Reading palms, faces and stars

Palmistry and astrology were regarded as hard sciences from antiquity to the Middle Ages. One of the first manuals written on the subject, published by the German priest Johannes Indagine in 1522, was called Introductiones apotelesmaticae elegantes in chyromantiam, physiognomiam, astrologiam naturalem, complexiones hominum, naturas planetarum.

Jan Berntsz published a Dutch translation of the work. According to the colophon he did so 10 February 1536 'tot Utrecht op dien hoec van sint Mertenstoorn, in die gulden Leeuw ('in Utrecht on the corner of Saint Martin's Church (Cathedral church), in the Golden Lion'). With this publication the Utrecht bookprinter tried to pique interest in the subject among a wide public.

It’s written in the stars… or on your face

The translation was entitled Chyromantia Joannis Indaginis: ende dit boec leert van drie naturlike consten als phisiognomia, astrologia naturalis, chiromantia. It is not known who translated the text, but the translation follows Indagine’s text fairly closely, including the original format, with the book divided into six volumes:

1. Chiromantia (palmistry) (17-85)
2. Phisiognomie (physiognomy; face reading) (85-108)
3. Periaxiomata (astrology) (109-115)
4. ‘Regulen van cranckheyden’ ('Regulations of diseases') (on the effects of the heavenly bodies on health) (116-125)
5. Astrologia naturael (horoscopes) (126-162)
6. 'Kennisse der complexien', the effect of the heavenly bodies on the four temperaments: Cholericus, Phlegmaticus, Melancholicus and Sanguinicus (163-181)

Practised and studied since antiquity, palmistry, astrology, physiognomy and other related disciplines are still popular today. Unlike in the 16th century, few people still consider them to be true sciences.

A scientific presentation?

For a book of its time, the 1522 edition of Indagine has a relatively scientific character. It contains functional figures outlining function and the text is printed in modern humanistic type. Berntsz’s edition is in Gothic type, which was commonly used for texts written in vernacular, but also gives the book a more medieval, old-fashioned feel.  

Berntsz’s edition contains the same figures as Indagine’s, although the printing is of lower quality. Berntsz also added all sorts of unnecessary images, in various styles, some of which appear more than once in the book. These aspects make the book look more frivolous and also rather botched. The edition does not have the serious appearance typifying Indagine’s book.

Apparently, the Utrecht edition was not particularly successful in this country: other than the copy at Utrecht University Library, there is only one other known copy in the Netherlands (Groningen, UB, uklu NAUTA 60).

The Dutch translation of Indagine’s work gives us a good idea of how palmistry, physiognomy and astrology were practised at that time. On p.100, for instance, we read that if the top of a person’s head is scharp ('sharp'), that person can be described as plomp, grof, onleerbaer, onverstandel, nijdich ('gross, rough, unable to be educated, ignorant, angry'), while someone with a round head of average weight is verstandel, vernuftich, cloeck, ende van goeder memori ('sensible, clever, brave, having good memory') . Based on the picture of Indagine in the book, it seems he felt he belonged to the second category...

Further reading

  • Barton, Tamsyn S., Power and knowledge: astrology, physiognomics, and medicine under the Roman Empire (Ann Arbor, 1994).
  • Gettings, Fred, The book of the hand: an illustrated history of palmistry (London, 1965).
  • Mangoldt, Ursula von, Das grosse Buch der Hand: Deutung der Hand durch fünf Jahrhunderte (Munich, 1967).
  • Mentgen, Gerd, Astrologie und Öffentlichkeit im Mittelalter (Stuttgart, 2005).
  • Porter, Martin, Windows of the soul: physiognomy in European culture 1470-1780 (Oxford, 2005).
  • Weiler, A. G. (ed.), Chronologie, astrologie en gezondheid in een handschrift van een zestiende-eeuwse Haagse non (Nijmegen, 1989).
BJ, 2011
Chyromantia, p. 6 - Johannes Indagine
Chyromantia, p. 92
Chyromantia, p. 103
Chyromantia, p. 103
Chyromantia, p. 22

Chyromantia Joannis Indaginis: ende dit boec leert van drie naturlike consten als phisiognomia, astrologia naturalis, chiromantia ('Chyromantia Joannis Indaginis: and this book teaches of the three natural arts, being physiognomy, natural astrology, chyromantia) (R fol 456 rar); Utrecht: Jan Berntsz, 1536.