Ms Digby Roll IV & Ms Digby 88

The oldest known manuscript of the Summa Chiromantia type in English is kept in the Bodleian Library where it is catalogued as Ms Digby Roll IV, and is entitled 'A Smalle Tretise of Palmestrie'. It is thought to have been written in the early fifteenth century, but certainly dates from before c.1440. It has been the subject of much scholarly analysis, albeit by scholars of mediaeval English, and a rendering of the text into English has been made by Derek Price of Cambridge University.

The C15th chiromantic manuscript, the Digby Roll

The Digby Roll is in the form of a scroll, seven feet long by seven inches wide and consists of an introduction with one large drawing of the hand, followed by the main body of the text in two columns and accompanied by twenty-five smaller drawings to illustrate various line formations and markings.

The introduction tells us that the text was scribed by an elderly scholar, possibly a family tutor, at the request of his 'noble and reverend Lady' who asked him to write down all that he knew of chiromancy. He admits that it has been a long time since he studied the subject and entreats her not to put too much faith in it for "...although it demonstrates the natural tendencies of our conditions, destinies and natural chances... these must not be treated as irremediable necessities". The hand does reveal our natural tendencies but such things need not happen to us if we use our reason or freewill - or if we are granted the special privelege of a dispensation from God!

The main drawing of the hand sets out the principal features of the hand to be considered, the line of lyfe, the line of head, the lyne of lyver and stomack and the line of the table or the mensal line (the heart line). The fingers are labelled as the shewing finger, the lengest finger, the leeche finger, the lytyll finger and the thumb. Also considered are the mounts and roots of the fingers and the thumb and the vale of the palm.

The Great Triangle

The main body of the text begins with a consideration of the significance of the Triangle of the hand and the angles formed by the three lines as they join together. A well formed Triangle, or one with a cross inside it, betokens a sound constitution, faith, reason, prosperity and wordly fame and fortune. A badly formed Triangle, or one where the angles are incompletely made, shows a mendacious and deceitful character of little faith. The bulk of the rest of the text goes on to enumerate the significances of various lines and markings to be found on the mounts or in the valley of the hand. In particular, many of these are concerned with various calamities such as imprisonment, poverty, losing one's eyes and with the nature and manner of one's death. Examples given include death by fire, death from one's enemies, death from a fall, death by drowning, death by hanging, death from iron or steel or fatal woundings and death through childbirth!

Markings of fame and fortune are also recorded, both in terms of markings on the thumb, which would tell you in what phase of life your riches and fortune would come, but also with reference to what became known since Victorian times as the Apollo line. A long line rising from the valley of the hand to the hill of the ring finger is indicative of promotions and knowledge and learning. Health is considered through observing the condition and quality of the lyne of lyver. A poorly formed line or a discoloured line will show afflictions to the liver or the stomach, whereas a well-formed line shows good health. The nails are also taken into consideration in matters of health, both in terms of shape and coloration, as these were considered to be indicative of the quality of one's natural vitality.

The main illustration from MS Digby Roll IV, showing the Great Triangle and the Table line and the parts of the hand

Issues of marriage and fecundity were also of much concern. The Table line/heart line is correlated with emotional qualities in general but especially with the strength and capacity for generation and procreation. Strength in the line shows a fecund and fertile nature, whereas weakness in the line or the line ending between the lengest and shewing fingers would show peril in child bearing or even death through childbirth. The strykes or 'affection' lines under the little finger were considered to be indicative of the number of husbands a woman would have, but other marks in the hand would indicate whether she were nothing more than 'a common strumpet and ready to all uncleanness'!

As with Aristotle, it is the length of the line of head which is correlated with the potential length of one's life and in one interesting comment in the text the author indicates that in the fifteenth century, middle age was considered to begin at about 20 years of age! The text concludes with a discussion of two specific lineal markings that reveal the fate that might befall us, one an indicator of the greatest of fortunes, the other a signification of the deadliest of perils.

MS Digby 88

A second treatise from the same period confirms many of these fifteenth century chiromantic preoccupations. Ms Digby 88, written in Latin and Middle English, dates from about c.1450 and is primarily an astrological text but also contains a few small sections on chiromancy and physiognomy. There are five drawings of hands in the text, marked with various lineal formations and their interpretations, and we see the same interest in the Triangle and with the position of various crosses and other marks, including those indicative of fame and fortune. Here, the left hand is read for women whereas the right hand is read for men. On two of the drawings we find the following inscriptions written on or between the fingers:

The hand of a Woman, with various dire prognostications, from MS Digby 88 fol.44

Ms Digby 88 Folio 44: 
Diagram of a hand with prognostications for women written vertically
along and between the fingers

On the first finger, above a cross: 'The crosse betokenyth worship of wymyn of religioun as abbas and prioras and in other wymen grete worship'
Between first & second fingers: 'If this lyne mensal go bytwene this too fyngers it betokenyth deth in childebyrth of the woman'
On the second finger above a horizontal line: 'This stryke betokenyth a woman that lovyth noo worldly good but lovyth holynes'
Between second and third fingers: 'A woman that hath grete fyngers she hath a bownteous witte and lytell worth'
On third finger above four vertical lines: 'As many lynes as be her so many husbondes shall the woman have'
Between third & fourth fingers above four vertical lines and four horizontal lines: 'As many right lynes as be her so many sonnes and as many wronge lynes so many doghters'
On the fourth finger above three vertical lines and one longer vertical line: 'Thes lynes betokenyth her to be a comen woman and the grete lyne betokenyth that she ys noo mayde'


Ms Digby 88 Folio 45b
Diagram of a hand with prognostications for men written vertically

along and between the fingers:

On the first finger above a cross and three horizontal lines: 'The crosse betokenyth worship and dignytes for they shuld be byssops and the other lynes be wondes in the hedde'
Between first and second fingers: 'This lyne mensall bitwene this too fyngers it betokenyth deth of a man by a wonde or els the blody flux'
On the second finger: 'This lyne yf it begyne noo wher nor ende no wher it betokenyth dedely synne or sodeyn deth'
Between second and third fingers above a vertical line: 'This lyne betokenyth foly and want of witte in man or woman on makyng a vow'
On third finger above a vertical line: 'This lyne betokenyth much worship and plenty of all goodis'
Between third and fourth fingers above a vertical line: 'This lyne bytwene this too fyngers betokenyth much worship both in man and woman'
On the fourth finger above three horizontal lines and two curved lines: 'As many lynes as a man hath her so many wyvys and the other strykes betokenyth wondes in the hedde' (3)

The hand of a Man, with various dire prognostications, from MS Digby 88 fol.45b

The manuscript shows again the mediaeval preoccupation with religiousity, fortune, marriage, children and death. Of particular note is the interpretation given for the ending of the Mensal line, that if it ends between the index and middle fingers it shows death from the 'blody flux' (a mediaeval form of dysentry), or through childbirth. What we learn from this is not the true signification of this ending to the line but rather, how common it was to die in childbirth or from dysentry in those times. We cannot perhaps learn very much useful chirology from reading these texts, but they do provide valuable sociological insights into life in those times.


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(3) I am grateful to Dr Paul Acker of St Louis University for assistance with deciphering the inscriptions on the illustrations in Ms Digby 88