinction between science and what we now term the occult sciences. The sciences were imbued with occult philosophy, particularly the philosophy of astrology. The extent to which astrology permeated the European world view up until at least the mid seventeenth century can easily be seen just by looking at the plays of Shakespeare or the materia medica of the herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654). In Shakespeare's works many passing comments and direct references to the stars and planets are made, revealing that astrological language was widely understood. In Culpeper's herbal, all the herbs listed are governed by the various planets and he even gives some astrological rules for the treatment of disease. The extant casenotes of physicians such as Dr Richard Napier (1607-1676) (see for example Bodleian Ms Ashmole 177.198) reveal how vitally important knowledge of both chiromancy and astrology were in the practice of medicine and surgery at this time.

We must also remember that even the study of chemistry, astronomy and physics worked from within an astrological framework. Kepler (1571-1630) and Copernicus (1473-1543) both accepted the basic tenets of astrology, such as the significance of aspects and the Grand Conjunctions and astrological metaphysics pervaded much of their science. Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is also usually only remembered for his contributions as an astronomer, but is but one example of a reputable scientific figure who was also renowned as a highly accomplished astrologer. As well as providing a conception of reality and a philosophy of history, astrological ideas permeated every area of life, including religion, politics and science.

If we look at the figures who studied chiromancy during this period it is also obvious that chiromancy and astrology sustained considerable support from both the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the Royal Courts of the day. At least some Kings and Emperors employed their own personal astrologers and chiromancers as part of the Court entourage and many of the greatest students of both subjects from this period were, in fact, men of the church. Moreover, more often than not they were also practising physicians or pioneers in the field of medical science. From a consideration of the men practising these arts at this time, we can clearly see how widely accepted both subjects were.

The importance of both chiromancy and astrology throughout this whole period is also reflected in the fact that both subjects remained on the official curriculum of the universities of Europe, including the universities of Bologna, Leipzig and Wittenberg, until well into the seventeenth century!

Quite simply, if you were a man of learning, or a man of science you would necessarily study something of chiromancy and astrology.

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