A healer with star quality

Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London

August 4, 2006

In Elizabethan London, one of the most sought-after physicians in the city was an astrologer-magician named Simon Forman. His unpublished manuscripts and records of astrological consultations, known as "casebooks", run to thousands of pages and fill enormous volumes at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. They have been consulted before. Words such as "notorious" and "sex" have appeared in resulting book titles. Lauren Kassell's wonderful study focuses more on preserving historical authenticity by taking Forman seriously as a representative of medical culture. It is not a biography but an examination of the writings, including records of thousands of consultations that Forman composed, copied, recopied and edited all through his life. In a text that is a delight to read, Kassell mines the Forman papers not for scandal but for the voices of Forman and his patients, and for what both can tell us "about the medicine, astrology, alchemy and magic of early modern England".

Forman fashioned himself as an astrologer-physician who claimed great talent but who never divulged his methods. For each person born with a certain art, he believed, another was born without it. He claimed his skill was a gift of the divine, angelic knowledge communicated to him through dreams and experience. The secretiveness of his methods raised the hackles of the College of Physicians, which censored and imprisoned him. It also raised doubts among mathematical practitioners, who viewed his only published work, a pamphlet concerning the means of computing longitude, as based on occult subjects. Yet Forman struggled on, portraying himself as a medical martyr. He described the rules for astrological medicine, transcribed a treatise about the medical virtues of alchemical remedies, especially the use of antimony, recorded the history of disease since the Fall of Adam and Eve, advised on making magical amulets, called upon spirits and angels and, in a treatise called Of Appoticarie druges , preserved a record of current magical practice. Social legitimacy came finally in the form of a licence in astronomy and medicine granted by Cambridge University. Thereafter, Forman continued to bring the art of medical astrology to his patients, mostly women.

Kassell's fascinating account takes us into Forman's consulting room and describes relationships shaped there in which gender was a crucial element. Forman used astrology to discern what, he believed, his female patients had concealed from him, including illicit affairs and a variety of life complications. Women, he felt, were naturally duplicitous, and the stars did not lie. In captivating accounts of individual cases, Kassell describes how Forman disregarded customary routines, replacing them with the dynamic of interrogation and dialogue in which astrology became a safe place for consultation. If the patient accepted the diagnosis, he might prescribe medicines, sometimes purgatives made from strong waters. If the patient did not agree, physician and patient negotiated the verdict on the basis of trust and confidentiality.

Kassell's book brings us into the realm of the medical-magical marketplace only rarely encountered with such detail and personal intimacy. Generalisations are practically unavoidable in treating medical astrology and alchemy, but Kassell dispels the image of Forman as a dangerous quack, tying him to other debates about the powers and virtues of nature in the early modern period and calls attention to ways in which medical conflict produced a variety of alternative responses to disease. This is an exceptional study, absorbing and solidly grounded.

Bruce Moran is professor of the history of science and medicine, University of Nevada, US.

Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London: Simon Forman: Astrologer, Alchemist, and Physician

Author - Lauren Kassell
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Pages - 281
Price - £58.00
ISBN - 0 19 9905 5

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