Persecution and 'Witchcraft'

Some authors have tried to suggest that the professions of both chiromancy and astrology were particularly maligned by the State and the Church during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. However, as we have seen, there are any number of Kings, Queens, clergymen and Bishops of Europe who were sympathetic to both studies, not to mention those learned religious men who had actually written treatises on the subject!    The assertion appears to have little basis for it and seems to serve more as a means of romanticising handreadings past, as if to augment its status by aligning it with something somehow dangerous, magical or subversive.

However, amongst the English nobility and aristocracy, interest in subjects like astrology and chiromancy was widespread.  In Elizabethan times, it was customary for the families within the upper classes to have the nativities of their children cast. Henry VIII is known to have consulted astrologers (at least!) about the sex of his forthcoming children, and Cardinal Wolsey was, by all accounts was an avid devotee of the study of astrology. Queen Elizabeth I is known to have made considerable use of the prognostic skills of the astrologer and magician Dr John Dee (1527-1608) and both Sir Walter Raleigh and William Harvey (who discovered the circulation of blood) were known to be sympathetic to the study of astrology. As was even Sir Isaac Newton.

After the Restoration of the Monarchy towards the end of the seventeenth century, Charles II is also known to have taken regular astrological advice. Indeed, during the English Civil War and the Interregnum, the services of astrologers and chiromancers such as William Lilly and George Wharton were in enormous demand by the politicians and generals of both sides.  It is not going too far to suggest that their pronouncements had some considerable impact upon the course of the war itself, for at least one battle is known to have been delayed on the advice of Lilly until a more favourable moment. Such was Lilly's influence in seventeenth century society that by 1650, Lilly's almanac was selling at the rate of some 30,000 copies a year, vastly outselling even the Bible!  In such a climate as this, it is hard to see that there could possibly be any truth to the assertion that astrologers and handreaders were vilified and persecuted in the maner various authors so vividly depict.

It has also been suggested that handreaders and astrologers were as much persecuted as were those that were prosecuted for witchcraft. Witchcraft persecution in Europe grew out of the Catholic Inquisition, which was originally designed to exterminate so-called heretical versions of Christianity such as practised by the Cathars and the Albigensians in areas of Europe where the Catholic power base had become undermined. The power of Inquisition was later extended to include the trial of any persons found guilty of magic or witchcraft, which was considered the ultimate heresy since by their own definition, this was deemed to be a practice which involved a 'pact' with the devil himself.

The persecution of so-called witches began in the late fourteenth century and became especially pronounced after the Papal Bull of Pope Innocent VIII of 1484 and the publication of 'Malleus Maleficarum' ('the hammer of evil') in 1486. However, in England the first Witchcraft Act was not passed until 1542 and it was then repealed only some five years later under Edward VI! 

It was not until the reign of Elizabeth I and the Witchcraft Act of 1563 that the mania for witch-hunting really began in this country. However, the persecution of witches in England was never on the scale of that which took place on the continent under the Inquisition. This is possibly due to several factors, not least the secession of the Church of England from the Church of Rome and the fact that the use of torture to induce confessions was illegal in England.  But it was perhaps also due to the desire for peace in the land and the desire for religious freedom and tolerance propagated by Elizabeth I in the wake of the hostilities between Protestants and Catholics in the years following the establishment of the Church of England.

In any case, despite the rantings of some religious zealots such as the Puritans and the Presbyterians in the post-Reformation period, for the most part witchcraft was considered an entirely different matter from either astrology or chiromancy. If a number of witches prosecuted happened also to be astrologers and chiromancers, then this was merely incidental, for the Witchcraft Act of 1563 did not cite anything specifically against either astrology or chiromancy.

Given the relative sympathy towards both subjects by those that decreed the laws of the land, it would have been surprising if it had done. Astrology was not witchcraft, for witchcraft meant maleficium, the doing of physical harm to others or their property through the laying on curses or through bringing about their death. The recorded history of the witchcraft trials show that this is both what witches were accused of and indeed what witches were tried for, whilst astrologers and chiromancers were never accused of being guilty of such crimes.

One famous example is sufficient to illustrate that the two subjects were not considered to be linked with either witchcraft or magic: in the late seventeenth century, the renowned astrologer William Lilly was indicted under the Witchcraft Act, but only on a charge of deceitfully taking money for locating stolen goods, which he had achieved through the use of divinatory astrology. He was defended by the Court Recorder who declared that astrology was in fact a lawful art, and the case was duly dismissed.

Despite the 'official' stance of the Roman Catholic Church and some overzealous Christian minority sects, the frenzied mania of psychopathic witch-finder generals and the phantasms of an ignorant and uneducated population, it is clear that there was not really any wholesale persecution of either handreaders or astrologers at all.  This frequently perpetuated story turns out to be mythology.

Nevertheless, in these times of uncertainty it was fairly common for chiromantical treatises of this period to quote scripture, particularly Job 37:7, to demonstrate that the Bible does indeed pronounce favourably on the practise of chiromancy. Despite the fact that chiromancy was not legally deemed to be witchcraft or born of a pact with the devil, the association was preserved in the popular mind. The appeal to scripture was to give reassurance that the art was pleasing to God and indeed sanctioned by him.

In a similar vein, the gipsy fortune teller would reassure her clients with the words 'Cross my palm with silver'. The use of silver and the making of the sign of the cross were two known ways of warding off the devil; to perform this ritual before having one's fortune told was a certain way of ensuring that there was no witchcraft or devilry taking place in having one's hands read.

The Witchcraft Act of 1563 was amended under James I in 1604 and remained in force until 1735. The bulk of witchcraft prosecutions took place up until the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 and after that those accused were more likely to be acquitted than sentenced. The decline in prosecutions came with the decline in the belief of magical powers in general and witchcraft in particular, and this change in world view was also to affect the fate of both chiromancy and astrology as we shall see later.

In 1735, the Witchcraft Act was amended again, this time to include provision only for those who pretended to practise witchcraft or use magical powers - rather than for the actual crime of witchcraft itself which was no longer officially recognised as being possible. However, the last prosecution under the Witchcraft Act for such fraudulent deception was against the materialisation medium Helen Duncan as late as 1946! The Act itself was only eventually fully repealed in 1951, whence it became the Fraudulent Mediums Act. Under this act, it is still illegal to purport to use clairvoyant or telepathic powers or to purport to act as a spiritualistic medium, especially if money is taken as a reward or payment.

The emphasis again reveals a fundamental disbelief in such abilities and the implication is that anyone who takes payment for such activities is both a deceiver and a fraud. Whilst this in no way affects the modern practice of analytical chirology, it does nonetheless affect those who claim to be 'clairvoyant' or 'psychic' palmists. Since such abilities are not recognised as being possible in law, anyone claiming to read hands by psychic or clairvoyant means must ipso facto be fraudulent. And if they receive any money for this, even if it is done in the manner of an entertainment, then they are clearly breaking the law. The simple fact is that to profess to have psychic abilities and to offer these as a service where there is payment of a fee, is still against the law.

Here there is an echo of the distinction that was made in the sixteenth century when the laws against witchcraft were first formulated, a distinction between the serious study of astrology and chiromancy pursued by the Renaissance intellectuals and the more spurious practices of the uneducated 'witches' and 'gipsies'. Richard Saunders was but one English chiromancer who bemoaned the existence of '..those sycophants and Delusive Ignorants through whose sides this pretious science is daily wounded..' much as modern cheirologists or professional astrologers might bemoan the existence of fortune-telling palmistry and newspaper sunsign astrology today.


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