Historical Change and the Decline of Chiromancy

When we consider the social circumstances of life during the whole period from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, it really is of little surprise that people who visited handreaders were so concerned with the length of their life, when and how they were going to die and what other fate might befall them on the morrow. As the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is renowned for saying, life then was indeed nasty, brutal and short.

Life and Death

Life expectancy at this time was a maximum of 40-45 years, though the majority of people could expect to only make it to their 29th birthday. Poor diet and the diseases of malnutrition were common as were diseases caused by general lack of hygiene and sanitation. Large scale epidemics of smallpox, typhus, influenza and dysentery were rife, as was the Plague, which first swept through Europe in the 1350's. The recurring ravages of the 'Black Death', as it was known, were such that London was only free of the plague for a total of twelve years in the 150 year period up to 1665! The predominance of wooden buildings with thatched roofs meant that fire was also a considerable danger, particularly in the urban areas where the devastation wrought (such as in the Great Fire of London in 1666) could make you a pauper overnight.

Wars also played their part in creating social and economic uncertainty, as well as providing an ample impetus for a foreshortened life. From the time of the Crusades onwards (c1089-1295), which themselves took the lives of many young men, the people of England had also to contend with the Hundred Years War with France (c13531453) and the civil war of the War of the Roses (c1390-1485), not to mention the English Civil War of the 1640's. Even events such as the Peasants Revolt in 1381 inevitably caused a great multitude of deaths, given the numbers of people who were massacred then. At all turns, social and political life was a dangerous one! Moreover, the changing fortunes of the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century and four hundred years of Inquisitions, persecutions and other religious based conflicts also did little to stabilise society. Poverty, sickness, death and sudden disaster were familiar features of the social environment of this period and given these conditions, it would simply be unrealistic to expect to find anything other than preoccupations with life, timing and manner of one's death in the chiromancy of the day.

Science, Technology and Social Organisation

But by the end of the seventeenth century, astrology and chiromancy had all but ceased to be of interest to the minds of scholars. A new age of intellectual enquiry, which had already begun before the writings of the last great English esotericists, was taking root and the old symbolic view of the universe and man's place within it was slowly dying.

>In part, this was assisted by the material advances being made in both science and technology and the social and political changes that were affecting the way people lived. The new intellectual freedom found after the Reformation meant liberation from the confines of centuries of intellectual restriction by the dogmas of the Roman Catholic church and hence the development of both the natural and the social sciences.

>There were the beginnings of greater social organisation, such as the development of fire services and insurance brokering which went a long way to assist and protect against life's uncertainties, and hence a reduced need to ask of an astrologer or chiromancer about one's future fate or fortune. As people began to realise they could take greater control over the circumstances of their life and actually do something to improve the lot of men, there was less need to perpetuate the old superstitious rituals. As scientific understanding of the natural world increased, so there seemed less need to have recourse to more magical explanations.

The Enlightenment of Reason

>But it was the change in the philosophical perspective, from a symbolic view of the universe as a giant organism with all parts interconnected and interreflected to a scientific view of the universe as a giant mechanism, that really made the break with the past. The rise of science and mathematics destroyed the old world view quite simply because it undermined the notion of the interreflectivity of the microcosm and the macrocosm, a principle fundamental to both the study of astrology and to the study of chiromancy. The new philosophies of rationalism, as expounded by Descartes (1596-1650) and Liebniz (1646-1716) on the continent, and the empiricism proposed by John Locke (1632-1704) in England, were engaging the minds of scholars and beginning to take root. The new 'Age of Reason' was coming in, and in the process it swept aside the whole symbolic philosophy of the occult sciences. Astrology became nothing more than astronomy, alchemy became chemistry; chiromancy was disdained and left to wither. The intellectual climate had radically changed but chiromancy and astrology didn't change with it.

The new intellectual requirements of scientific method, system and clarity, coupled with the general disparagement of both subjects as 'foolish, false, scandalous and superstitious practices smelling much of divinery and of pacts with the devil' meant that both chiromancy and astrology had to wait some two hundred years before they were again considered as subjects worthy of the finest minds.


Back to Top