Introduction to the casebooks

A page from a casebook

A page from Simon Forman’s casebook for 16 October 1598. MS Ashmole 195, f. 175r. Reproduced by permission of the Bodleian Libraries

Simon Forman and Richard Napier practised astrology with pen in hand. They recorded the name and age of each client, the question asked, and the moment when the consultation began. Based on this, they constructed an astrological chart, plotting the positions of the five known planets and the sun and moon within the twelve celestial houses. Then the astrologers judged the influences of the celestial bodies on the lives of men and women.

Forman recorded over 10,000 consultations between 1596 and 1603. His practice had begun at least a decade earlier and continued until his death in 1611. The surviving records are incomplete: Forman’s records from before 1596 and after 1603 are lost. In the late 1590s, Forman taught Napier his methods. Napier’s records survive in full, from 1597 to his death in 1634, apart from a lacuna in 1614 that is probably the result of a volume having gone missing. The extant volumes document roughly 70,000 consultations.

The 80,000 records in Forman’s and Napier’s casebooks constitute what is probably the richest surviving set of medical records from the period before 1700. At least 90% of the questions related to matters of health and disease. The remainder included questions about marriage, career prospects, missing persons, stolen property, travel plans, legal suits and witchcraft. Among the features of this edition is a database of topics of consultations.

These records are a unique source for the study of everyday life and the practice of medicine in early modern England. Some clients consulted the astrologers regularly, others only once. More than 60,000 people are represented in these records. They range from servants to noblemen, children to the elderly. Forman’s clients were concentrated in London, where he lived. Most of Napier’s clients were from Buckinghamshire, where he was rector of Great Linford, or from the neighbouring counties of Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire.

Forman’s and Napier’s casebooks are held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. They fill 64 calf-bound volumes, page after page written in antiquated and messy handwriting. These papers have informed pioneering scholarship on the casebooks, but this is the first time that they have been edited. The full potential of these documents to inform our understanding of the past has been impeded by three factors:

The difficulty of reading Forman’s and Napier’s handwriting. The astrologers’ use of astrological symbols, words and concepts. They defined health and healing in particular, and the fortunes of men and women in general, as influenced by and through the stars. Knowledge of this system is necessary to judge which information in the casebooks reflects the patients’ words and which the physicians’ judgments. The only order to these records is the sequence in which they were recorded. There is no name index or calendar of entries.

Our understanding of the astrological methodology employed in these records, and hence our editorial policies, are primarily based on the astrologers’ own accounts of their practice, especially Forman’s monumental manuscript ‘The Astrologicalle Judgmentes of phisick‘.

When Forman and Napier recorded their consultations, they were participating in broader traditions in the history of medical record-keeping. Think of the thousands of pages of Forman’s and Napier’s hand-written notebooks, now bound in 64 hefty volumes, as alien objects. What do you need to know about the manuscripts? How do you read the casebooks? How do you use this edition?

Document last modified: 6 June 2016

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