A "rogish trade" by "beggarly rascals"

(Investigator 11, 1990 March)

Over 350 years ago thinking people already regarded palmistry as a "vaine and frivolous device…infected with superstition, deceit, cheating, and…magic."

Why piffle like palmistry doesn't pass away although it's been refuted by science is baffling.

The following comments are from THE ORIGINS OF POPULAR SUPERSTITIONS (1910) by T. S. Knowlson:

  Palmistry is said to have been introduced into this country by gipsies in the 16th century. Mason in his Anatomie of Sorcery (1612) speaks of "vaine and frivolous devices of which sort we have an infinite number also used among us, as namely in Palmistry, where men's fortunes are told by looking on the palms of the hande."

From this it would appear that the "science" did not make its advent with much eclat, and Newton, writing nearly a hundred years later, shows that its associations were not of the best. In his Tryall of a Man's Owne Selfe he enquires, "whether the Governors of the Commonwealth have suffered Palmesters, fortune-tellers, stage-players, sawce-boxes, enterluders, puppit-players, loyterers, vagabonds, land leapers, and such like cozening make-shifts, to practise their cogging tricks and rogish trades within the circuite of his authoritie, and to deceive the simple people with their vile forgerie and palterie."

By "governors of the commonwealth" here, it should seem, he means justices of the peace.

A very apposite group of questions for a modern J.P. Dr. Ferrand, writing about 1640, in Love's Melancholy, tells us that "this act of Chiromancy hath been so strangely infected with superstition, deceit, cheating, and (if durst say so) with magic also, that the canonists, and of late years Pope Sixtus Quintus, have been constrained utterly to condemn it. So that now no man professeth publickely this cheating art, but theeves, rogues, and beggarly rascals; which are now every where knowne by the name of Bohemians, Egyptians, and Caramaras; and first came into these parts of Europe about the year 1417, as G. Dupreau, Albertus Krantz, and Polydore Vergil report."

We are now in possession of hints respecting the history of palmistry, which take us back to 1417. In what direction shall we look for further light, and how far back can we go? We shall, as in the case of astrology, have to look Eastwards and Southwards: to Egypt, to Mesopotamia, to India, and China. And in those countries we shall find that reading palms is as old as the hills; nobody can tell us when it began, for its rules, its findings, its mysteries, have been handed down from one generation to another.

It is an attempt to divine the happenings of the future, and since that future is to man a matter of the keenest possible interest, there is every reason to believe palmistry is contemporaneous with the first dawning of reasoning curiosity. And it persists to-day in spite of prosecutions and imprisonments. Men and women still treat it seriously, or semi-seriously; they will readily spend 5s to have their "lines" read; and they will buy the literature of the subject and ponder over it. This literature is rather flimsy in character, but there have been nearly a dozen somewhat large and ambitious volumes since the year 1897.

One of these – Benham's Laws of Scientific Hand Reading, attempts to take up an independent standpoint with some measure of success. But just as the astrologer can give no adequate reason why the planets should influence us, and why a transit of Venus or any particular aspect of the heavens spells good or ill, so the palmist can offer no appropriate explanation why a life that is only half spent can imprint the number of its years in a semi-circle round the ball of the thumb.

As a social recreation, palmistry is both successful and funny; as a science, it is delusive – sometimes dangerous.

Don't consult and pay "beggarly rascals" when the scientific truth is often free: