By Lauren Kassell ~
Originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011.
Chiromancy, the art of palm reading, thrived in Renaissance Europe. It worked on the premise that the geography of the hand could be read. The three main lines for instance, could be correlated with the principal organs: heart, brain, and liver. The geography of the hand—a “mountain” was formed at the base of each digit, joined by “plains”—could be read alongside a celestial map. Manuals of chiromancy circulated in manuscript from the fourteenth century and were printed in increasing numbers through the seventeenth century. Chiromancy was akin to astrology (divination from the stars) and physiognomy (the reading of the face). After around 1600, following a papal bull denouncing chiromancy and other forms of divination, some authors sought to explain chiromancy, like physiognomy, as wholly natural. Others, such as the English physician Robert Fludd (1574–1637), developed the astrological components of the art. Fludd was known for his elaborately illustrated tomes on occult philosophy and disputes with the French theologian and philosopher Marin Mersenne (1588–1648).
As more people began to practice the art its legitimacy was increasingly challenged, and questions about its principles and plausibility featured in debates about occult philosophies and the theological legitimacy of divination. Concerns about the operation of natural causes and the extent of free will were at the root of these debates. If the lines on the hand were caused by the positions of the planets at the time of one’s birth, then one’s hand could be read as accurately as, or more accurately than, one’s nativity. Did a chiromancer read the natural signs of one’s character, like a physiognomer? Or, like an astrologer, did he traffic with unnatural spirits and meddle in free will? Or was he simply a charlatan peddling causal implausibilities in the name of an ancient art?
The Palmistry Entertainment was assembled in 1661 by Johann Praetorius (1630–80), professor of philosophy at the University of Leipzig and a devoted student of divination, especially through the reading of hands. The nine works in this volume provided an up-to-date compendium of the major works on chiromancy by some of Europe’s leading scholars. For instance, Praetorius reprinted chapters on chiromancy from Fludd’s multivolume Utriusque cosmi . . . historia (History . . . of the Two Worlds) (1617–26), as well as an extract from a lost work of Nicolaus Pompeius (1591–1659), professor of elementary mathematics at the University of Wittenberg, where he lectured on chiromancy. Also represented in the Ludicrum chiromanticum Praetorii is the Jesuit scholar Caspar Schott (1608–66), who treated on chiromancy in his massive work about the magic of art and nature published in four volumes between 1657 and 1659. At the opposite end of the occult spectrum from Fludd, Schott explained chiromancy in natural terms and rejected any astrological associations. The longest work in the volume is by Praetorius himself. By the end of the seventeenth century chiromancy, like other forms of divination, had been discredited as an intellectual system, even if it was explained naturally. Scholars ceased writing systematic expositions of chiromancy, but diviners continued to specialize in palmistry as a form of fortune-telling.
Lauren Kassell is Professor of History of Science and Medicine at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge. She has published on the history of astrology, alchemy, medicine, and magic in early modern England and directed a project to prepare a digital edition of the fifty thousand medical cases recorded by the astrologers Simon Forman and Richard Napier.