Tractatus Chiromancie

One other author of early chiromantic manuscripts who is known to us is a certain Johannes Philosophus or 'John the Philosopher'. At least seven copies of manuscripts attributed to him are extant, two in the British Museum (Ms Harl 866 and Ms Harl 3353), two in the Bodleian Library (Ms Bodl 607 and Ms Ashmole 1471) and at least three in other university college libraries at Trinity College, Cambridge and at Corpus Christi and All Souls colleges in Oxford.

The dates that have been given for the writing of these manuscripts vary from the end of the fourteenth century for the copies in the British Museum and the Bodleian Library to the end of the fifteenth century for the copy held at All Souls College, Oxford. This last manuscript (All Souls Ms 81) has been transcribed (but unfortunately not translated) by Thorndike and appended to his article on early Latin chiromantic manuscripts in Speculum v40 (1965). This last chiromancy is by far the most extensive of all those written by Johannes and may well represent a culmination or synthesis of all his earlier writings on the subject.

It is in fact a very detailed treatment of the art of chiromancy - not so much a summa but even almost a book in its own right! Johannes discusses the principal lines and mounts of the hand in considerable detail and outlines the meanings of all the significant lineal markings of good and bad fortune, crime, punishment and death, matters of relevance to the clergy as well as the usual preoccupation with matters of vice, sexuality and childbirth. However, scholarly analysis has also shown that he felt free to draw on sources other than his own in his writings, as academics have observed that the middle of All Souls Ms 81 is in fact a copy of Rodericus de Majoricus' 'Tractatus Cyromancie'. Whilst this may be sheer plagiarism, it is of course possible that they both learnt their chiromancy from the same source or, given that they were both alive at around the same time, that they learnt this material from each other.

The left hand from MS Bodl 177 by Rodericus de Majoricus

The works in the Bodleian Library are also in Latin and have yet to be translated into English. The first of these, his 'Tractatus Chiromancie', is only a few pages in length and can be found in a large work (Ms Ashmole 1471) which is primarily devoted to two lengthy expositions on astrology and alchemy. The second of these texts, his 'De Chiromancia Tractatus' is also a short text, partly written in middle English, and is also inserted into a larger work which includes a discussion of astrology. The location of chiromantic texts within manuscripts which are predominantly astrological in their scope is not without significance, as we shall see.

Chiromancy and the Ways of God

However, although these chiromancies are to be found in amongst ecclesiastical works, medical texts, works on herbalism, alchemy, natural science and divination, it was most common for chiromantical texts to be located together with treatises on physiognomy. First and foremost, chiromancy was considered to be an aspect of physiognomy at this time. However, physiognomy was understood through astrology and astrology, as we have seen, was considered to be indispensable for the practice of medicine. Astrology, and its experimental counterpart alchemy, were essential for the study of the natural sciences and all these together were prerequisites for learning and education, that one may understand God's ways and follow his injunction to assist and administer healing to others in the guise of the practising physician. When we consider these seemingly quite different studies in this way, we can appreciate how the early Renaissance mind perceived their interconnectedness and interrelevance. When we look at these disciplines in this light, we can then understand why a physician or a man of God would have an interest in subjects like chiromancy and astrology. Moreover, we can now see why it is that we should find the early chiromantic manuscripts within texts overtly devoted to the practice of religion or the practice of medicine and why, indeed, such subjects should be deemed of absolute relevance to these professional orientations.


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