How to read the casebooks

An astrologer at work

An astrologer at work in his study. The books open on the desk in front of him are probably intended as a casebook and an ephemeris, a table of the planetary motions, which he used to draw a chart. This woodblock illustrates the title page of John Melton’s Astrologaster, or the figure-caster (1620). Melton satirises astrologers and their clients, and names ‘Doctor Fore-man at Lambeth’ amongst the ‘cunning-men’ at work in London. Reproduced by permission of the Bodleian Libraries

To read the casebooks, it is important to reconstruct how they were written. They are recorded in roughly chronological sequence. Clients usually consulted Forman and Napier at home, where they worked from their studies, or sent a question via a third party or as a written message. Occasionally the astrologers made house calls, especially to their wealthier clients.

The astrologer usually wrote down the client’s name, age, whether he or she was present or had sent a letter, the moment at which the consultation began or the message arrived, and the question posed. This information appears at the top of the consultation, providing a heading for each record. Forman adhered fairly rigidly to this formula. Napier, who learned astrology from Forman, broke from the system more and more over the years. Forman’s system underpins Napier’s entries, but Napier’s records are looser. Our Guide to using the edition provides advice on how to interpret the data, and our Anatomy of a case provides a graphic illustration of how the various sections of an entry appear in the original documents.

Beneath the details about the querent and her or his question, the astrologer drew a chart, also known as a horoscope or figure, mapping the position of the planets, sun and moon at the moment when the question was asked. The chart was a square divided into twelve sections, each representing one of the celestial houses. The astrologer found the planetary motions listed in an ephemeris, a published table calculated by an astronomer.

A page from a casebook

The casebooks are written in an antiquated, messy handwriting and they follow an astrological system. A page from Richard Napier’s casebook for 11–12 December 1599. MS Ashmole 228, f. 237r. Reproduced by permission of the Bodleian Libraries

The astrologer then read the figure according to a series of rules about the positions of the planets. This was called making a judgment. The meaning of a planet depended on its relationship to other astral bodies, location within a celestial house, and passage through the signs of the zodiac — (Aries), (Taurus), (Gemini), (Cancer), (Leo), (Virgo), (Libra), (Scorpio), (Sagittarius), (Capricorn), (Aquarius), (Pisces). Thousands of stellar configurations were possible, and the compendious rules of astrology were listed in astrological manuals, though we are not sure which of these guides Forman and Napier used. Forman himself wrote (but never published) a series of guides to astrology, most notably ‘The Astrologicalle Judgmentes of phisick and other Questions’, and these have informed our understanding of his and Napier’s practices.

Beneath the chart, the astrologer recorded his judgment. It is important to remember that the judgment was primarily based on the stars. The astrologer’s conversation with his client, observations of the client’s appearance or demeanour, and prior knowledge of the case may have informed his judgment, but we can only be certain that the astrologer was recording his client’s words when he labelled them as such. In some cases, the astrologer also recorded a prediction, remedy, recommended course of action, or payment.

Details of the clients and questions are recorded in full in this edition. Information about the chart, judgment, and other text is noted, but has not been fully edited. Our editorial policies explain the editorial work that underpins the transcriptions of the casebooks and our guide to searching offers advice on how to interrogate them.

Document last modified: 6 June 2016

Cite this as: Casebooks Project (How to read the casebooks), http://www.magicandmedicine.hps.cam.ac.uk/the-manuscripts/how-to-read-the-casebooks, accessed 2017-03-29.