- Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London: Simon Forman: Astrologer, Alchemist, and Physician
Lauren Kassell is not the first to be drawn to Simon Forman (1552–1611) and his extensive body of writings, which constitute one of the most comprehensive records of the history of medicine and the occult sciences in early modern England. In contrast to the previous biographical approaches (A. L. Rowse and Barbara [End Page 606] Traister), Kassell claims an approach to Forman's archive that has been rewarded with "vivid stories . . . about the circulation of esoteric texts, the politics of medicine, the popularity of astrology, the vagaries of Paracelsianism, and the powers of magic" (12–13). Kassell argues that Forman, as an untutored, irregular medical practitioner, who did not clearly fit into the traditional hierarchy of physician, surgeon, and apothecary medical practitioners, or into the definable camps of Galenic or Paracelsian medicine, provides an entrée into an anthropology of the medical world of early seventeenth-century London. Her stated aim is to recover Forman's own voice and, through this, to explore the histories of medicine, astrology, alchemy, and magic in early modern England.
Listening to Forman's voice reveals at the core his passion for learning, his love of books, his sense of divinely inspired authority, and his conviction that astrology was the only reliable source of truth about nature, life, and health. Professor Kassell develops the working out of this persona in four thematic sections. Her section on "The Making of an Astrological Physician" explores Forman's early life and self-taught studies, his study and use of hermetic and alchemical texts, and the emerging conjunction of medicine and astrology. Forman's only venture into print, The groundes of the longitude, is revealing. Here he claimed to have a method to determine longitude that has the authority of divine revelation, but he does not actually specify the method. Those interested in the secret are expected to seek him out. Characteristic of the rest of Forman's career is the central place of the occult in natural philosophy, the definition of knowledge as arcane and divinely inspired, and Forman's promotion of his own authority and pursuit of repute among other practitioners of London.
Forman's practice of medicine in London provoked opposition by the College of Physicians and generated a more intense and lasting conflict with traditional spheres of professional authority than his early tangle with mathematical practitioners. Kassell not only recounts the Forman-College contest as part of the College's defense of their status against the "irregular" medical practitioners, but sets this within the context of recurrent bouts of the plague that served as occasions in which physicians, surgeons, irregular practitioners, clerics, and astrologers contested boundaries of knowledge, authority, expertise, prayers, and medicines. How Forman's persona as a medical martyr, his Paracelsian-astrological philosophy of medicine, and his thriving practice evolved through successive versions of his plague tracts and through the dynamic of his conflict with the physicians is quite effectively developed here.
The collection of casebooks that remains from the years of Forman's medical practice is one of the rare records of an actual medical practice in the early seventeenth century. These have been used for a statistical analysis of Forman's patients and their types of complaints and treatments, as well as for their indication of Forman's social contacts and sexual exploits. Kassell goes behind these records to reconstruct his consultation practice and the dialogue between him and his clients. A consistent feature of each consultation was casting an astrological figure, [End Page 607] the hallmark of Forman's claim to be an astrological physician. Extensive reflections from Forman's treatises on astrology illustrate the interweaving of theory in his practice. With women constituting close to sixty percent of his clients, the casebooks also provide Kassell with the opportunity to explore the dynamics of gender in Forman's consultations.
A final section concentrates on Forman's...