Diverse Fifteenth Century Chiromancies

If we compare some of the other manuscripts of the fifteenth century with those described so far, it becomes apparent that despite some obvious similarities, chiromancy at this time was composed of many different strands and traditions. We already observed that Metham allocated the planets to the digits in the order of Venus-Jupiter-Saturn-Mercury-Mars, from the thumb through to the little finger. But other manuscripts from this same period are notably different.

Astrological associations to the digits in MS Douce 45 fol.71

Ms Douce 45 is an alchemical text in Latin and Middle English which includes an eight page treatise on chiromancy and also dates from c.1450. The text follows the usual pattern of one larger drawing of a hand with twenty-four further drawings within the text to illustrate various lineal formations. These include the usual expositions on the meanings of various crosses and other marks of one's fate and fortune (such as the circle formations on the lyfe line indicative of having one's eyes put out!). Here we also have perhaps the earliest text to give rulership of the hypothenar area of the palm to the Moon. In this text the digits are given the rulerships of Venus-Jupiter-Saturn-Sun-Mercury, the system of planetary allocation that has persisted down to the present day.

But a further text, Ms Rawl D 247, a Latin treatise on chiromancy also dating from about c.1450, gives the rulerships of the digits as Venus-Jupiter-Saturn-Mercury- Sun!

Whilst astrological symbolism was widely used in mediaeval chiromancy, it is quite clear that there was no universal agreement on how that symbolism should be applied. This in itself points to there being several independent streams of chiromancy at this time rather than one firm and coherent tradition. Furthermore, such disagreement undermines any claim to antiquity that contemporary palmists may have as a justification for their continued usage of planetary symbolism and its 'traditional' application within the features of the hands.

 European Traditions

The earliest known text on chiromancy in Latin dates from the late twelfth or early thirteenth centuries whereas the earliest known text in English dates only from the late fourteenth/early fifteenth century at the earliest, as we have seen. The earliest known text in German dates from the mid-fifteenth century, entitled 'Die Kunst Chiromantia' by Johannes Hartlieb. Although written c.1448 it was not printed until c.1475 by a method of wood block printing. It consists of 45 illustrations of hands with crudely drawn lines and lineal 'signs', together with pithy interpretations of their meanings. Most of the line markings do not resemble anything one might see in a hand and and the interpretations given are really quite preposterous! The importance of this text is simply that it is quite possibly the first printed work to be produced in the history of chiromancy.

 

Illustration from 'Die Kunst Chiromantia' Johannes Hartlieb Illustrations from 'Die Kunst Chiromantia'

 

Other texts that came out towards the end of the fifteenth century include the first work from an Italian chiromancer to be printed, the 'Libellum de Chiromantia' by Antiochus Tibertus, printed at Bologna in 1494, and the anonymous work 'Cyromancia Aristotelis cum Figuris', printed at Ulm in 1491 of which there are many copies in manuscript form in libraries all over Europe. As we have seen, this text was quite clearly not authored by Aristotle, though the use of his name in the title is not without significance as an attempt to emphasise the serious nature of chiromancy as an art. In the text itself, the author is at pains to argue how the study of chiromancy is lawful in the eyes of God, a practice that is to continue through much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through the quoting of those passages in the Bible that seem to pronounce favourably on the art. This appeal to authorities of reason such as Aristotle and the authority of scripture itself contributes to the establishment of chiromancy as a legitimate subject of intellectual enquiry at this time so that by the beginning of the sixteenth century, chiromancy has indeed become a respected art. For in conjunction with physiognomy and astrology, it formed a vital part of the spirit of scholarly enquiry that pervaded Europe throughout the whole of the Renaissance period.

 

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