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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 37.2 (2006) 275-277

Reviewed by
Paul S. Seaver
Stanford University
Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London: Simon Forman, Astrologer, Alchemist, and Physician. By Lauren Kassell (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2005) 281 pp. $90.00

The occult sciences enjoyed a kind of renaissance in late Elizabethan England as print and translation made ancient, medieval, and earlier Renaissance [End Page 275] texts available to would-be English adepts. Despite advances in astronomy, physics, chemistry, and anatomy, the occult sciences of astrology, alchemy, and magic continued to attract practitioners at the end of the seventeenth century. Witness Isaac Newton's alchemical experiments. Baconian empiricism may ultimately have triumphed, but in the last decades of the sixteenth century, it was not at all evident that the future did not belong to those following in the footsteps of Dr. John Dee, mathematician, astrologer, alchemist, cartographer, and magus.

Dee's most famous, or infamous, successor was doubtless Simon Forman, a generation younger than Dee, a largely self-taught adept who, during years spent in bouts of manual labor alternating with school teaching (and a little over a year spent at Oxford), managed to create a growing reputation as a practitioner of astrological physic. By the 1590s, his astrological casebooks show that he was seeing more than 1,000 patients a year, distilling his own medicines, and manufacturing sigils and amulets that permitted possessors to access astral powers. Since he was living in London and later that decade in Lambeth, his activities became known to the College of Physicians, who interviewed him, found him totally deficient in knowledge about medicine and astrology (as Kassell argues, the College had no objection to astrology per se), and had him imprisoned on several occasions for practicing medicine without a license. There is no evidence that Forman was killing larger numbers of patients than the licensed physicians, but success in the practice of medicine was never the issue. Forman eventually moved to Lambeth, beyond the College's jurisdiction, and ignored the College's continual summonses. When he died in 1611, his papers passed to his friend Richard Napier, a fellow astrological physician, and, on Napier's death in the 1630s, to Elias Ashmole.

Given that there are modern studies of Forman, which Kassell duly acknowledges (her footnotes testify to the fact that she has apparently read everything of relevance, concerning both Forman and the occult sciences), Kassell asserts at the outset that she has not written another biography but rather has attempted to recover "his voice for the histories of medicine and the occult sciences" (3). This proved a formidable task, both because Forman wrote so much (a listing of his extant manuscripts runs to eight pages), and because he was anything but a systematic thinker. Forman borrowed and bought everything that he could concerning astronomy, astrology, and physic, alchemy and the distillation of drugs, the manufacture of the philosophers' stones, geomancy, and "all depe and subtille artes" (228). Although he believed astronomy to be the queen of the sciences, and astrology the operative means to determine God's will and intention in disease and healing, he never developed a theoretical or unified understanding of the relationship between the various strands of occult knowledge that he purveyed. He was concerned only with practice. He cast horoscopes as a prognostic tool, prescribed drugs and alchemical distillations based on Paracelsian practices, summoned spirits (never successfully) and employed astral magic. Because he [End Page 276] rarely noted outcomes, he could only point to his successful practice and growing wealth as evidence of his efficacy.

Kassell's study, if not easily digested, is a deeply learned work. She embeds Forman's commentaries in the Renaissance world of the occult sciences, noting the sources that he used, ranging from the cabala to the apocryphal "Life of Adam and Eve." How a busy medical practice allowed time for Forman to copy and comment on so many texts can only be explained by a voracious appetite for practical occult knowledge. Kassell does not attempt...


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