Who ‘the father’ of graphology really was?

As Jean-Hippolyte Michon may be a less-known person in Hungary, we decided to share a more detailed account of his life. The life of the curious boy was much more interesting than that of any typical child living in the South of France in that time. He founded a journal and a society, built a castle and was the teacher of Alexandre Dumas fils.

Whether graphology is a real science or mere illusion is a highly controversial issue. While some dismiss it as unnecessary fuss, those who practise it strongly believe that every line they write has an almost magical meaning.

Graphology - every line has an almost magical meaning

While a previous article was dedicated to the different views mentioned, this writing is about the fascinating story of Michon’s life. As, regardless of our opinion about his ‘invention’, the life of Jean-Hippolyte Michon may interest anyone who wants to learn about an unconventional life from the 19th century.

Jean-Hippolyte Michon, son of Jean Michon, a tailor and Françoise Rédon, was born in 1806 in Laroche-près-Feyt. He had two older brothers, one of whom became a priest while the other worked as a doctor. While the population of this small village located in the middle of France is hardly 60 today, it is the birthplace of many famous people. They include Pierre Flote from the 13th century, chancellor of Philip IV the Fair and Pierre de Besse, court chaplain to Louis XIII, a portrait of whom is on display in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.

Michon, the priest

The young boy decided to study theology and became a priest. Later, he had to resign from his post as a priest but he remained a preacher. He met Abbé Flandrin (1803-1867) around 1840, who taught philosophy at the time.

Jean-Hippolyte Michon

Flandrin was already familiar with the work of Johann Kaspar Lavater, a Swiss writer, philosopher and theologian, born in 1741, and may have been influenced by his views. The polymath from Zurich also chose a religious career and was officiated as pastor. His excellent observation skills made him conclude that the character of a person can be elucidated through examining their lines of countenance and also believed that there could be strong ties between a person’s speech, gait and handwriting.

This is what Lavater wanted to demonstrate in his four-volume book titled Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der menschenkenntniss und Menschenliebe. The book published in 1777 included a chapter dedicated to the study of handwriting. This book was translated into French in 1806, which encouraged more and more people, mainly monks, to start studying handwriting.

It was Flandrin who introduced Michon to graphology, a method to identify the personality traits of students based on their handwriting. Michon decided to further develop this idea and at the same time became a fierce supporter of the Gallican Church. Interestingly, while the potential interconnectedness of handwriting and personality was first suggested by some ancient authors, all the forerunners of graphology were clergymen whose research was eventually converted into a system by Michon, also a trained priest.

An avid researcher of graphology

Inspired by the above, Michon started to frantically study the subject spending over thirty years collecting handwriting samples from famous people and his acquaintances. Then he subjected these to different tests systematically comparing the handwritings with their authors. He found that the signs of personality traits such as honesty, generosity and greed can all be identified by one’s handwriting. He then developed a system of these graphological characteristics assigning the components of handwriting to personality traits.

He was the first to use instruments, i.e. magnifying glass, to support his research and he concluded by studying the interrelations of speech, movement and writing that writing is also a form of expressive movement. In 1860, he published Journal des autographes and in 1871 Journal des autographes: L'art de juger les hommes par leur écriture, which was later renamed as La Graphologie.

In the same year, he founded the (still active) French Graphology Society (Société française de graphologie, whose headquarters were at 5 rue des Chanaleilles in Paris).  He was also the one who coined the term ‘graphology’, this is why he is called the ‘father of graphology’ today.

He authored a number of books about the subject including The Mysteries of Handwriting (1872), The System of Graphology (1875) and the Practical Methods of Graphology (1878), which all contributed to the dissemination of his findings. His influence is shown by the fact that he had several students including Alexandre Dumas fils.

However, Michon’s interests were not strictly focused on handwriting as he was also enthusiastic about botany, archaeology, history, geography, literature, numismatics, architecture and creative arts. He was the member of the French Society of Archaeology (Société française d'archéologie) and was particularly interested in the ancient archaeological site, Cassinomagus in France.

He wrote theological books on Jesus and the lives of bishops, the relation between the revolution and the clergy, the status of women in the Catholic Church, the archaeological heritage and art of Charente County and also published the monograph of the, still standing, picturesque Renaissance castle, Château de la Rochefoucauld.

In the last ten years of his life, he pursued a new passion. Instead of developing theories or writing books, he was involved in a very practical activity: he devoted his time and efforts to building Château de Montausier, the castle with Orientalist design located in the village of Baignes-Sainte-Radegonde working as the architect, builder and sculptor of the still standing castle.

Château de Montausier

Michon was a true polymath, perhaps one of the last ones in the 19th century. While his name maybe less-known today, the impact of his work and students is unquestionable.