If you came down with frenzy, love sickness, venereal disease or any other manner of ailment in 17th-century England, you might opt to pay a visit to Simon Forman, a self-taught astrologer and physician who claimed to diagnose and treat illnesses through consultation with celestial bodies. Even 400 years ago, the medical establishment regarded Forman’s brand of medicine with hostility and suspicion. But he was hugely popular among patients, as evidenced by the 80,000-odd case notes that he and his protégé, Richard Napier, left behind.
Now, as the BBC reports, Cambridge historians have transcribed and digitized 500 of their favorite case notes, offering a fascinating glimpse into what Lauren Kassell, a professor of history of science and medicine at the university, calls “the grubby and enigmatic world of seventeenth-century medicine, magic and the occult.”
Under Kassell’s leadership, researchers have spent the past 10 years editing and digitizing Forman and Napier’s notes. The images of complete casebooks can be found here.
Sorting through the thousands of pages of notes has been no easy task. The documents are, for one, covered in cryptic astral symbols. The authors’ style of writing has posed another problem.
“Napier produced the bulk of preserved cases, but his penmanship was atrocious and his records [were] super messy,” Kassell explains. “Forma’s writing is strangely archaic, like he’d read too many medieval manuscripts. These are notes only intended to be understood by their authors.”
But thanks to the researchers’ perseverance, lay readers can now peruse a hefty selection of transcribed texts, which have been tweaked with modern spellings and punctuation to make them more accessible. The website where the digitized notes have been posted divides the cases into categories—among them “dreams, visions, voices;” “bad marriages;” “chastity diseases.” One section is devoted to Napier’s consultations with angels, who did not mince words with their diagnoses. “He will die shortly,” the angel Michael said of one patient, according to the physician’s reports.
It is hard not to be bemused by some of the complaints the physicians dealt with—take, for instance, one John Wilkingson, who slept with married women and contracted the “French disease” (syphilis, that is). Not only had poor John lost his hair to the illness, but he had also been “thrust with a rapier in his privy parts.” Then there was Edward Cleaver, who paid a visit to the healers because he had been having “ill” thoughts—like “kisse myne arse.”
The treatments that Forman and Napier prescribed are equally fascinating and, at times, rather horrifying. Most often, they recommended bloodletting, fortifying brews and purges induced by “potent” concoctions, Kassell explains. But they were also known to prescribe the touch of a dead man’s hand and “pigeon slippers”—“a pigon slitt & applied to the sole of each foote.”
Sometimes, the physicians offered predictions instead of prescriptions. One 31-year-old Anne Tymock paid a visit to find out if she would be able to have a child. Her astrological chart, according to the case notes, indicated that she would—but “by some other man and not by her husband.”
While they make for a lively read, the cases also testify to the often-brutal hardships of life in 17th-century Europe. Entries on birth and other women’s health concerns are littered with references to children who did not survive. “[C]hild was pulled from her dead,” details one account. The notes refer to the execution of purported witches who were blamed for various ailments. And those who struggled with mental illness were not treated gently. One 60-year-old woman was “bound in her bed with cords at night & at daytime is chained at a post.”
For centuries, these illuminating documents were kept in 66 calf-bound volumes at Oxford's Bodleian Library. With the digitization and transcriptions projects, the records have become increasingly accessible—though Kassel cautions that they are a “rabbit hole.”
“The cases of Forman and Napier,” she says, “may well suck you in."