Divination for sub-Romans and schoolchildren I

I’ve recently been reading something interesting. It’s an article by a guy who was then working on a Carolingian astronomical manuscript, made at Metz under Bishop Drogo and gathering various sources of knowledge on the calendar and the stars together. The manuscript is mainly famous for its illuminations, and you can see why below, but there are also a lot of other smaller texts added, and one of these, in the tenth century in a Caroline minuscule script, was a text of the sort of thing usually known as the sortes sanctorum, ‘lots of the saints’, which are a sort of divination device. The article goes into this in some detail, describing how they work in their different versions and where you can find manuscript examples.1

Depictions and descriptions of constellations in Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS 3307

Depictions and descriptions of constellations in Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS 3307

The way these things work is that you, as someone medieval with a burning question that’s preying on your mind, or at least something that is preying on your mind which you can frame as a plan: `shall I give my estate to Cluny or not’, `should I let her marry him or not’, `is he the right choice for bishop’, whatever, enlist divine advice in one of three ways. Either you take a sacred book and let it fall open and stab blindly at a page with your finger, and interpret whatever line you’re resting on as the advice, like a Biblical oracle expressed through cut-up, or else you write `yes’- or `no’-type advice on bits of wood or parchment scraps or whatever, your advice perhaps coming from Scripture, and pick one of them at random off an altar; or, and this is where our text comes in, you consult a list of answers by choosing one at random from a list of their numbers, or colour codes or whatever, and the later ones of these get quite elaborate in the selection procedures, including drawing parameters from other astrological texts about favourable days and so on.

The author here argues that the source text for this manuscript’s addition, which is guiltily split across two much-separated pages, appears to be one that was condemned in Church council at Vannes in the fifth century, but that the practices involved are much older, at least Hellenic Egyptian, and that they appear to continue in Egypt until at least the seventh century so could easily serve as models for early Christians. The Church don’t much care for this sort of thing: they have to admit that God does sometimes send guidance, and that the Apostles decided things by lot, and they have Augustine using the open-book technique to decide his conversion as a further example, but it’s all got decidedly pagan roots, and the whole lists-of-questions thing isn’t even very religious, which may explain why people copy these texts into sacred books, to give them some extra legitimacy perhaps. But they get condemned at the Council of Vannes in 452, and then Isidore of Seville tries to list the various sorts of augurers in his Etymologiae using those canons, and thereafter that’s the text of resort for any such condemnation, including in Hincmar of Reims’s De divortio Leutharii et Theuthbergae, which is of course being translated On The Interwebs but not yet this bit.2 All well and good and not uninteresting, or I thought so anyway.


But what it made me think of is this, which is something we used to use in my primary school to tell fortunes and so on, in very clumsy style. (I’m sure the cool kids were already summoning demons or faking ID cards, this was as close as we got to the occult in my circle though. Don’t think we thought of it like that though!) After two tries I managed to come up with this replica, which means I can tell you how it works. You need a square of paper, which you fold both ways down the diagonals and in half across and along. Then fold in the corners so that they all meet in the middle of the square, and squash the folds flat. Pull it forwards at the diagonal folds and push it back along the vertical and the horizontal. Now if you grip it by the sideways projections you’ve just created and separate the sides you can make it gawp like a baby bird’s beak. With cunning shift of grip you can open it the other way. Like so, and so:


Here, I have to acknowledge the help of my esteemed colleague Benedict Jarrett, who tells me that I am not the first to show him such a device, as he has met them being used in teaching to unpack dilemmas. To which I can only say: whoa. And also, I guess I’m not endangering his soul then, which is always good to know. Anyway.

So now lay it flat and write selection mechanisms in. In each half-quadrant goes, in this case, either a number or a colour. And, in its classic form, you then find a victim, tell them that you’ll read their mind or similar, ask them to choose any colour, open it alternate ways once each for each letter of that colour’s name, ask for a number and open and reopen it as per that number, and then ask for one of the four options you have open, and unfold the relevant flap and read it off. Of course, you have to have something written there, ideally underneath the fold so that it can’t be seen but folds into the same place as whatever they chose. For this one I was using one-side-printed paper so my answers are on the outside, which has the advantage that I can unfold it so you can see how it lays out.


So, in action it goes like this. For options I chose sources of charters I have read, and my question, which seemed safe to so submit to judgement, is, from which of these shall I produce a story to blog about? So I take up my device, close it in one dimension at random, choose, I don’t know, yellow. Y, E, L, L, O, W, three one way and three the other and we’re back where we were, then, hang on, let me complicate things by rolling two dice (D6, since you ask): 3. One, two, three, I now have a choice of 4, 6, 7 or 2. Roll again: 11, no good, 5, no good, 8, 6, OK, and that is Girona/CCV, which I’ll decode when I write the post.3 Very far from truly random but you see how it works. Not exactly high sorcery, and usually used to `prove’ someone `loved’ someone else who was embarrassing, as I recall. It’s not got a great deal to do with the sortes sanctorum either in form or in method, though it’s a device to the same purpose, you might say, perhaps that’s fair enough.

Thing is, we called these things `sorters‘, and I never knew why… Got it, at last, now.

I can imagine that there are questions you might want to ask about the text, which Montero edits as an appendix, so following his lead I’ll write an appendix about that as a separate post. Check back in a day or two…

1. Enrique Montero Cartelle, “Las sortes sanctorum. La adivinación del porvenir en la edad media” in Maurilio Pérez González (ed.), Actas, II Congreso Hispánico de latí medieval (Leon, 11-14 de Noviembre de 1997) vol. I (Leon 1998), pp. 111-132, the manuscript being Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS 3307, which went from Metz to Prüm, from Prüm to Liège and then somehow from there to Spain by the eighteenth century.

2. Montero gives the cite, “Hincmaro de Reims, De divortio Lotharii et Tetbergae, 15-16; PL 125, 718-719″. That doesn’t seem to match any of the bits so far done by the Collaborative Hincmar Project, though the chapter scheme isn’t the same in their source edition as the Pat. Lat. I think. Still. Are you guys taking requests? :-)

3. Hmm, inauspicious. I haven’t actually spent much time with the Girona material, so have a choice of three stories: “A Boy in the Money”, “The Case of the Disappearing Abbot”, or “Where there’s a Will there’s a Rebellion”. Come on, roll up: whether the Hincmar crew are or not, I am taking requests…

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12 responses to “Divination for sub-Romans and schoolchildren I

  1. Pingback: Daily News About Egypt : A few links about Egypt - Thursday, 30 April 2009 08:47

  2. Huh….the really odd thing is that the paper “sorters” you mention were made by the thousands by girls in my elementary school. Seriously. The various tabs and the sequence in which numbers, colors etc were chosen would lead one to discover what boy liked them, finding love, getting an A on the test, or perhaps what they’d get for Christmas….interesting to know that their practice which they used to torment us with is but an anemic descendant of a medieval and ancient world practice. Thanks Jonathan!

  3. We did that sort of thing in my part of the United States to, in the 1950s and 60s. What I want to know is how long it will be before the sortes sanctorum is a Facebook game.

  4. Professor Muhlberger, that’s an excellent idea! I wonder who I know who might program it… And Larry, yes, my experience too! I think the playground is the last redoubt of hedgerow magic. And lots of other things too, come to that: ring-a-ring-of-roses, eeny meeny miney mo, you know, this stuff goes back generations and generations. It never ceases to amaze me to find what we did in the playground still being done by my son’s generation, and then finding that my parents’ generation did it too and so on.

    Also, I need your votes for the Girona story people! Roll up etc.

  5. T'anta Wawa

    It reminds me of throwing the I Ching.

  6. The distributing of wooden sticks on the altar reminded me of that too, but the mechanism’s different, you draw one only rather than trying to read it all as a pattern. One could make some superficial point about a difference in universal approaches there if one had had enough coffee to be careless…

    • T'anta Wawa

      Oo, get you and your cross-cultural comparisons. Anyone’d think you’d been keeping company with people who try to consider universal themes of human life and diversity in ethnographic perspective.

      P.S. cute research assistant.

      • Ssh, you mustn’t call him that, think of the tax implications! As for the cross-cultural comparison, I got that one from a research doctor friend of mine who got a year’s funding to inject people with ketamine, so, yes, but not how you mean…

  7. highlyeccentric

    I vote for “the case of the disappearing abbot”! Although it sounds like a test for Brother Cadfael… I’m not sure, are you a suitable substitute for Brother Cadfael?

    As for the paper sorters – we had a different name for them, which I can no longer recall. Sadly, I can’t make them or remember how to use them, probably because they were the province of cool children and those who didn’t spend their lunch hours between the ages of seven and eleven reading novels.

    • One vote is enough, disappearing abbot it shall be. Thankyou! I think your lunch hours may well have been better spent than mine, which mainly went on Top Trumps. Still: evaluation and comparison of data, formulaic layouts where variation was all-important, perhaps relevant to later paths…

    • Oh, and, no, I suspect Brother Cadfæl would have the answer to the abbot mystery, whereas I’m pretty sure I don’t. Still, one never knows what one knows till one tries to write about it.

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