Shakespeare and the alchemists

An astrologer at work

An astrologer at work

I’ve recently been investigating a website that allows us to get a close look at the medical world of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. The Casebooks Project “aims to make available the astrological records of Simon Forman and Richard Napier — unparalleled resources in the history of early modern medicine. Our database of transcriptions, browsable and searchable, brings together the details of the thousands of clients who consulted these men and the questions they asked. It allows sophisticated interrogation and easy perusal of a manuscript archive famed as much for its difficulty as its riches.” I wrote a post about Simon Forman including information about this project back in 2011. Things have now moved on.

Richard Napier

Richard Napier

Between 1596 and 1634 these two astrologers recorded about 80,000 consultations, and the casebooks are some of the fullest surviving historical medical records. The bulk of the consultations, about 70,000 of them, are by Napier from his practice in Buckinghamshire. Not only do they give an indication of the kind of treatment patients were offered, they show the kind of ailments and worries that people four centuries ago experienced. Each consultation is transcribed and searchable, making this a fantastic resource. As well as the transcriptions themselves there is a description of how the consultations were carried, a guide to astrology and information about both the astrologers. The casebooks of both men are now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford where they fill 64 volumes. When you consider the difficulty of reading the pages, this is an astonishing work of scholarship. I know it’s churlish of me to complain, but the website is quite tricky to navigate so if you do want to try it out you may have to  persevere!

A page from Forman's casebook

A page from Forman’s casebook

Here are a few examples of the cases the two men reported:
On 28 February 1599 Mary Travell of Gothurst, aged 20, consulted Napier, sick at heart because 2-3 years after her marriage she “cannot goe no children”.

On 27 May 1601 Nicholas Knight of Lambeth consulted Forman, concerned that Alice Baker of Lambeth or Alice Soot of Streatham “have bewitched his cattell”.

On 24 June 1601, Elizabeth Brown, aged 60, consulted Forman to ask whether “ther be any evil don against he for that she prospereth not. And wy the Crowes doe follow her”.

Simon Forman

Simon Forman

Shakespeare-lovers will be familiar with the name Simon Forman because as well as recording his medical work he also wrote accounts of visits to the theatre. The most famous of these accounts is his 1610 description of Macbeth,  a play which included many of his interests in particular the supernatural, and the connection between character and health. His report focuses on the prophecies, the reported disturbances in the weather during the night of the murder of Duncan, and includes the note “Observe also how Macbeth’s queen did rise in the night in her sleep, and walked and talked and confessed all, and the doctor noted her words”.

The Casebook project provides both information about the world of the two astronomers and an amazing level of detail. At the other end of the scale I’ve been enjoying Dan Falk’s breezy book The Science of Shakespeare that surveys many different aspects of science in Shakespeare’s time. The blurb for the book declares:
William Shakespeare lived at a remarkable time—a period we now recognize as the first phase of the Scientific Revolution. New ideas were transforming Western thought, the medieval was giving way to the modern, and the work of a few key figures hinted at the brave new world to come: The methodical and rational Galileo, the skeptical Montaigne, and—as Falk convincingly argues—Shakespeare, who observed human nature just as intently as the astronomers who studied the night sky.

Falk certainly knows his Shakespeare, and his arguments range widely. He can get a bit stuck on favourite theories, but he covers a great deal of ground almost effortlessly. Our astrologers Simon Forman and Richard Napier don’t get a mention but he does note that astrology was seen as so important that “in 1599 Shakespeare’s company consulted an astrologer to decide on the best day to open the Globe Theatre.” In his plays Shakespeare doesn’t come down on either side: on the one hand those who believe in astrology, like Gloucester in King Lear, are sometimes seen as gullible, easily tricked by his evil son Edmund. But in Macbeth, as well as the rough night when Duncan is murdered, worse follows:
Thou seest, the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,
Threaten his bloody stage: by the clock, ’tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp

Julius Caesar famously ignores the warnings of the Soothsayer and of the sacrifice made on the Ides of March. It’s described again in Hamlet:
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets;
As stars with trains of fire, and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.

The 80,000 consultations given by Forman and Napier are certainly pretty convincing evidence that the Elizabethans and Jacobeans believed in astrology, and Shakespeare offers examples that would have convinced them they were right to do so.

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One Response to Shakespeare and the alchemists

  1. William Ray says:

    Interesting how William Shakspere from Stratford never issued any celestial information beyond the year 1604, when the invention of the astronomy-telescope, the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, and supernov events occurred after that point. And regarding the science of astrology, with whom did he study? We do not know, just as we do not know how he acquired an absolutely astounding comprehension of medicine in the Renaissance era. For those inclined toward the Earl of Oxford as promoting and learning this expanse of wisdom and knowledge, there is ample documentation that the Earl studied with John Dee, the Queen’s astrologer, that he was tutored by Sir Thomas Smith, who wrote the central book on plants for medical purposes, that he sponsored John Gerard’s book on herbs, and that George Baker, the Queen’s physician, translated ‘The New Jewell of Health’, the leading medical book of the time, and dedicated it to Oxford’s wife.

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