Handreading and the Gipsies

The gipsies came to Europe sometime in the early part of the fifteenth century and it is now believed that they originally came from India, rather than from Egypt as their name suggests. This would account for their having at least some rudimentary handreading knowledge, given the popularity of the divinatory arts in the Indian sub-continent. 

At first glance, this might seem to give support to the popular belief that it was they who were responsible for the introduction of handreading to England. But, as we have already seen, there was already a written tradition of chiromancy in England predating the arrival of the gipsies by at least two hundred years.

The association between handreading and gipsies is depicted in 'The Gipsies Metamorphosed', where we find a passage in which the Captain of the gipsies is reading the hand of the disguised King:

"You are no great wencher, I see by your table,
although your Mons Veneris says you are able.
You live chaste and single, and have buried your wife,
and mean not to marry, by the line of your life.
Whence he that conjectures your quality learns,
you're an honest good man and have care of your bairns.
Your Mercury hill too a wit doth betoken,
Some book-craft you have and are pretty well spoken.
But stay! In your Jupiter mount, what's here?
A King? A Monarch? What wonders appear!
High, bountiful, just; a Jove for your parts,
A master of men and that reign in their hearts."

However, this association with the gipsies also gave the term 'palmistry' a new meaning, and one that was hardly likely to encourage the serious investigation of the subject. A Statute of Henry VIII of 1530 describes the gipsies as '... an outlandish people using no craft or feat of merchancy, who have come into this realm and gone from shire to shire in great companies and used great subtle and crafty means to deceive people, bearing them in hand that they, by palmistry, could tell men's and women's fortunes and so many times, by craft and subtlety, have deceived the people of their money and have also committed many heinous felonies and robberies'

As an outcast people in an unfriendly land, it would have been impossible for them to acquire land on which to make a subsistence living and very difficult for them to find other means of gainful employment. The telling of fortunes through palmistry and a life of petty theft and robbery were perhaps the only options open to them. In any case, they were clearly not liked by the British people and had developed at least the reputation of being nothing more than vagabonds and deceivers. By the mid sixteenth century, the term 'palmistry' had come to mean a dextrous sleight of hand that enabled pockets to be rifled and pilfered whilst the attention of the owner of the hands was distracted! As Thomas Dekker writes in 'Lanthorne and Candlelight', those who profess skill in palmistry "...tell fortunes which for the most part are infallibly true, by reason that they work upon rules which are grounded upon certainty. For one of them will tell you that you shall shortly have some evil luck fall upon you and within half an hour after you shall find your pocket picked or your purse cut".

These hostile sixteenth and seventeenth century attitudes towards gipsies are reflected clearly in the decree of Henry VIII just quoted, which virtually made it illegal to even be a gipsy.  To deceive through palmistry or other means in order to deprive citizens of their monies or goods merited the severest punishment, which usually meant death. Having said that, the Act seems more directed against the gipsies themselves rather than against the practice of chiromancy as such, especially if we consider Henry VIII's own fondness for the divinatory arts.

It was eventually repealed under the reign of George III, but the Statute formed the basis for the Vagrancy Act of 1824 which still stands as law within the UK today. Although the Act is directed against the deceit of his Majesty's subjects by Rogues and Vagabonds through '..pretending or professing to tell fortunes or using any subtle craft, means or device, by palmistry or otherwise..' and in general is directed against 'Idle and Disorderly' persons, technically the act still makes the practice of palmistry illegal in Britain even today.

There is however, very little legal precedence for the persecution of handreaders at any stage in British history - and the same is also true for astrologers - despite the widespread vilification both professions have received from many quarters, especially since the late seventeenth century.


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