The historical evolution of graphology

The realisation that there is a close link between writing and personality stretches back into antiquity, and in the following journey through history, I have done my best to adhere, more or less, to a chronological presentation of the most important stages in the evolution of handwriting analysis. However, I have found it impossible to verify the authenticity of some of the earliest allusions to handwriting analysis, which is hardly surprising when one considers that frequently it is difficult to verify the authenticity even of current news events.

In spite of this, I have included these ancient references because, even the possibility that humans may have noted the connection between character and script so many centuries ago is, for me, a fascinating and inspiring thought.

  • 5000 years ago: written in Sanskrit in an ancient Hindu manuscript is a description of various techniques for interpreting character from a person´s script. However, my research could find no record of any individuals who have actually read this manuscript.
  • 1060–1110 AD: Kuo Jo Hsu, a philosopher and painter of Sung period (China), is said to have written: “Handwriting infallibly shows us whether it comes from a vulgar or a noble-minded person.” (Kuo Hsu´s conclusion is indeed very accurate. It is the "Form Level" of a person´s handwriting which can allow the graphologist to derive such an assessment, but an assessment of Form Level is extremely complex, as it requires an examination of a large number of graphological features, and is not a task for beginner graphologists).
  • 1000 BC: it has been claimed that Japanese scholars wrote that character conformed to the way a man traces his bars according to the thickness, length, rigidity or suppleness.
  • 500 BC: Confucius apparently wrote: “Beware of a man whose writing sways like a reed in the wind.” (perhaps Confucious said this, because this writing characteristic can indicate unpredictable, volatile emotions).
  • 300 BC: it is said that Aristotle must have been aware of the correlation between writing and personality since he apparently wrote the following: “Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words. Just as all men have not the same speech sounds, so all men have not the same writing.”
  • 120 AD: Suetonius Tranquillus (Historian of the Roman Empire) is recorded to have observed, when describing the writing of Emperor Augustus: “I have above all remarked the following in his writing. He does not separate his words, nor does he carry over to the next line any excess letters; instead he places them under the final word and ties them to it with a stroke.” (which can indicate - (depending upon other features in the writing) - extreme stinginess, as well as a poorly organized, intrusive nature that does not respect other people´s space).
  • In ancient Rome: historical records claim that Nero found himself wary of a certain man at court, and stated: “His writing shows him to be treacherous.”
  • There are records from the Middle Ages suggesting that handwriting analysis was practised to some extent in European monasteries, and during the Renaissance it caught the attention of Michelangelo, and also Shakespeare, who apparently claimed: “Give me the handwriting of a woman and I will tell you her character.”
  • The explorer Sir Walter Raleigh is also credited with making statements expressing his belief in the highly revealing nature of a person’s script.
  • However, it was not until 1622, shortly after the invention in the West of the printing press, that the first known book on the subject was published. This was a short work written by an academic who went by the name of Camille Baldo, an Italian doctor of medicine and philosophy who was professor at the University of Bologna. Unfortunately, perhaps owing to the highly complex style of presentation, the text attracted little interest or attention, but it must have impressed the University, because to this day, the University of Bologna still teaches graphology.
  • Then in 1792, J Charles Grohmann, a German Professor of theology and philosophy, published a treatise, ‘Examination of the possibility of inferring character from Handwriting’.
  • Thomas Gainsborough, when he painted someone’s portrait, liked to keep a sample of their handwriting on the easel in front of him, in order to help him tap into the real essence of his sitter’s personality.h
  • Sir Walter Scott wrote about handwriting and a man’s character in ‘Chronicles of Canogate’ and believed the omission of i-dots to be a sign of genius. (In reality, Scott´s conclusion is highly misleading: the omission of i-dots usually indicates an intense dislike of minor details and absentmindedness. Although these may be common characteristics in certain types of highly creative genius who are only concerned with the "big picture" and who are frequently absentminded due to becoming utterly absorbed by their moods of creative inspiration, this does not mean that someone who is absentminded and unconcerned with details is a genius!)
  • Goethe and his friend Johann Kasper Lavater, the Swiss poet, physiognomist and theologian, began an extensive correspondence on the subject of handwriting analysis which was later published. In one letter Goethe wrote: “There does not exist the shadow of a doubt that handwriting has its analogies with the character and with the human mind...” and Lavater observed: “I find an admirable analogy between the speech, the walk and the writing of the majority of people.” (Interestingly, we can see here, how Lavater has, perhaps unconsciously, realized that handwriting is in fact just another form of "body language").
  • In 1830, a couple of hundred years after the publication of Camille’s book, two French priests, Abbé Flandrin, who taught philosophy, and Abbé Jean-Hippolyte Michon, a priest and archaeologist, established a school devoted to the interpretation of writing, and it was at this juncture in time that that the evolution of graphology really began to speed up.
  • Michon compiled his own text on handwriting analysis 12 years later, having spent more than 30 years examining thousands of examples of handwriting and signatures in order to carefully categorise the numerous features of writing into ‘signs’, each of which corresponded to a specific character trait.
  • In 1872, a year after founding the Société Francais de Graphologie (SFDG) in Paris, Michon published ‘Les Mystères de l’Ecriture’ and, a few years later, ‘La Méthode Practique de Graphologie’, and in the same decade launched a quarterly journal of handwriting analysis, ‘La Graphologie’, which still exists as the quarterly journal of the SFDG. The popularity of his books established him as the true ‘Father of graphology’, an appropriate title, especially since it was Michon who coined the word ‘graphology’, derived from a synthesis of two Greek words: ‘graphein’, meaning both ‘writing’ and ‘drawing’, and ‘logos’, which can be freely interpreted as ‘the science of’.
  • Edgar Allan Poe, an author in the USA best known for his psychologically gripping tales of mystery and suspense, wrote Chapter on Autography, which was published in a magazine in 1836, and again some 70 years after his death in 1926, and which is now regarded by graphologists as an early classic in the field of handwriting analysis. In spite of his lack of formal training in the discipline, Poe regarded himself a practising graphologist, though sometimes he used the subject as a means of expressing his longstanding biases toward celebrated members from his literary circle – both those he considered friends as well as certain others whom he felt had betrayed him. An example of Poe’s inappropriate use of graphology is evidenced in his critical and inaccurate analysis of the leader of the American Transcendentalism movement, essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had publicly denigrated Poe’s literary achievements.
  • In 1895, Wilhelm Preyer, a German professor of physiology, made a highly significant contribution to handwriting analysis when he discovered the similarity of writing carried out by the left hand, right hand, toes and even the teeth. This research, conducted on disabled victims of war, inspired him to call all forms of writing ‘brain writing’ because this term indicates the true origin of the process of writing.
  • In France from 1894–1899, graphology became a controversial subject when it drew public attention to the potential usefulness of handwriting analysis in legal matters. Alphonse Bertillon appeared as witness for the prosecution in the Dreyfus affair. He testified as a handwriting expert, claiming that Alfred Dreyfus had written the incriminating document. However, Bertillon was not a handwriting or forgery expert, and his convoluted and flawed evidence was a significant contributing factor to one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice: the condemnation of the innocent Dreyfus to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island.
  • In England, around this time, another eminent figure, Sir William Herschel, the pioneer of fingerprint testing, began to take an interest in graphology. He stated his belief that graphology was as important in personality assessment as he predicted fingerprint identification would be to criminology.
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle played an important role in attracting public attention toward the subject, for he was fascinated by, and a firm believer in, handwriting analysis. Indeed, handwritten documents, which figure in nine of his stories, are analysed successfully by his character Sherlock Holmes, who is gifted with an uncanny and often exaggerated ability to analyse handwriting; Holmes was supposed to be able to deduce from a person’s script, not only the character, but also the gender, and in addition, he could compare two samples of writing to determine whether the persons are related – the latter two skills are not possible for a graphologist. I am convinced that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could not possibly have believed such a far-fetched idea as this, especially if he had a genuine knowledge of graphology. So perhaps this was just another way of imbuing his character with super-human qualities, or maybe he was simply emphasizing the arrogance and conceit of the Sherlock Holmes character ,

The French master of story-telling, Guy de Maupassant, revealed his great respect for this field with his words, “Dark words on white paper bare the soul." (I disagree with this, since I am convinced that handwriting only reveals the human personality, which consists of a person´s genetic tendencies shaped by their life experiences. Whereas the soul, assumng it exists, is our transcendental being, the True Self that lies outside the realm of our conditioned nature.

  • Disraeli stated that: “Handwriting bears an analogy to the character of the writer...”
  • Other renowned figures said to have held handwriting analysis in great esteem include Baudelaire, Balzac, Anton Chekhov, Robert Browning and his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Thomas Mann, and Emile Zola.

However, far more influential to the field of handwriting analysis than all the aforementioned literary celebrities, was Crépieux-Jamin, a dentist in Rouen, who significantly advanced the study of graphology. Formerly, he had been a student of Michon, but he became highly critical of his simplistic ‘single trait’ approach to analysis, which was based exclusively on a graphology alphabet, where the analysis of personality was derived from the classification and interpretation of individual letter-shapes. Crépieux-Jamin noted that the significance of a particular sign is not fixed, since its importance and interpretation are influenced and determined by other aspects in the writing. Consequently, he chose to adopt and develop a ‘holistic approach’ to graphology that emphasised an assessment and interpretation of aspects of writing style that influence the entire writing process, such as rhythm, organisation, fluency, originality, size and slope of writing. Thus he established new rules regarding the classification and interpretation of signs, which he published in ten books, including his famous work ‘L’Écriture et le Caractère’, and culminating – after 50 years of painstaking, systematic investigation – in his 1929 masterpiece, ‘ABC de la graphologie’, which consolidated his entire research by assigning his 175 signs and features of writing to seven distinct categories: Dimension, Form, Pressure, Speed, Direction, Layout and Continuity.

In the light of the relative complexity and subtlety of this new and much more in-depth, thorough approach to analysis, there gradually arose among graphologists an attitude of contempt and disrespect towards the old ‘alphabet’ system. Instead of acknowledging its many positive qualities, and intelligently synthesising them with the new techniques, for a long while the early approach was simply cast aside by a large number of handwriting analysts.

However, in spite of the enormous advances and improvements of this modern approach to graphology, the graphology alphabet deserves a respected (though admittedly) secondary position within the system of handwriting analysis for a number of reasons.

To begin with, to understand and make use of the concepts and methods of the modern holistic approach, a considerable amount of time and effort is required. The graphology alphabet, however, unlike the holistic method, can be applied to a piece of writing and instantly be utilised to derive some significant information about personality.

There is another great advantage with the graphology alphabet: it is a commonly known fact among students of graphology that one needs a decent-sized sample of someone’s writing in order to achieve a thorough and complete understanding of the personality. Unfortunately it is not always possible to fulfil this ideal requirement, and there may be circumstances in which one is obliged to attempt an analysis of personality based upon a mere handful of words. Nothing even close to a comprehensive portrait could ever be derived from such a small sample, but if one chose to utilise the graphology alphabet, one could, nevertheless, potentially discover a few highly revealing characteristics that might influence an important decision, such as whether to develop a relationship with a partner who could turn out to be physically violent.

  • Alfred Binet, regarded by many in the 20th century as the ‘father’ of intelligence testing, was another key figure in the development of graphology. As a lawyer in Paris between 1878 and 1884, he had always been interested in forensic examinations, particularly when they involved handwriting analysis. In the early 1900s he decided to test the scientific validity of graphology with the help of experts in the field and, interested particularly in the scientific study of intelligence, he collaborated from 1902 onwards with Crépieux-Jamin in several experiments aimed at discovering objective and exterior signs of intelligence and other traits in handwriting. His scientifically controlled tests, which searched for a correlation between specific character traits and specific handwriting characteristics, achieved affirmative results with respect to the graphic indices of honesty and intelligence. Subsequently, in 1906 he published a book relating what he had deduced from his controlled studies of handwriting analysis.
  • Dr Ludwig Klages, the ‘high priest’ of the German school of graphology, played a key role in establishing graphology as a valid branch of scientific research when he laid the theoretical foundations of modern graphology in his famous text on handwriting analysis entitled Handschrift und Charakter (Writing and Personality). He is credited with applying Gestalt theory to handwriting analysis, and is considered by many to be the ‘father of modern graphology’. Indeed, in 1929, the 13th printing of Handschrift und Charakter became a standard text in the psychology departments of German universities, even in preference to the works of Sigmund Freud.
  • Sigmund Freud saw the potential of graphology, as is evident from his comment, “There is no doubt that men express their character through their handwriting.”
  • Dr Alfred Adler, the Viennese psychologist, had great respect for the subject, and referred to it frequently. On one occasion he asserted: “Handwriting is frozen motion ... Handwriting points the way from me to you.” The first part of this statement is now widely used by modern graphologists.
  • Pierre Janet (1859–1947) referred to handwriting analysis as a “science of the future” and described handwriting itself as “an act which leaves a printout. It is the film record of the writer’s sensibilities.”
  • Albert Einstein indicated his regard for the subject when he wrote: “Graphology has always interested me, although I have as yet not made a systematic study of it.”
  • Jung also acknowledged the relevance of handwriting analysis, and Anne Teillard, an eminent graphologist who had been a student and follower of Jung’s work for more than 30 years, expanded, with his help, the use of Jungian depth psychology in handwriting.
  • Max Pulver, a Swiss professor and psychologist at the University of Zurich, applied the psychoanalytic approach of Freud and the psychological methods of Adler and Jung to handwriting analysis. In 1950 he founded the Schweizerische Graphologische Gesellschaft (Swiss Graphological Society) and remained its president until his death. In his book ‘Symbolism of Handwriting’ (1940), he discusses the interpretation of handwriting and its relationship to various unconscious mythological or ancient symbols, and he developed a theory of the symbolism of space which emphasised the importance of interpreting upper, lower and middle zones of writing.
  • Professor Rudolf Pophal (1893–1966) was a physician specialising in neurology and psychiatry. Originally a student of Klages, he later developed his own approach. Pophal spent 30 years investigating how the brain’s various motor centres influence movement. These motor centres are located in the brain from the brain stem up to the cortex. Pophal determined that while handwriting’s content is consciously produced, its movement is emotionally delivered from the deepest strata of the brain. He identified four brain ‘bio-types’ based on the specific type of movement characteristics, which indicate which area of the brain had a predominant influence in producing the writing and from this information he was able to deduce various aspects of a person’s personality and behaviour.
  • The German experimental psychologist Werner Wolff completed his doctorate at the University of Berlin in 1930 and was a Lecturer of Psychology at the University of Barcelona and Madrid from 1933–1936, and at the Sorbonne, before coming to the United States in 1939. Wolff taught at Bard College in New York from 1942 until his death in 1957. He is recognised for his contribution to the graphological examination of rhythm and subconscious personality tendencies. In his book ‘Diagrams of the Unconscious’ (1948), he states that man in his handwriting or artistic expression communicates not only his conscious thoughts but also his underlying thoughts of which he is unaware.
  • Albert Schweitzer, the medical missionary and philosopher, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, believed deeply in the validity of graphology and was himself a member of the Société de Graphologie de Paris.
  • Refugee graphologists from Europe such as Dr Eric Singer taught in England prior to the Second World War – he had been a student of Dr Ludwig Klages and was the author of ‘Graphology and Everyman’, ‘The Graphologist’s Alphabet’, ‘Handwriting and Marriage’ and ‘Personality in Handwriting’. But it was Frank Hilliger, a student of Singer, who was the driving force behind the establishment of a professional approach to graphology in the UK. In 1983, Hilliger organised a meeting in central London with around 150 graphologists, following which the British Institute of Graphologists was established, and the first edition of The Graphologist magazine was produced in the same year.