About the Casebooks Project

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 is scheduled to run to 2018, 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 and the first thirty-one volumes of Napier’s 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 a little over 10,000 separate XML files, each representing a single case; these were checked manually by the project’s two Senior Editors, 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. A further two volumes of Napier’s casebooks were completed by September 2013, at which point the Napier material was released online, and more continues to be added with each new release.

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; a given person may be referred to by different names) 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 search and move freely through the records of these astrologers’ consultations, and glimpse the worries, beliefs and preoccupations of people who lived four centuries ago.

For those more technically minded, the raw XML of our case and authority files can be obtained from our GitHub repository. For documentation about these files, see our Transcription Guidelines and Element Set.

Document last modified: 11 October 2016

Cite this as: Casebooks Project (About the Casebooks Project), http://www.magicandmedicine.hps.cam.ac.uk/about-us/the-project, accessed 2017-02-25.