Posted by: internationalroutier | October 11, 2010

Superstition 17thC style

I scratched my itchy left palm the other night and then immediately scratched the right one, even though it wasn’t itchy at all. Why you may ask? An old superstition that an itchy palm means money and a further oddity that left means money out, right means money in. (Variations on the superstition say you should or shouldn’t scratch) Got me thinking about superstitions and their origins. What were the superstitions of the 17thC? How old are the ones we are familiar with now? And where on earth did they come from- I can see the sense in not walking under ladders (you might catch a glimpse up the tradesman’s stubbies and then be compelled to put your eye out), but why on earth are new shoes not allowed on a table?

Chaucer wasn’t flash on Friday’s as far back as the 14thC and the feeling hung around. In 1656 a fairly unsuccessful English dramatist, Richard Flecknoe wrote “Now Friday came, you old wives say, Of all the week’s the unluckiest day.” The number 13 has a long superstitious history as well but it wasn’t until the late 19thC that the 2 were joined and Friday the 13th became unlucky.

There was a lengthy list of 17thC superstitions published in 1896 by Notes and Queries. I have been unable to find out from what sources their information came, but it makes interesting reading nonetheless.
Lo and behold my itchy palm was around in the 17thC!

That when the palme of the right hand itcheth, it is a shrewd sign he will receive money.

I am also familiar with the one that says you shouldn’t give knives as a gift lest the friendship be cut (but I know a superstitious remedy whereby the receiver must give a small coin so as to ‘buy’ the knives and save the relationship!)

That it is naught for any man to give a paire of knives to his sweet heart, for feare it cuts away all love that is between them.

And it would seem to be stating the bleeding obvious that…

it is a great signe of ill lucke, if Rats gnaw a mans cloathes.

More unusual is the assertion…

it is a very unfortunate thing for a man to meete early in a morning…a rough footed hen

You can read them all here.

Blaise Pascal, that 17thC overachiever you may remember from high school math class, was a great disbeliever in superstitions. Although the Pascal Wager was his great exception to his rule. In it he stated that you might as well pretend you believe in God and live as if you do because there was far more at stake to behave in the contrary.

“Either God is or he isn’t. Which side shall we take? Reason can get us nowhere. … Let’s weigh up the gains and losses in betting that God exists. Let’s evaluate these two cases: if you win, you win everything, and if you lose, you lose nothing: so bet that he exists without hesitation.”



  1. Excellent, thank you.
    Regards, Le Loup.

  2. My first attempt lost, so here it is again…

    Hmmm. Seventeenth century superstitions for which the earliest source we have is 1896. I am suspicious. If there are seventeenth century sources for this, well and good, but by the late nineteenth century the habit was well established of just making stuff up about earlier ages in order to denigrate the people who lived in them. Perhaps N&Q was above such practices, but I’m not sure I’d bet on it.

    What do they (and we) mean by superstitions? False beliefs? Beliefs known by the “believer” to be false? Beliefs believed by the observer to be false? Beliefs that are not based on reason?

    Finally, I can’t let that representation of Pascal’s wager pass. Pascal was not advising that people “pretend” anything. It was a witty way of saying that he thought the atheist superstition foolish – to literally bet one’s life on a proposition (There is no God. I am ultimately answerable only to myself.) which cannot be demonstrated by reason.

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