The Earliest Latin Chiromantic Manuscript

The left hand from the Eadwine Psalter, showing the main lines of the hand and marks of religious significance

The Eadwine Psalter, or the Canterbury Psalter as it sometimes also known, was written at Christchurch, Canterbury around 1160 by a scribe named Eadwine, a monk of the house. Given the context in which the manuscript was first written, it is of no surprise that the contents of the manuscript are predominantly concerned with religious affairs. These include a religious calendar of feasts and holy days, the psalter itself, notes on the Lord's Prayer and the Apostle's Creed as well as some drawings and plans for the plumbing of the monastery and a portrait of the scribe, the monk Eadwine. But it has not escaped the puzzled attention of the academics who have studied and reproduced this manuscript in facsimile form that there should also be two divinatory texts included in here as well! The first of these is an onomancy, a short treatise on numerology, whilst the second of these is the chiromancy. The original manuscript was given to Trinity College Cambridge in the early seventeenth century and is now catalogued there as Ms R.17.1  and although copies of this chiromantic text can be found in other early Latin manuscripts (eg BM Ms Sloane 2030, BM Ms Sloane 323 and Oxford Ms Ashmole 399), the version in the Eadwine Psalter was written at least one hundred years earlier than any of these. It is therefore the earliest manuscript copy of any Latin text on chiromancy.

The academics are rather at a loss to explain how such a chiromantic text should find itself in a fundamentally ecclesiastical work, particularly since most of the early extant chiromancies are usually found in texts which also include physiognomies or other pieces on divination and the occult sciences. Burnett himself suggests there is at least a coincidental connection between the time and location of the writing of the manuscript and the comments made by John of Salisbury that we discussed above. Moreover, he notes the many religious significations that are given to various line formations which describe matters of interest to the clergy. For instance, he suggests that the marks of ecclesiastical promotion may have caused young priests to turn surreptitiously to the back of their psalters to see if they had such lines marked in their hands!

However, we should not really be surprised that such marks should be found in a text written in such an environment and should not see their inclusion as being anything more than a reflection of some of the interests and preoccupations of those that compiled the text in the first place. In any case, there are many other types of markings discussed in the manuscript whose meanings are not of particular interest or relevance to those of a religious inclination. Besides, as Burnett himself observes, the somewhat haphazard arrangement of the material and the rather rough and ready form in which it is presented, as a form of short notes with little in the way of elaboration, suggests that '... the author was jotting down common lore and that the text itself is very close to oral sources'. In this way, we can see the ecclesiastical references as being additions made at the time of writing to give the treatise more interest and greater relevance to those who would have occasion to refer to it in the confines of a monastery. The fact that the text itself covers interests of a primarily secular nature only serves to confirm the suggestion that this text is indeed close to oral sources; for it is much more likely that such secular interpretations would be found in an oral, folk chiromantic tradition than in one preserved within a purely religious environment. But if this is the case, then perhaps we too should be surprised that such a treatise should find its way into an ecclesiastical work as well!

The right hand from MS Ashmole 399 showing, in stylised form, the main lines of the hand

The text itself begins with a discussion of the three main lines of the hand and the triangle formed by these, but then rapidly moves on to discuss the meaning and significance of various different types of line formations and markings. The bulk of these concern prognostications regarding one's fate and fortune and, in particular, the manner and nature of one's death. The text lists various different misfortunes that may arise, including death by lack of food, death in battle, death by water, death by fire, death by hanging, death in foreign parts, captivity, signs of pain in the head, neck, heart and belly, wounds of the arms or legs, wounds to the body, the loss of one's eyes and the loss of one's feet as well as the indications that predict leprosy and theft. There is also a considerable preoccupation with sexual matters and fertility (of little but titillating interest to a monk, one would think), including the marks of matrimony, chastity and adultery, childbirth, the sex of one's children and the number of one's kin, the signs of whether a woman is a virgin or whether she is a prostitute and other family problems such as committing incest, violating one's mothers' bed and killing a member of one's family! One particularly significant marking that most men would want to be without is the one that is given as an indication that one is going to lose one's testicles!

However, not all is doom and gloom, for other markings are also considered, such as those which indicate faithfulness, happiness and intelligence, moving house and travel, dying by an honourable death and the religious markings of confession and religious conversion, in addition to those which are indicative of one's ecclesiastical station and prospects for promotion. All in all, we can see that there is not really very much material here of direct relevance for the life of a monk or other religious officials! In fact, the material that we find here is akin to what is contained in all of the early chiromancies, a trend of interests which serves as the preoccupation and fascination of the professional chiromancer right through to the end of the seventeenth century. The Eadwine Psalter therefore not only contains the earliest chiromancy to have been written in the West, it also sets a precedent for the tone and manner for nearly all the chiromancies that are to follow over the next five hundred years. The Eadwine Psalter can most truthfully be described as a seminal work.

Chiromancy and Mediaeval Medicine

A copy of the chiromancy in the Eadwine Psalter can also be found in a manuscript now kept at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Ms Ashmole 399. This is a considerably later text, first scribed c1292 and is a fundamentally quite different text from the one in which the chiromancy was originally found in the Eadwine Psalter, for Ms Ashmole 399 is primarily a medical text.

The manuscript opens with a section on physiognomy and then goes on with chapters on the anatomy of various parts of the body, including a detailed consideration of the sexual organs, the development of the foetus in the womb, the judgement of urine samples and other medical diagnostics. The manuscript is illustrated throughout and is perhaps one of the most beautiful of all the mediaeval manuscripts of this period as a whole. One sequence of illustrations describes the work of mediaeval physician as he proceeds with a consultation whilst others are detailed colour diagrams of various body systems and internal organs. However, it must be said that these anatomical illustrations are actually more a source of amusement and mirth than they are of useful medical knowledge!

Coloured illustration from the C13th edition of the Eadwine Psalter, kept in the Bodleian Library as MS Ashmole 399

There are actually two chiromantic texts included in this manuscript, at fols. 16-17 and at fols. 59-61. Although the texts seem to be a little different in content form the Eadwine Psalter, both are considered to have been derived from it by those academics that have studied these works. However, there have most certainly been some additions made, as these later versions of the Eadwine chiromancy include four drawings of hands to accompany the written text. These are probably the earliest drawings of hands with chiromantic significance in the whole of the Western tradition. One of these illustrations depicts the, somewhat stylised, hands against a red and green chequered background and each of the digits and the various parts of the hand are covered with Latin inscriptions outlining the significance of the various markings to be found in the fingers and in the body of the palm. The inscriptions here seem to be taken from the written text itself, so it would seem that the drawings have been added simply as an adjunct to illustrate the contents of the text itself.

Given the general significances attached to the different markings to be found in the hands that we saw in our discussion of the text above, we should not therefore be surprised that chiromancy would eventually find its way into a text on medicine and medical diagnosis. The inclusion of these chiromancies in such a manuscript as this is therefore a significant indicator of the more widespread acceptance of chiromancy as a prognostic art at this time, especially with regard to its potential use in medical diagnosis, as well as being a more general indication of its developing esteem as being a subject worthy of study by all types of educated men. For it suggests that chiromancy, together with physiognomy and astrology, was becoming to be seen to be indispensable in the practice of medicine.

For an example of this, we might look to someone like Peter of Abano (1250- 1318) of Padua in Italy. Abano wrote at least one chiromantic treatise, as well as several others on physiognomy, geomancy and astrology. Although he had a reputation as being something of a magician, as a scholar his intellectual credentials seem impeccable enough, for he was able to freely study from ancient Greek, Latin and Arabic texts. He also wrote on medicine and considered that the study of astrology and astronomy were indispensable to its practice; indeed, he can be seen as something of a precursor to the ideal 'Renaissance man', the academic scholar who was as adept in science, medicine and philosophy as he was in astrology and natural magic. For Abano and other educated men of his time, these were all interrelated arts, inseparable parts of one united intellectual whole.


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