The Development of Chirognomy

Captain Casimir Stanislas D'Arpentigny was born in 1798 and pursued a military career for the most part of his life. He joined the French army and served under both Napoleon I in 1814 and under King Louis XVIII until his retirement in 1844. Whilst serving in Spain during the Peninsular Wars of 1820, he met a young gipsy girl who read his hands. This chance encounter proved to be quite decisive, for D'Arpentigny subsequently spent much of his time dedicating himself to the study of hands. He researched all the old chiromantical texts of the Renaissance period that he could find and began making preliminary observations of the hands of the people he encountered. According to his own account, it was whilst he was attending the social gatherings of acquaintances of his that he made his first significant chirognomical discoveries.

D'Arpentigny was a literary man as well as being a soldier and consequently he was often invited to social gatherings from two quite different strata of French society. At the first, there were mainly scientists, mathematicians and engineers, whilst at the second there were mainly artists, poets and musicians. He noticed that there were considerable differences in the types of fingers to be found on the hands of the guests at each of these soirees. At the former, the fingers tended to be rather knotty across the joints whereas at the latter, the finger joints were nearly always smooth. He concluded that the different quality of finger joints corresponded with the differences to be found in their owners' mentality, an assertion which still stands good today.   This primary differentiation was to become the cornerstone of the whole system of handreading that he later developed.

D'Arpentigny was the first person to formulate of a system of handshape classification. Despite the fact that hands clearly come in different shapes and sizes, no-one had previously determined to consider this obvious and distinctive fact.  The chiromancer's preserve had been with the lines of the palm, not with the form of the hand in which those lines were to be found.  From his own observations, D'Arpentigny delineated six basic types of hands, the spatulate, the conic and the square, based primarily on the fingertip shapes, the knotty and the psychic, based primarily on the quality of the fingers, and the elementary, based on the overall crudity and width of both the palm and the lines. This handshape typology has been widely adopted and is still used by many palmists today. Unfortunately, what most modern palmists do not realise is that D'Arpentigny's handshape classification was not devised as a means of classifying all hands.  Bewarned all those palmists who have been using this system in the analysis of the hands of women! Women's hands are quite different, he says, and this system is not to be used for assessing their hands.  D'Arpentigny has a separate section on the handshapes of women and quite explicitly states that the six main types he has described was for the classification of the hands of men only.

A Victorian Palmists' handchart (London, c1880) following D'Arpentigny's handshape classification system

However, there are further reasons why D'Arpentigny's hand typology is not really a very satisfactory 'system'.  The biggest problem is that it is not systematic!  The criteria that D'Arpentigny used to differentiate different hand 'types' actually overlap, so the 'types' are not actually sufficiently distinct from each other for the system to be practically useful.  It is actually quite rare to find the exact handtypes as D'Arpentigny describes them  as most hands present a mixture of the features outlined - for example, a hand with conic fingertips and smooth joints.   This is a fact which perhaps D'Arpentigny himself even realised.  For, actually, his is a seven-fold handshape classification, the seventh type being described as the 'Mixed hand', a convenient category for all those hands that do not fit neatly into any of the other six handshape types!

His observations and researches formed the basis of his only written work, 'La Chirognomie' of 1839. He defends his approach to the study of the hand with a section on the physiology of the hand and refers to the recently published work of Sir Charles Bell and points out the significances of his neurological discoveries for the study of chirology. He gives a detailed description of each of the six main handshape types, but also spends considerable time delineating the variations to be found in the Spatulate hand which, evidently, was the most common type of handshape to be found.

D'Arpentigny also considers the morphognomy of the thumb and of the fingers in the way that we have seen. He was perhaps the first author to record the significance of the length or shortness of the fingers and the shape and significance of the fingertips, as well as being the first to observe the intellectual significance of the finger joints. What is especially remarkable about D'Arpentigny's work is that he has absolutely nothing to say about the lines of the hands whatsoever. This may have been because of a desire to keep a distance from the possible misrepresentation of his work as mere gipsy chiromancy when his intention was to present more a systematic and reasoned treatise on the physiognomy of the hand.  Whatever reasons he may have had, this does not detract from the point that D'Arpentigny remains the first person to write a treatise on the chirognomy of the hand. 

After D'Arpentigny, the study of the hand could never be the same again.


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