Knowing the Future

Throughout recorded history, people have turned to magic, prophecy, prognostication, divination, astrology, and other forms of pseudo-science in a vain effort to know the future and control the course of events in an uncertain world. In the late Middle Ages, plague and internecine warfare gave added impetus to the medieval penchant for prognostication and lead to forms of popular literature that circulated in custom-produced manuscripts. By the second half of the fifteenth century, the demand for inexpensive copies of almanacs, prognostications, and other such texts was sufficient for early printers to produce large numbers of copies on speculation and market them through street hawkers and itinerant peddlers. Yet manuscript dissemination would live on for centuries, long after the Printing Revolution, and it was always possible for individual readers to transcribe printed texts in whole or part for inclusion in manuscript compendia and commonplace books.

Manuscript copies of new texts could circulate privately for years or decades, almost like pre-prints, until finally being printed. We can see this with a scribal manuscript of a work by the Italian polymath Gerolamo Cardano (1501-78), who played a major role in development of the Renaissance pseudo-science of metoposcopy. This form of divination claimed that one could determine a person’s character and destiny from patterns of lines in their forehead. A French manuscript copy of ca. 1615 (C0938, no. 499) is one of several versions of Cardano’s metoposcopy text that circulated before the Latin text was published in 1658 as H. Cardani medici Mediolanensis metoposcopia. The Princeton manuscript is essentially a hybrid book comprised of an engraved title page, with handwritten author’s name and title; and manuscript prologue; and 102 unnumbered folios, with four faces of men on each page, to which the same scribal hand added identifying numbers (1-816) and forehead lines, with accompanying prognostications for the particular face (1-769). Other metoposcopy treatises were never printed, such as an Italian manuscript of 1762 (C0938, no. 556). See image below.

Also circulating in manuscript before being printed were treatises on chiromancy (palmistry), according to which one’s future could be predicted from lines in the palms of hands. Ludwig Heinrich Lutz’s Chirosophia concentrata appears to have circulated in manuscript (C0938, no. 687) before the treatise was printed in 1672, 1674, 1679, and 1685. While each of the diagrams in the Princeton manuscript occupies a full page, the diagrams are grouped several to a page in the copper-engraved plates of the printed editions. But other chiromancy texts circulated as manuscripts for centuries and were never printed. For example, “Libro della Chiromantia di Ercole da Ferrara. Scritta da me Gio[vanni] Cristofano Crispolti nel anno 1676” (C0938, no. 745). Crispolti was the scribe responsible for this manuscript, which contains the main portion of a larger, unpublished sixteenth-century Italian text by Ercole Forte, da Ferrara, “Libri trè de Chiromantia e della Fisionomia,” ca. 1560-65, which survives in Brussels, Royal Albertine Library. Other manuscript copies are cited in eighteenth-century printed library catalogs. In the Princeton manuscript, the chiromancy treatise is followed by a brief anonymous text on Pythagorean numerology.

In addition to treatises, some texts were prepared in manuscript form because they were intended for the exclusive use of particular people. Wealthy patrons commissioned custom-made horoscopes and collections of genitures. Princeton MS. 187 is a multi-part custom horoscope prepared by an anonymous German astrologer around 1583 for an unnamed person born in 1549, as indicated in the geniture (fol. 5v), indicating the precise time of birth. The manuscript is possibly from the duchy of Saxony because it refers to an elector of Saxony from the 1550s and 1560s. The text cites ancient authorities such as Galen and Ptolemy, and Renaissance figures such as Andrea Alciati (1492-1550) and Gerolamo Cardano. A group of three German custom horoscopes (C1500) were prepared between 1670 and 1687 for Baron Alexander von Enke (1650-87), who served in the army of the Electorate of Saxony, fought against the Ottoman Turks during the Great Turkish War (1683-99), and died of a fever on the Ionian Greek island of Zakynthos (Zante) in 1687. Johann Henrich Voigt (1613-91), a northern German astronomer, astrologer, and almanac-compiler, who lived in the city of Stade and other places, prepared two of the horoscopes. The author of the third is unknown.

Almanacs and prognostica were very popular in print, like Farmer’s Almanacs in later centuries. François Rabelais (ca. 1494-1553?) satirized such popular literature. Despite large press runs, there was still a demand for custom prognostica in manuscript form. For example, Princeton MS. 171 is an entire volume of pseudo-Solomonic prognostications prepared for the Rousset family of the Loire Valley in the late fifteenth century. The main text is comprised of anonymous French verse prognostications prepared for Huguet Rousset. After a prose introduction interpreting the heavenly bodies in terms of Christian doctrine and astrology, the anonymous author has verse prognostications about agriculture, weather, commerce, and related issues of importance to provincial landowners. These are provided for a 28-year cycle of solar years, as indicated in incipits and explicits for the sections. Also in the volume are other verse prognostications, possibly prepared for Nicolas Huguet, grandson of Huguet Rousset. The verses end with prophecies pertaining to the years 1542 and 1572. Serving much the same purpose is a 1698 French manuscript, “Almanach universel” (C0938, no. 702), which provides predictions for a different 28-year cycle, 1689-1716, with climate and crop predictions, particularly for French wines in Auxerre and Poitou, along with business advice.

Among the strangest unpublished texts are Italian manuals that claimed to show gamblers how to win local lotteries by coming up with winning numbers. A manuscript of ca. 1714-50 labeled “Cabala” (C0938, no 564) is filled with prophecies, prognostications, numerology, and cryptography. Reference is made to older prophecies of St. Malachi, Joachim of Fiore (ca. 1132-1202), and St. John of Capistrano (1386-1456). Another such Italian collection (C0938, no. 730) is a recently acquired composite volume of approximately 600 pages, in 50 paper booklets of varying dimensions, bound together in the mid-nineteenth century. The texts were written by different hands in Italian (with occasional Latin), each in a separate booklet. These were bound together in the mid-nineteenth century, with the handwritten title “Cabale.” Most were probably copied and/or translated from earlier manuscripts and printed books that pertain to Cabalistic systems for lotteries. While undated, internal dates given in individual texts are from the 1760s to 1830s. The texts contain many numerical and alpha-numerical tables, astrological diagrams, and other figures presenting information in geometric forms, such as number squares and pyramids. Authorship of individual texts is attributed, perhaps through an intermediary text, to Ramon Llull (1232?-1316), Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola (1470-1533), and Rutilio Benincasa (1555-1626).

For more information about manuscript holdings, consult the online catalog, published catalogs, and relevant finding aids. Researchers can also contact Public Services at

Italian Metoposcopy Manuscript, 1762
C0938, no. 556