Guide to Reading the Cases

The digitised records presented on this site can be either browsed or searched. The ‘Browse’ and ‘Search’ pages both provide links to fuller details of each consultation and of the people involved in it. Each electronic record comprises a) the text of the question section of the entry and b) an analytical breakdown of other information contained in that entry. This page aims to clarify the terms used in the browse and search functions, and to give guidance on interpreting the sometimes arcane language of the transcribed texts. It offers guidance under the following headings:

Components of the records

To find out how the component sections listed below typically appear in the original manuscripts, see our Anatomy of a case.

Case number (e.g. CASE796). This is an arbitrary number assigned by the editors for the purpose of data maintenance and is of use primarily as a reference number. Every case number is unique and permanent.

Consultant: the practitioner(s).

Practice: in the vast majority of cases, Forman oversaw his own practice in London and Napier oversaw his in Buckinghamshire. There are, however, cases of one of them standing in for the other, or of the two working together in one or other practice. Between 1603 and 1605, Napier sometimes left his curate Gerence James in charge of his practice or collaborated with him on a given consultation. James’s hand continues to appear from time to time after the end of his service as curate, as do those of a later curate, Robert Wallis, and a number of other as yet unidentified assistants. There are also instances of Napier’s copying entries from Forman’s practice into his own notebooks, presumably as part of his training (such entries are almost all from very early on his career).

Date and time: these have normally been taken from the entry in question, but if the relevant information is either missing or obviously incorrect, it has (where possible) been supplied or corrected by the editors.

Source: the shelfmark of the volume in which the record is contained, the page number(s), and a broad indication of whereabouts on the page or pages the entry appears. (Most entries occupy only part of one page, but a significant minority cross page breaks.) Generally speaking, entries can be specified as occupying one of up to nine ‘zones’ of a given page: upper left, middle left, bottom left, upper centre, middle centre, bottom centre, upper right, middle right, bottom right. Three-column layouts are relatively unusual, so ‘upper centre’, ‘middle centre’ and ‘bottom centre’ are only invoked where they do occur. Where more than one case appears in a given zone, they are both or all given the same designation. Where a case occupies more than one zone, this is passed over in silence if the sequence is logical (e.g. from upper left to bottom left) but spelled out if it is counter-intuitive (e.g. from centre right to bottom left, or from one zone of one page to some zone of another).

In page references such as ‘f. 1r’, ‘f.’ stands for ‘folio’, meaning a single sheet of manuscript paper, and ‘r’ and ‘v’ stand for ‘recto’ (front) and ‘verso’ (back). If a volume is opened between its third and fourth folios, the page on the left is f. 3v and the page on the right f. 4r.

Note(s): Where relevant, any editorial comments about the condition, layout or content of the manuscript or the interpretation of the text.

Text: this field contains the transcription of the main part of the record. It can be viewed in either ‘normalised’ or ‘diplomatic’ format: the ‘Switch’ function above each entry enables users to flip between the two displays. See our editorial policies for a definition of these terms and an account of our sampling policy. For help in understanding archaic or specialist terms in the texts, see the glossary.

Querent: the person asking the question.

Patient: the person undergoing investigation. This is usually, but by no means always, the same person as the querent. It is important to bear in mind that ‘patient’ in this sense does not necessarily mean medical patient. If, for instance, a woman asks about her husband’s prospects of preferment, her husband is the ‘patient’. At times this can be counter-intuitive: when Forman asks the stars whether or not he should offer medical treatment to a given person, Forman himself is considered the ‘patient’ since the question is being asked in his own interests. This occasionally leads to the inclusion of non-human ‘patients’ when, for instance, a ship-owner asks about the wellbeing of one of his ships. In Forman’s entries, the first person mentioned in the case is normally the patient, whether or not this is the same person as the querent. Napier’s records are less consistently structured.

A given case may feature more than one querent and/or patient.

Third parties: any people mentioned in the record who are neither querents nor patients but are directly relevant to the case. For instance, if Mr A asks about his sick son B and whether Goodwife C has bewitched him, Mr A is querent, B is patient, and Goodwife C is a third party.

Relation: any social, familial or professional relationships between people mentioned in the case.

Topic: what the question is about. There is a wide range of medical and non-medical topics of consultations. A checkbox on the Search page gives the option of limiting the results to entries involving one or more medical topics.

Further information: a summary of the presence or absence of other characteristic details of the consultation, under the following headings:

Circumstances of the consultation

Archangel consultedFrom April 1611, Napier took to occasionally consulting various archangels about his medical cases and recording their pronouncements, in most cases with a coded indication of which archangel had provided the advice. It is not entirely clear how Napier communicated (or believed he communicated) with these beings, though at least some of the time he seems to have based his interpretation on the throw of two or more dice (presumably on the assumption that the relevant angel would dictate how they fell). These cases are clearly of special interest for an understanding of Napier’s thought and practice. This field records the presence or absence of archangelic advice in an entry and, if available, the identity of the archangel in question.
Financial informationAny information about money paid or owed, negotiations about fees, refunds if the diagnosis has proved wrong, or the practitioner’s decision to treat the patient free of charge. This may include payments-in-kind: for instance, Napier’s patients quite often rewarded him with gifts of agricultural produce, particularly venison, for which he had an obvious fondness.
Information about previous consultations and future eventsAny notes about previous consultations by the patient, or about the outcome of the case or the patient’s subsequent welfare.
LetterRecords whether the entry explicitly notes that the question was sent by letter.
MessengerRecords whether the entry explicitly notes that the question was brought by a messenger.
Question numberThere is sometimes a note that this is a querent’s first, second, third etc. question. This seems to be intended to refer to questions about a particular problem, not necessarily to mean the first, second or third question the querent has ever put. In some cases, it may also have financial implications (e.g. a patient or querent has agreed a price for a given number of consultations).
TokenRecords whether the entry explicitly notes that some token of trust has been brought or sent.
UrineRecords whether the entry explicitly notes that a sample of the patient’s urine has been brought or sent, and/or whether the urine has been described. While a description of the patient’s urine might be seen to imply in itself that a sample had been provided, the distinction was important to the practitioners themselves. Forman states explicitly in his guide to astrology that he did not regard urine analysis as being of any diagnostic value, but nonetheless encouraged his clients to provide samples as this enabled him to discern their duplicity if the urine provided was not in fact that of the patient. Napier, however, clearly did use urine analysis as a diagnostic tool and seems to have been less paranoid than his mentor about his clients’ intentions. Hence, explicit statements by him that urine was sent or brought have implications for understanding how far he followed or deviated from Forman’s methodology.


ChartRecords (where relevant) the presence of astrological and/or geomantic charts.
JudgmentWhat to modern eyes may seem an amorphous blend of astrological data, symptom description, diagnosis, prognosis and/or recommended course of action.
RecipeSpecific details about the ingredients and/or preparation of a medical treatment.
SigilPrescription of a ‘sigil’. A sigil was a ring, bracelet or the like marked with magical signs and produced under highly specified conditions. These objects were used to conjure or repel spirits, or to harness astral powers, and in the casebooks are usually encountered as a recommended means of combatting mental disorder and/or suspected witchcraft.
Treatment informationAny recommended medical intervention.

Calendar entries

In addition to the full entries, a further four volumes of Napier’s casebooks have been calendared. The calendar entries provide images of the original text and a selection of basic metadata, as explained in the Calendar entries page.


Like almost all writers of their period, Forman and Napier did not follow formalised rules of punctuation. Questions are sometimes but by no means always terminated by a question mark. Full stops frequently appear in the middle of sentences; conversely, sentences frequently end without full stops. Both writers make frequent use of the ‘slash’, a slightly wavy forward-sloping line (technically known as a ‘virgule’) which appears to function, in modern terms, either as a comma, a semi-colon or a full stop. Quite often, however, it appears directly before or after a full stop and may sometimes be purely decorative. Casebooks Project transcriptions do not attempt to modernise or standardise the original punctuation but present it as it appears, with the ‘virgule’ character rendered as ‘/’.


In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII instituted the so-called Gregorian calendar to replace the Julian calendar that had been used throughout Europe since the time of Julius Caesar. The difference between the two was that the Gregorian calendar observed slightly fewer leap years, with the result that Gregorian dates were, by 1582, ten days ahead of Julian dates, i.e. 1 January 1582 by the Julian calendar was 11 January by the Gregorian. The new calendar (which is now the international standard) was adopted at a range of different dates in different countries. Protestant countries in particular tended to resist what was seen as a ‘Popish’ innovation, even though all serious scholars accepted that it was in fact far more accurate. Britain finally caught up with the rest of Western Europe on 3/14 September 1752, by which time the discrepancy had risen to eleven days.

With a very few exceptions, dates given in the casebooks are, therefore, according to the Julian calendar.

Many writers of the period who used the Julian calendar regarded the year as beginning on 25 March but Forman and Napier treated it as beginning on 1 January.


In addition to the still current ‘ante meridiem’ (am, before noon) and ‘post meridiem’ (pm, after noon), which the astrologers usually abbreviated as ‘An m’, ‘ant m’ or ‘p m’, they often used ‘in meridie’ (‘in m’): literally ‘at noon’ but used by Forman to mean any time between 11am and 1pm. However, he was typically inconsistent about this and sometimes used ‘An m’ and ‘p m’ for times within this range too. Napier almost always used ‘in m’ to mean ‘at noon’ precisely.

There are also occasional examples in both sets of records of ‘nocte’ (‘at night’, i.e. between sunset and sunrise).


The ages ascribed by Forman and Napier to their clients should be treated with scepticism. They are generally guesses or approximations; in some cases they may be mistakes or outright lies on the client’s part. Napier records over ten different dates for his own birth. A given patient will, according to the records, frequently gain or lose two or three years between consultations only a week apart, and where a patient’s date of birth is specified it frequently conflicts with the age ascribed to the patient in the same entry. In general, the older a patient is said to be, the less likely it is that the stated age is accurate.

Furthermore, both practitioners are inconsistent in their recording of ages. Both Forman and Napier sometimes use ‘44’, say, to mean ‘44’ in the modern sense (somewhere between the 44th and 45th birthday), but sometimes to mean ‘in her or his 44th year’, i.e. 43 in modern terms. Thus, even assuming that the given figure is correct, someone described as being 44 in an entry dated 2 June 1600 may have been born at any time between 3 June 1555 (he or she will be 45 tomorrow) and 1 June 1557 (the patient is in her or his 44th year).

The exception to this rule is children less than two years old. While the description of a child as ‘of 2 years’ may (and sometimes demonstrably does) mean ‘in her/his second year’, ‘a year old’ almost certainly does mean ‘one year old’ in the modern sense. In any case, the ages of under-twos are more often than not given in days, weeks, months or fractions of years, and can be taken as both more precise and more reliable than ages ascribed to anyone older.

The birth dates presented on this site are based on the best available data. Where a precise birth date is specified in the records, this is taken to be more reliable than a date extrapolated from the patient’s stated age at a given time. Where an age is given but no precise date of birth is specified, a date range is calculated taking into account the vagaries described above. This in turn is used to calculate the lowest plausible age a person might be in other entries in which her or his age is unspecified. Such ages are followed by ‘(est.)’ (‘estimated’). Ages not followed by ‘(est.)’ are taken from the entry in question.


Astrological/alchemical notation included seven symbols for the then-known ‘planets’. Although it was widely, though by no means universally, accepted by the educated that the sun and moon are not in fact planets, they were still treated as such for astrological purposes. These symbols were also used for seven metals and the seven days of the week, each of which was believed to be under the influence of a corresponding ‘planet’, as follows:


In the question sections of the casebooks (i.e. the sections transcribed in this project), these symbols are almost always used to mean days of the week, though in other sections they are generally used to designate the ‘planets’. The symbol is sometimes accompanied by the word ‘day’ (or ‘dies’, the Latin for ‘day’), e.g. ‘ dai’ (‘Sunday’) or ‘die ’ (‘die Solis’, i.e. ‘on Sunday’).

In the ‘normalised’ view of the texts, these glyphs are explicated (e.g. ‘’ is presented as ‘Sunday’, ‘Sun’ or ‘gold’ as appropriate), but in the ‘diplomatic’ view they are displayed as they appear in the original, with explanatory mouseovers.

Kinship relations

Caution is advisable when interpreting early modern usage of terms such as mother, father, brother, sister, son and daughter. Though normally used in their modern sense, these could also mean ‘mother-in-law’, ‘brother-in-law’ etc., or ‘stepmother’, ‘stepbrother’ etc. ‘Mother’, ‘father’, ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ could also be used to refer to godparents or godchildren. There are also instances of ‘Mother’ being used as a respectful term of address for an elderly woman of relatively low social status. ‘Cousin’ was used extremely loosely, as explained in the glossary.

Terms denoting marital status, such as ‘bachelor’, ‘maid’ (unmarried woman), ‘widow’ etc., are sometimes used by both Forman and Napier to refer to the status someone had when he or she married her or his current spouse (whence some apparent anomalies such as a ‘bachelor’ being married to a ‘widow’). In other cases, they refer to the person’s current status. It is not always clear which usage has been adopted in a given case.

Forman’s Latin

Like most educated Europeans of their time, Forman and Napier switched easily between their native language and Latin, often changing language in mid-sentence. However, while Napier was virtually bilingual, Forman’s Latin was, to put it kindly, idiosyncratic. It is clear from the number of Latin sources he consulted that he understood the language well, but his own use of it frequently flies in the face of all generally accepted rules of grammar and employs vocabulary that is not to be found in any dictionary of either Classical or medieval Latin (or at least not in the sense in which he uses it). This frequently causes considerable difficulty in discerning and translating Forman’s meaning (for instance, it is often unclear what is the subject and what the object of a given clause, and even if it is clear which verb he is using it is often not at all clear which tense he intends). Casebooks Project transcriptions do not attempt to ‘correct’ Forman’s Latin but present it as he wrote it: readers competent in Latin should be aware that apparent ‘mistakes’ are Forman’s, and not (or at least not normally) transcription errors.

Types of entry

Forman and Napier deployed a range of techniques for reading the heavens, which can be grouped under the following headings. The search function provides (under Case Details) the option of limiting searches to one type of entry or more, though this will primarily be of use only to people interested in the technical details of astrology at the period.

Decumbiture: a question cast for the time at which the patient fell ill or took to her or his bed.

Diary: records of events in the practitioner’s personal life, or events he has witnessed, accompanied by an astrological chart and/or analysis presumably intended to determine the cause, significance or outcome of such events.

Election: a question cast for a time in the future, to determine whether or not this would be propitious for a given undertaking.

Horary consultation: an investigation of the stars at the time the question was asked (or, if it was not asked in person, the time at which the astrologer received it). The overwhelming majority of Forman’s and Napier’s records fall into this category.

Interrogation: a chart cast retrospectively to determine the future outcome, or the cause, of a past event.

Nativity: a specialised form of ‘interrogation’ in which a chart is cast for the date and time of the subject’s birth, usually with a view to foretelling her or his life to come but sometimes for more specific questions (especially concerning marriage prospects or medical problems).

Practice: ‘dry run’ horary entries cast for moments in the past and consultations that did not take place. Napier wrote out a number of such practice entries while he was learning astrology.

Revolutions: enquiries relating to the supposed revolutions of the heavens about the earth and consequently cyclical pattern of worldly affairs, generally used by the astrologers in drawing up prognostications for themselves.

Manuscript numbers

The numbers of the volumes in the Ashmole collection of manuscripts (of which Forman’s and Napier’s casebooks constitute only a relatively small part) appear to have been assigned randomly. These are the canonical numbers (or ‘call numbers’) under which they are listed in the Bodleian Library catalogue and by which they are normally referred to in academic citations. For our purposes, however, it makes more sense to refer to Forman volumes 1–6 and Napier volumes 1–58. This sequence reflects, so far as possible, the chronological order in which each body of manuscripts was written, though in both cases there are inconsistencies, overlaps and hiccups. The correlation between Ashmole volume numbers and Casebooks volume numbers is set out in the Manuscripts list.

Document last modified: 16 February 2017

Cite this as: Casebooks Project (Guide to Reading the Cases),, accessed 2018-08-17.