Scholarship on the casebooks

Casebooks provide a lens through which to spy on astrologer physicians at work. Forman’s and Napier’s casebooks are legendary amongst historians for rewarding those who can read them with unique insights into encounters between practitioners and patients. Read carefully, these records provide intimate details about the lives of people from all walks of life in early modern England.

In Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), Keith Thomas calendared the numbers of consultations held by Forman, Napier and other English astrologers. A. L. Rowse’s Simon Forman: Sex and Society in Shakespeare’s Age (1974) is a prurient account of the lives of Forman and the Londoners who consulted him. Following Rowse, literary scholars have identified notable figures amongst Forman’s clientele. Emilia Lanier, the accomplished poet, consulted Forman about her health and fortune and became intimate with him (quite how intimate is unclear). Winifred Burbage, wife of the acclaimed actor Richard Burbage, asked Forman about her health. Philip Henslowe, financier of the Rose and Fortune playhouses, consulted Forman about his health and a case of theft. Perhaps the young man called ‘Robert Burton’ who consulted Forman about melancholy was the same Robert Burton who later became famous for his monumental book, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). The records of Frances Howard’s consultations with Forman do not survive, but after his death he was implicated in the Overbury Scandal. During the trials for the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, Forman was posthumously accused of assisting Howard in winning the love of the King’s erstwhile favourite Robert Carr and estranging her husband, Robert Devereux.

Napier’s casebooks were the focus of Michael MacDonald’s landmark book, Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England (1981). MacDonald pioneered the application of computer analysis to the study of Napier’s casebooks. Ronald Sawyer’s 1986 doctoral dissertation, written under MacDonald’s direction, used his sampling methods and profiled Napier’s medical practice as a whole.

In a 1999 article on ‘How to Read Simon Forman’s Casebooks’, Lauren Kassell read Forman’s casebooks alongside his writings about astrology and medicine and found evidence that gender, astrology and authority were intertwined in these consultations. She argued that Forman used the language of the stars to persuade his patients to invest him with the power to heal their diseases. She developed this argument within her broader study of Forman’s work as an astrologer physician, Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London: Simon Forman, Astrologer, Alchemist, and Physician (2005). Kassell’s work complements Barbara Traister’s 2001 study of Forman’s life and manuscripts, The Notorious Astrological Physician of London: Works and Days of Simon Forman.

Kassell has also published an article situating Forman’s and Napier’s casebooks amongst those kept by other early modern practitioners: ‘Casebooks in Early Modern England: Astrology, Medicine and Written Records’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 88 (2014), 595-625.

Other early modern casebooks have been used to write histories of experiences of illness and healing (see works by Beier, Duden and Williams listed in select bibliography), but none of these collections is as extensive or complete as Forman’s and Napier’s. Forman’s and Napier’s casebooks should be understood within a broader history of medical record-keeping.

Document last modified: 12 January 2015

Cite this as: Casebooks Project (Scholarship on the casebooks),, accessed 2018-08-17.