A digital edition of Simon Forman’s & Richard Napier’s medical records 1596–1634
The Casebooks Project aims to make available the astrological records of Simon Forman and Richard Napier — unparalleled resources in the history of early modern medicine. Our database of transcriptions, browsable and searchable, brings together the details of the thousands of clients who consulted these men and the questions they asked. It allows sophisticated interrogation and easy perusal of a manuscript archive famed as much for its difficulty as its riches.
A pilot project, funded by the Wellcome Trust and run by Lauren Kassell, tested the water in 2008–9 by concentrating on Forman’s volumes. Robert Ralley and Peter Forshaw produced a database that combined standardised information with excerpts of transcription. The result was saved as a Microsoft Excel file containing slightly over 10,000 rows of data, each corresponding to an entry in the original manuscripts. An automated transfer of this database into XML (Extensible Markup Language) provided the infrastructure for the systematic transcription and encoding of Forman’s records.
The full project began in 2010 and will run to 2013, supported by a programme grant from the Wellcome Trust and in partnership with the Bodleian Libraries. The question sections from all Forman’s surviving casebooks have now been transcribed according to carefully elaborated editorial policies based on the Text Encoding Initiative P5 Guidelines, which permit a more sophisticated combination of transcription and metadata. In turn, this means that more can be done with the stored information. The transcribed text accounts for only about 10% of each file, the rest being the analytical metadata.
The project’s technical director Michael Hawkins processed the pilot’s Excel sheet into 10,000 separate XML files, each representing a single case; these were checked manually by the project’s two research associates, Robert Ralley and John Young, and a full transcription of the question details added to every file. The results were released at the beginning of 2012. Since then, several refinements have been made to the coding and the search facility. Transcription and coding of Napier’s records from the same period (some 7,000 entries from between 1597 and 1603) was completed, on schedule, by the end of 2012, and the first tranche of his documents will be released this summer (2013).
Once transcribed and checked, each case has to be examined and its connections to other cases determined before it is ready to be made available.
The detailed metadata are linked to a series of master files collating the information and establishing links and correspondences. While these master files are generated automatically in the first instance, they need to be painstakingly revised to exclude false positives (two clients who share a name are not necessarily the same person) and to record connections and correspondences that only informed human analysis can identify. This is a process that demands care, expertise and judgment.
Drawing on this editorial work, on the metadata and on the transcriptions themselves, users will be able for the first time to move freely through the records of these astrologers’ consultations, and glimpse the worries, beliefs and preoccupations of people who lived four centuries ago.
Document last modified: 26 February 2013
Cite this as: "About the Casebooks Project", Casebooks Project (http://www.magicandmedicine.hps.cam.ac.uk/about-us/the-project/)