By Atalanta Grant-Suttie
Some people think palmistry (or chiromancy as it is sometimes known) is hocus pocus and that it is all nonsense. How can lines and bumps in the palm of the hand foretell your future? Yet, you can find palm readers all over the world; you may have one in your area. Palmistry is a very old practice. It was a topic of interest in ancient Greece and Rome, where it was used in medical diagnosis and character evaluation. Aristotle reportedly became fascinated with palmistry when he came across a missing treatise on the subject and shared the information with his famous, pupil, Alexander the Great. The practice continued in medieval Europe and flourished in the Renaissance with the production of printed texts with illustrations. The National Library of Medicine holds a number of books on palmistry published in Europe during the Renaissance, and we’ll take a look at a few here.
The first volume to investigate is Barptolomaei Coclitis Bononiensis, naturalis philosophiae ac medicinae doctoris Physiognomiae & chiromantiae compendium by Bartolommeo della Rocca also known as Cocles. It was published in 1533 in Argentorati, the ancient name for Strasbourg in France, a city that traditionally blends with the German culture. The year 1533 was a turbulent year in Europe as Henry VIII defied the Catholic Church by marrying his second wife, the protestant, Ann Boleyn. The fact that Cocles published his book at this time of political turmoil, and in Catholic France, seems to indicate the art of palmistry could be practiced quite openly, and attracted an educated readership.
This 1533 edition is made up of three sections: a prologue, and a compendium, both by an anonymous author, and the palmistry or chiromancy section by Cocles. This latter section is composed of a descriptive portion about palmistry and a woodcut diagram of the left palm depicting the lines and finger designations labelled in German followed by 158 individual smaller woodcuts indicating particular markings of both the left and right palms with interpretations underneath in Latin. It is interesting to question why the first woodcut would be labelled in German whilst all the subsequent woodcuts have Latin explanations. Perhaps it was to entice the interest of the German population in Strasbourg at the time.
The National Library of Medicine also holds two other editions of this book. The 1534 edition, a reprint of the 1533 edition with small changes, and another published in 1536, which is bound with Aristotles’s ‘Problemata”, a famous work in which Aristotle used the question/response method to answer hundreds of questions on many subjects including medical topics.
The Library also owns an edition published in 1578 in Lyons. It is a miniature book, about 5 inches high, entitled Excellente chiromancie monstrant par les lignes de la main les meurs & complexions des gens selon les figures qui y sont depeintes by Andre Corve. In this volume, the first woodcut diagram of the lines of the whole palm are labelled in Latin, not German, and the interpretations under all the subsequent woodcuts are in French, not Latin. These changes seem to reflect a French vernacular readership. It is also notable that the labelled palm in the 1578 volume shows the whole of the right palm and not the left as seen in the 1533, 1534 reprint, and 1536 editions indicating a whole new diagram was made for the 1578 publication. A careful review of other woodcuts show variations in rendering and seem to have been copied and enhanced from earlier editions.
There is, for example, a page in the 1578 edition which depicts the left and right palms on the verso (left) and recto (right) respectively in which the rendering has been slightly modified from the woodcuts of the same palms in the 1533 edition. The descriptions in middle French in the 1578 edition are not easy to decipher but it is possible to deduce from the explanation about the markings on the left palm that murder has been interpreted and forecast. This same dire description is in the Latin description under the woodcut of the left palm in the 1533 edition.
It seems there was another simultaneous tradition developing along with the woodcuts of palms with more standardized delineations for the markings on the hands as other titles in the National Library of Medicine can attest. Titles such as Chiromantia (Paris) 1546, Chiromance & physiognomie… Lyon 1549, and Briefe introductions, bothe naturall, pleasaunte, and also delectable unto the art of chiromancy, or manuel divination, … Londini, 1558, have depictions of the palms that show a developing trend towards their standardization. Here is a Dutch volume published in the Hague in 1655: Philippi Meyens,van Koburg in Francken-lant Chiromantia medica…. The first diagram in the volume depicts the whole left palm and is labelled with numbers and symbols mapped to interpretations in the text. In this case, it is not rendered from a woodcut. Instead, the stylized hand was printed from an engraved copper plate, as you can see from the finer lines and the plate impression around the edge of the illustration.
Whether palmistry is hocus pocus or not, its popularity persists. Three and a half centuries after the 1655 Dutch publication, the interest in palmistry is still alive as a keyword search on Google will attest. Better still, a visit to a palm reader near you can foretell that indeed, your future lies in the palm of your hand.
Atalanta Grant-Suttie is a Preservation Librarian for the Rare Books and Early Manuscripts Section in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.