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Drawing the Sortes Sanctorum (Lots of the saints) or Sortes Sacrae (Holy Lots) was a type of divination or cleromancy practiced in early Christianity, derived and adapted from the ancient Roman sortes, as seen in the Greek Sortes Homericae and Roman Sortes Virgilianae.
Some early Christians went to church and listened for the words of scripture that were being sung when they entered the church as a random means of predicting the future and God's will (along the lines of the Jewish Bath Kol form of divination), but the Sortes was done more formally, by casually opening the Holy Scripture and reading the first words to come to hand, with these words being taken to foretell the inquirer's fate. Doing so was often a public event, and sometimes accompanied by ceremonies (such as the 7th century emperor Heraclius ordering 3 days' public fast before a consultation as to whether or not he should advance or retreat against the Persians - he took the text that arose as divine instruction to winter in Albania). Since full copies of the Christian Bible were rare before printing was invented, the lots usually used the Psalms, the Prophets, or the four Gospels.
Gregory of Tours relates that Merovech used the Sortes to check the predictions of a female fortune-teller that he would (as he hoped) gain the kingdom of his father Chilperic. He had the Psalter, the Books of Kings, and the four Gospels placed on the shrine of St. Martin and held a time of fasting and prayer, but the texts he then drew stated that he would not and were later interpreted as predicting his later ruin.
A French writer, in 506, says, "this abuse was introduced by the superstition of the people, and afterwards gained ground by the ignorance of the bishops.", as is shown by Pithon's Collection of Canons, which contains some forms under the title of The Lot of the Apostles. These were found at the end of the Canons of the Apostles in the Abbey of Marmousier, and various canons were made at later councils and synods (such as the councils of London under Archbishop Lanfranc in 1075, and Corboyl in 1126) against the Sortes as superstition. However, they were still occurring in the time of St Francis of Assisi who, in denying himself any possessions except coats and a cord, wanted to check if he was still allowed to own books. He prayed and then drew Mark, chapter IV, "Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables", which he took to mean that he was neither allowed books nor needed them. While seeking divine guidance, St. Francis is also said to have thrice opened to a random page of the book of Gospels in the church of St. Nicholas. In each time he opened to a passage in which Christ told His disciples to leave their earthly belongings and follow Him.
A Peter of Toulouse, who had sworn on the Bible that accusations of heresy against him were false, was immediately afterwards convicted by the Sortes when a bystander grabbed the Bible and opened it randomly at the words of the demon Legion to Jesus, "What have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth?", which he adjudged to mean that Peter had nothing to do with Jesus.
- It so happened that the reader, whose duty it was to read in public that day, being blocked out by the people, failed to appear, the officials falling into confusion, while they waited for him who never came, one of those standing by, laying hold of the Psalter, seized upon the first verse which presented itself to him. Now, the Psalm ran thus: "Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise because of thine enemies, that thou mightest destroy the enemy and the avenger." On these words being read, a shout was raised by the people, and the opposite party were confounded. It was believed that this Psalm had been chosen by Divine ordination.
- So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, "Take up and read; Take up and read." Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words: nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find. For I had heard of Antony, that coming in during the reading of the Gospel, he received the admonition, as if what was being read was spoken to him: Go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me: and by such oracle he was forthwith converted unto Thee. Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.
To pay a very great deference in opening upon a place of scripture, as to its affording an assurance of salvation, used to be a very common practice amongst the people called Methodists, but chiefly those of the Calvinistic persuasion; this, it is probable, has declined in proportion with the earnestness of these people in other respects. They had also another opinion, viz., that if the recollection of any particular text of scripture happened to arise in their minds, this was likewise looked upon as a kind of immediate revelation from heaven. This they call being presented or brought home to them.
In the United States, the practice served Mary Rowlandson well (and her son, who when she unexpectedly ran into him opened her Bible at random on the comforting verses of Psalm 118:17-18), but by the early 19th century was decried as random and irrational in an increasingly rationalized economy.
- This page draws text from 'The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction', Vol. 10, Issue 273, September 15, 1827, a text now in the public domain.
- Gregory of Tours - The History of the Franks, V.14
- Byerly, Thomas; Timms, John (1828). The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction. J. Limbird. p. 192. Retrieved July 29, 2016.
- Hall, David D. (1990). Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England. Harvard UP. p. 26. ISBN 9780674962163.
- Weikle-Mills, Courtney (2012). Imaginary Citizens: Child Readers and the Limits of American Independence, 1640–1868. The Johns Hopkins UP. p. 154. ISBN 9781421407210.