Seventeenth Century Esotericists

The main revival of interest in chiromancy within England comes in the mid-seventeenth century with the translations of Indagine's 'Introductiones Apostelesmaticae' by Fabian Withers in 1651 and of Johannes Rothmann's 'Chiromantiae Theorica Practica' by George Wharton in 1652, revealing that the standard approach to chiromantical interpretation as practiced on the Continent had definitely reached England by the middle of the seventeenth century. 

It is possible that the European taditions reached English shores a little earlier than this as  a manuscript copy of Indagine's work can be found in the Bodleian Library (Ms Rawl D 1028). The library itself dates the manuscript to around 1595. However, the text is inscribed in the front with the name of a certain Mr Smart of Durham who owned the text in 1709.  It is possible, also, that it may therefore be a later handwritten copy of Fabian Withers' translation.

As we saw in Europe, the study of chiromancy in England at this time was also very much tied up with the study of physiognomy, astrology, alchemy and humoral medicine, for both Wharton and Withers were part of a close circle of esotericists who were assiduous students of the allied subjects of astrology, alchemy, chiromancy and physiognomy. A good example of the interrelationship between these arts can be seen by reference to the Bodleian manuscript Ms Ashmole 177.198 dated c.1650, which contains the astrological and medical casenotes of the seventeenth century physician Dr Richard Napier (1607-1676) but also contains a short two page treatise on chiromancy and a fragment on horary astrology by William Lilly.

George Wharton (1617-1681) studied at Oxford where he became close friends with Elias Ashmole, who introduced him to astrology and alchemy and with whom he engaged in alchemical experimentation. He also knew the astrologer William Lilly (1602-1681), whom he rivalled and who he found frequent occasion to denounce, though it seems the rivalry was not without at least some deep friendship and mutual respect as well. During the English Civil War, both astrologers took different sides and both produced rival almanacs and had their astrological predictions printed in the newspapers of the day. As a Royalist, Wharton frequently lampooned Parliamentary proceedings in the Interregnum period and was actually imprisoned in 1648 and was due to be hung for sedition. It was only the timely influence of both Ashmole and Lilly that saved him and it is a measure of the friendship between these men, despite their different political allegiances, that Lilly should have gone out of his way to save him. We should note that the preface dedicated to Lilly in Wharton's translation of Rothmann's work only comes after this incident!

Despite Wharton's ambitions, Lilly was widely considered to be the undisputed leader in his profession as an astrologer. Nevertheless, it may have been Wharton himself who interested King Charles II in alchemy and provided him with the astrological guidance he sought. As a reward for his loyalty to the Royalist cause, he was made a Baronet at the Restoration of the Monarchy. In addition to translating Rothmann's work, Wharton also wrote works on astrological judgement as well as producing almanacs and ephemerides. A collected volume of his writings, which includes Rothmann's 'Cheiromantia' was produced in 1683, shortly after his death.


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