Chap. V.

Of the right and left Hand.

IT is also suspicious, and not with that certainty to be received, what is generally believed concerning the right and left hand; that Men naturally make use of the right, and that the use of the other is a digression or aberration from that way which nature generally intendeth. We do not deny that almost all Nations have used this hand, and ascribed a preheminence thereto: hereof a remarkable passage there is in the 48. of Genesis, And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand towards Israels left hand, and Manasses in his left hand towards Israels right hand, and Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it upon Ephraims head, who was the younger, and his left hand upon Manasses head, guiding his hands wittingly, for Manasses was the first-born; and when Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand upon the head of Ephraim, it displeased him, and he held up his fathers hand to remove it from Ephraims head unto Manasses head, and Joseph said, Not so my father, for this is the first-born, put thy right hand upon his head: The like appeareth from the ordinance of Moses in the consecration of their Priests, Then shalt thou kill the Ram, and take of his blood, and put it upon the tip of the right ear of Aaron, and upon the tip of the right ear of his sons, and upon the thumb of the right hand, and upon the great toe of the right foot, and sprinkle the blod on the Altar round about. That the Persians were wont herewith to plight their faith, is testified by Diodorus: That the Greeks and Romans made use hereof, beside the testimony of divers Authors, is evident from their custom of discumbency at their meals, which was upon their left side, for so their right hand was free, and ready for all service. As also from the conjunction of the right hands and not the left observable in the Roman medals of concord. Nor was this only in use with divers Nations of Men, but was the custom of whole Nations of Women; as is deduceable from the Amazons in the amputation of their right breast, whereby they had the freer use of their bow. All which do seem to declare a natural preferment of the one unto motion before the other;[1] wherein notwithstanding in submission to future information, we are unsatisfied unto great dubitation.

For first, if there were a determinate prepotency in the right, and such as ariseth from a constant root in nature, we might expect the same in other animals, whose parts are also differenced by dextrality; wherein notwithstanding we cannot discover a distinct and complying account; for we find not that Horses, Buls, or Mules, are generally stronger on this side. As for Animals whose forelegs more sensibly supply the use of arms, they hold, if not an equality in both, a prevalency oft-times in the other, as Squirrels, Apes, and Monkies;[2] the same is also discernable in Parrets, who feed themselves more commonly by the left-leg, and Men observe that the Eye of a Tumbler is biggest, not constantly in one, but in the bearing side.[3]

That there is also in men a natural prepotency in the right, we cannot with constancy affirm, if we make observation in children; who permitted the free-dom of both, do oft-times confine unto the left, and are not without great difficulty restrained from it.[4] And therefore this prevalency is either uncertainly placed in the laterality, or custom determines its differency. Which is the resolution of Aristotle in that Problem, which enquires why the right side being better then the left, is equal in the senses? because, saith he, the right and left do differ by use and custom, which have no place in the senses. For right and left as parts inservient unto the motive faculty, are differenced by degrees from use and assuefaction, according whereto the one grows stronger, and oft-times bigger then the other. But in the senses it is otherwise; for they acquire not their perfection by use or custom, but at the first we equally hear and see with one Eye, as well as with another. And therefore, were this indifferency permitted, or did not institution,[5] but Nature determine dextrality, there would be many more Scevolaes then are delivered in story;[6] nor needed we to draw examples of the left, from the sons of the right hand;7 as we read of seven thousand in the Army of the Benjamites. True it is, that although there be an indifferency in either, or a prevalency indifferent in one, yet is it most reasonable for uniformity, and sundry respective uses, that Men should apply themselves to the constant use of one; for there will otherwise arise anomalous disturbances in manual actions, not only in civil and artificial, but also in Military affairs, and the severall actions of war.

Secondly, the grounds and reasons alleadged for the right, are not satisfactory, and afford no rest in their decision. Scaliger finding a defect in the reason of Aristotle, introduceth one of no less deficiency himself; Ratio materialis (saith he) sanguinis crassitudo simul & multitudo; that is, the reason of the vigour of this side, is the crassitude and plenty of blood; but this is not sufficient; for the crassitude or thickness of blood affordeth no reason why one arm should be enabled before the other, and the plenty thereof, why both not enabled equally. Fallopius is of another conceit, deducing the reason from the Azygos or vena sine pari, a large and considerable vein arising out of the cava or hollow vein, before it enters the right ventricle of the Heart, and placed only in the right side. But neither is this perswasory; for the Azygos communicates no branches unto the arms or legs on either side, but disperseth into the Ribs on both, and in its descent doth furnish the left Emulgent with one vein, and the first vein of the loins on the right side with another; which manner of derivation doth not confer a peculiar addition unto either. Cælius Rodiginus undertaking to give a reason of Ambidexters and Left handed Men, delivereth a third opinion: Men, saith he, are Ambidexters, and use both Hands alike, when the heat of the Heart doth plentifully disperse into the left side, and that of the Liver into the right, and the spleen be also much dilated; but Men are Left-handed when ever it happeneth that the Heart and Liver are seated on the left-side; or when the Liver is on the right side, yet so obducted and covered with thick skins, that it cannot diffuse its vertue into the right. Which reasons are no way satisfactory; for herein the spleen is injustly introduced to invigorate the sinister side, which being dilated it would rather infirm and debilitate. As for any tunicles or skins which should hinder the Liver from enabling the dextral parts; we must not conceive it diffuseth its vertue by meer irradiation, but by its veins and proper vessels, which common skins and teguments cannot impede. And for the seat of the Heart and Liver in one side, whereby Men become Left-handed, it happeneth too rarely to countenance an effect so common; for the seat of the Liver on the left side is monstrous, and rarely to be met with in the observations of Physitians. Others not considering ambidextrous and Left-handed Men, do totally submit unto the efficacy of the Liver, which though seated on the right side, yet by the subclavian division doth equidistantly communicate its activity unto either Arm; nor will it salve the doubts of observation: for many are Right-handed whose Livers are weakely constituted, and many use the left, in whom that part is strongest; and we observe in Apes, and other animals, whose Liver is in the right, no regular prevalence therein.

And therefore the Braine, especially the spinal marrow, which is but the brain prolonged, hath a fairer plea hereto; for these are the principles of motion, wherein dextrality consists; and are divided within and without the Crany. By which division transmitting Nerves respectively unto either side; according to the indifferency, or original and native prepotency, there ariseth an equality in both, or prevalency in either side. And so may it be made out, what many may wonder at, why some most actively use the contrary Arm and Leg; for the vigour of the one dependeth upon the upper part of the spine, but the other upon the lower.

And therefore many things are Philosophically delivered concerning right and left, which admit of some suspension. That a Woman upon a masculine conception advanceth her right Leg, will not be found to answer strick observation. That males are conceived in the right side of the womb, females in the left, though generally delivered, and supported by ancient testimony, will make no infallible account; it happening oft times that males and females do lie upon both sides, and Hermaphrodites for ought we know on either. It is also suspitious what is delivered concerning the right and left testicle, that males are begotten from the one, and females from the other. For though the left seminal vein proceedeth from the emulgent, and is therefore conceived to carry down a serous and feminine matter; yet the seminal Arteries which send forth the active materials, are both derived from the great Artery. Besides this original of the left vein was thus contrived, to avoid the pulsation of the great Artery, over which it must have passed to attain unto the testicle. Nor can we easily infer such different effects from the divers situation of parts which have one end and office; for in the kidneys which have one office, the right is seated lower then the left, whereby it lieth free, and giveth way unto the Liver. And therefore also that way which is delivered for masculine generation, to make a strait ligature about the left testicle, thereby to intercept the evacuation of that part, deserveth consideration. For one sufficeth unto generation, as hath beene observed in semicastration, and oft times in carnous ruptures. Beside, the seminal ejaculation proceeds not immediately from the testicle, but from the spermatick glandules; and therefore Aristotle affirms (and reason cannot deny) that although there be nothing diffused from the testicles, an Horse or Bull may generate after castration; that is, from the stock and remainder of seminal matter, already prepared and stored up in the Prostates or glandules of generation.

Thirdly, Although we should concede a right and left in Nature, yet in this common and received account we may err from the proper acception; mistaking one side for another, calling that in Man and other animals the right which is the left, and that the left which is the right, and that in some things right and left, which is not properly either.[8]

For first the right and left, are not defined by Phylosophers according to common acception, that is, respectively from one Man unto another, or any constant site in each; as though that should be the right in one, which upon confront or facing, stands athwart or diagonially unto the other; but were distinguished according to the activity and predominant locomotion upon either side. Thus Aristotle in his excellent Tract de incessu animalium, ascribeth six positions unto Animals, answering the three dimensions; which he determineth not by site or position unto the Heavens, but by their faculties and functions; and these are Imum summum, Ante Retro, Dextra & Sinistra: that is, the superiour part, where the aliment is received, that the lower extream where it is last expelled; so he termeth a Man a plant inverted; for he supposeth the root of a Tree the head or upper part thereof, whereby it receiveth its aliment, although therewith it respects the Center of the Earth, but with the other the Zenith; and this position is answerable unto longitude. Those parts are anteriour and measure profundity, where the senses, especially the Eyes are placed, and those posterior which are opposite hereunto. The dextrous and sinistrous parts of the body, make up the latitude; and are not certain and inalterable like the other; for that, saith he, is the right side, from whence the motion of the body beginneth, that is, the active or moving side; but that the sinister which is the weaker or more quiescent part. Of the same determination were the Platonicks and Pythagorians before him; who conceiving the heavens an animated body, named the East, the right or dextrous part, from whence began their motion: and thus the Greeks, from whence the Latins have borrowed their appellation, have named this hand δέξια, denominating it not from the site, but office, from δέχομαι, capio, that is, the hand which receiveth, or is usually implied in that action.

Now upon these grounds we are most commonly mistaken, defining that by situation which they determined by motion; and giving the term of right hand to that which doth not properly admit it. For first, Many in their infancy are sinistriously disposed, and divers continue all their life Ἀριστεροὶ, that is, left handed, and have but weak and imperfect use of the right; now unto these, that hand is properly the right, and not the other esteemed so by situation. Thus may Aristotle be made out, when he affirmeth the right claw of Crabs and Lobsters is biggest, if we take the right for the most vigorous side, and not regard the relative situation: for the one is generally bigger then the other, yet not alwayes upon the same side. So may it be verified what is delivered by Scaliger in his Comment, that Palsies do oftnest happen upon the left side, if understood in this sense; the most vigorous part protecting it self, and protruding the matter upon the weaker and less resistive side. And thus the Law of Common-Weales, that cut off the right hand of Malefactors, if Philosophically executed, is impartial; otherwise the amputation not equally punisheth all.

Some are Ἀμφιδέξιοι, that is, ambidexterous or right handed on both sides; which happeneth only unto strong and Athletical9 bodies, whose heat and spirits are able to afford an ability unto both. And therefore Hippocrates saith, that Women are not ambidexterous, that is, not so often as Men; for some are found, which indifferently make use of both. And so may Aristotle say, that only Men are ambidexterous; of this constitution was Asteropæus in Homer, and Parthenopeus the Theban Captain in Statius: and of the same, do some conceive our Father Adam to have been, as being perfectly framed, and in a constitution admitting least defect. Now in these Men the right hand is on both sides, and that is not the left which is opposite unto the right, according to common acception.

Againe, some are Ἀμφαριστεροὶ, as Galen hath expressed it; that is, ambilevous or left-handed on both sides; such as with agility and vigour have not the use of either: who are not gymnastically10 composed: nor actively use those parts. Now in these there is no right hand: of this constitution are many Women, and some Men, who though they accustom themselves unto either hand, do dexterously make use of neither. And therefore although the Political advice of Aristotle be very good, that Men should accustom themselves to the command of either hand: yet cannot the execution or performance thereof be general: for though there be many found that can use both, yet will there divers remain that can strenuously make use of neither.

Lastly, These lateralities in Man are not only fallible, if relatively determined unto each other, but made in reference unto the heavens and quarters of the Globe: for those parts are not capable of these conditions in themselves, nor with any certainty respectively derived from us, nor from them to us again. And first in regard of their proper nature, the heavens admit not these sinister and dexter respects; there being in them no diversity or difference, but a simplicity of parts, and equiformity in motion continually succeeding each other; so that from what point soever we compute, the account will be common unto the whole circularity. And therefore though it be plausible, it is not of consequence hereto what is delivered by Solinus, That Man was therefore a Microcosme or little World, because the dimensions of his positions were answerable unto the greater. For as in the Heavens the distance of the North and Southern pole, which are esteemed the superiour and inferiour points, is equal unto the space between the East and West, accounted the dextrous and sinistrous parts thereof; so is it also in Man, for the extent of his fathome or distance betwixt the extremity of the fingers of either hand upon expansion, is equal unto the space between the sole of the foot and the crown. But this doth but petitionarily infer a dextrality in the Heavens, and we may as reasonably conclude a right and left laterallity in the Ark or naval edifice of Noah. For the length thereof was three hundred cubits,[11] the bredth fifty, and the heighth or profundity thirty; which well agreeth unto the proportion of Man, whose length, that is a perpendicular from the vertex unto the sole of the foot is sextuple unto his breadth, or a right line drawn from the ribs of one side to another; and decuple unto his profundity; that is a direct line between the breast bone and the spine.

Againe, They receive not these conditions with any assurance or stability from our selves. For the relative foundations and points of denomination, are not fixed and certain, but variously designed according to imagination. The Philosopher accounts that East from whence the Heavens begin their motion. The Astronomer regarding the South and Meridian Sun, calls that the dextrous part of Heaven which respecteth his right hand; and that is the West. Poets respecting the West, assign the name of right unto the North which regardeth their right hand; and so must that of Ovid be explained, utque duæ dextrâ Zonæ totidemque sinistrâ. But Augurs or Southsayers turning their face to the East, did make the right in the South; which was also observed by the Hebrews12 and Chaldæans. Now if we name the quarters of Heaven respectively unto our sides, it will be no certain or invariable denomination. For if we call that the right side of Heaven which is seated Easterly unto us, when we regard the Meridian Sun; the inhabitants beyond the Æquator and Southern Tropick when they face us, regarding the Meridian, will contrarily define it; for unto them, the opposite part of Heaven will respect the left, and the Sun arise to their right.

And thus have we at large declared that although the right be most commonly used, yet hath it no regular or certaine root in nature. Since it is not confirmable from other Animals: Since in Children it seems either indifferent or more favourable in the other; but more reasonable for uniformity in action, that Men accustom unto one: Since the grounds and reasons urged for it, do not sufficiently support it: Since if there be a right and stronger side in nature, yet may we mistake in its denomination; calling that the right which is the left, and the left which is the right. Since some have one right, some both, some neither. And lastly, Since these affections in Man are not only fallible in relation unto one another, but made also in reference unto the Heavens, they being not capable of these conditions in themselves, nor with any certainty from us, nor we from them again.

And therefore what admission we ow unto many conceptions concerning right and left, requireth circumspection. That is, how far we ought to rely upon the remedy in Kiranides, that is, the left eye of an Hedg-hog fried in oyle to procure sleep, and the right foot of a Frog in a Dears skin for the Gout; or that to dream of the loss of right or left tooth, presageth the death of male or female kindred, according to the doctrine of Artemidorus. What verity there is in that numeral conceit in the lateral division of Man by even and odd, ascribing the odd unto the right side, and even unto the left; and so by parity or imparity of letters in Mens names to determine misfortunes on either side of their bodies; by which account in Greek numeration, Hephæstus or Vulcan was lame in the right foot, and Anibal lost his right eye. And lastly, what substance there is in that Auspicial principle, and fundamental doctrine of Ariolation, that the left hand is ominous,[13] and that good things do pass sinistrously upon us, because the left hand of man respected the right hand of the Gods, which handed their favours unto us.


* [My or others' notes are in square brackets]; Browne's marginalia is unmarked; {passages or notes from unpublished material by Browne is in curly braces}. Ross answers this chapter in Arcana Microcosmi II.10.iii (misnumbered "II"), one of the less illogical of his arguments (although his grounds and his conclusions are spurious).

1 [Wren (a vehement and prejudiced prodextralist): Granting this Natural preeminencye, confirmed by Scripture soe evidently; all the rest is but velitation. For that which God and Nature call right, must in Reason be so cald; and w'soever varyes from thence is an Aberration from them Bothe.]

2 [And domestic cats, Browne might have added.]

3 [Tumbler: A kind of greyhound-like dog used in hunting rabbits. It apparently turned and twisted about, which actions either (1) convinced the rabbits that the dog was crazy and harmless, (2) actually attracted rabbits, or (3) kept the rabbits from returning to their warren because the rabbits could not decide which route was safe (depending on which source you read and believe).]

4 [Wren: This vitiosity proceeds from the manner of Gestation; servants and nurses usually carry them on their left arme, so that the children cannot use it right, and being accustomed to the left, becomes left handed: but among the Irish who carry their children astride their neckes, you shall rarely see one left-handed, of either Sex.]

5 [institution: 1672 (and following it, 1686) has constitution, clearly the opposite of what is intended. 1646 etc., institution.]

6[In order to impress upon the besieging Etruscans the Roman ability to endure great hardship, C. Mucius plunged his right hand into a fire and held it there steadily until it had burnt off; he was thenceforth given the name "Scaevola", from scaevus, left (Livy IIxii.]

7 Benjamin filius dextræ.

8 [Wren, by this time seeing scarlet: Wee take that to be right and lefte which God and nature call soe: and all other reasons are frivolous. Vide Luke i, 11; Gal. ii, 9. Let itt be noted that God calls the left hand the side hand, i. e. beside the right hand, to which he gives in that very place, the name of δεξια ut Ps. xc, v, 7, εκ δεξιων σου. κλιτος autem, ut norunt eruditi, proprie significat declinationem a recto, et hic, a rectâ.

9 Apt for contention.

10 Strongly or fit for corporal exercise

11 [Three hundred cubits: all editions of Pseudodoxia have "thirty cubits" here by mistake for three hundred (Gen. 6:11).]

12 Declarable from the originall expression, Psal. 89.13. [12-13: The north and the south thou hast created them: Tabor and Hermon shall rejoice in thy name. Thou hast a mighty arm: strong is thy hand, and high is thy right hand.]

13 [That is, having the power of omen, auspicious]

This page is dedicated to the memory of Boo the Cat.

Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional