By Edward Snow
In Shakespeare’s day, an all-male cast performed the Bard’s timeless masterpieces at London’s Old Globe Theatre under a stage-length ceiling mural that portrayed the 12 signs of the astrological zodiac symbolically circling the sun directly over the actors’ heads. Be it comedy or tragedy, the peerless playwright unfailingly enlivened scenes with astrologically nuanced dialogue his early 17th century Elizabethan audience was much more likely to pick up on than moderns watching his plays today.
In a recent issue of History Today, historian Lauren Kassell, PhD, a senior lecturer in the Pembroke College Department of History and Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, points out that during this period poets and playwrights used astrological language to convey correspondences between terrestrial and celestial realms, often expressed in terms of an analogy between the microcosm and the macrocosm. Shakespeare excelled at this enterprise like no other, demonstrating more than a casual familiarity with the dynamic system of celestial correspondences astrologers of the period used to evaluate personality traits and “temperament.”
But playwrights and savvy theatre goers weren’t the only subjects of the realm with an abiding interest in planetary alignments. It was not uncommon for those with a head, stomach or back ailment to urgently seek the advice of a medical astrologer to cure whatever ailed them. Many found their way to the office of Simon Forman, an enigmatic, street savvy practitioner who apparently was out of phase with the century he was born into.
Astrology was widely used by physicians in the ancient world and enjoyed a revival during the Renaissance, when it was taught as part of the medical curriculum at universities throughout Western Europe. However, by the time Shakespeare was writing his brooding, psychologically taut tragedies the Copernican revolution was gathering momentum and medical astrologers were persona non grata in London, officially at least.
Still, falling ill in Elizabethan England was a frightening proposition. Physicians continued to prescribe the same medieval treatments and remedies that originated in the second century with Greek physician-philosopher Galen. The idea was to balance the body’s four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile, which were believed to be the root of illness. Depending upon the diagnosed illness, barber surgeons might be called upon to perform bloodletting. Or apothecaries would fill prescriptions using substances designed to evacuate the body through vomits, purges or sweats.
In the treatment model that evolved, university trained physicians were the city’s medical elite; surgeons and apothecaries usually learned their craft through on-the-job training and were down a rung on the hierarchical ladder. But the lowest rung was occupied by an assortment of irregular practitioners who were operating without the approval of authorities.
According to Prof. Kassell, authorities believed Forman to be “the most obnoxious of the unlearned and unlawful practitioners lurking in many corners of the city.” The astrologer was harried, harassed and repeatedly arrested and imprisoned, either for malpractice or for practicing without a license. At one point he paused long enough to earn a medical degree from Jesus College at Cambridge University (in this period he was able to accomplish the feat in months, not years). But he still was run out and forced to work down river in the town of Lambeth, which located him just outside the jurisdictional reach of The College of Physicians of London, the organization tasked by the Crown to regulate the city’s medical community.
Upsetting the Medical Apple Cart
Apparently, Forman was not the only member of the irregular group to defy the college’s authority. But he was the only one professing the supremacy of his methods and challenging the established medical hierarchy in the name of astrology. His answer to the college’s treatment model was a one-stop-shop approach that placed the astrologer at the center of the patient’s universe. The astrologer consulted the stars, diagnosed the patient‘s illness, prepared and administered his own medicines and performed surgical bloodlettings as needed.
As Prof. Kassell puts it, Forman “fashioned himself a modern magus, driven by a passion for learning and chosen by God to overcome adversity and ultimately acquire knowledge of health and disease, life and death and the secrets of creation.” In the treatment model he advocated, the astrologer “provided a complete service in tune with the cosmos; he alone could judge whether a disease was natural, demonic or divine. And he alone could fashion amulets and potions charged with occult forces.”
In an age teetering on the brink of enlightenment, the public’s apparent acceptance of Forman and his methods had to be especially galling to authorities. The astrologer built a flourishing practice with a clientele that included courtiers and their mistresses, merchants’ wives and their servants, clergymen seeking preferment, celebrity actors and ordinary people worrying about their health. The poet Emilia Lanier, believed by some historians to be the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets, was a Forman client. And Shakespeare’s landlady, Mrs. Mountjoy, apparently visited the astrologer as well.
Another sore point for authorities: the astrologer’s wealthy friends in court repeatedly rode to the rescue during his many scrapes with the law.
Inexplicably, Forman proved himself to be a better scientist than many who criticized his methods. When British astrologer William Lilly went in search of Forman’s papers two decades after his death he found what historians believe to be the most extensive set of medical records available from that period (1596 -1634). Like a modern medical researcher might do, Forman and his protégé Richard Napier, a clergyman from Buckinghamshire, hand-recorded more than 50,000 patient visits, meticulously observing and describing symptoms, corresponding astrological alignments and the treatments prescribed. How or even if he analyzed the data isn’t clear at this point, but in his fixation on documentation he was clearly well ahead of his times.
From Lilly we learn that diagnosing sickness using the divination technique astrologers call horary was Forman’s masterpiece (meaning his area of specialization). The horoscopes he created were cast for the moment a patient first appeared in his office with a complaint, or took to their bed with an illness. About 90 percent of his consultations were medically related.
The Simon Forman Casebook Project
Today, the astrologer’s records (casebooks) are contained in 64 hefty volumes housed at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The documents are written in Forman’s scrawling hand and legible only to those with a trained eye. However, they will soon be transcribed and posted on the internet as part of the Simon Forman Casebooks Project. Prof. Kassell estimates this will be a million-word task that will not be completed until 2013.
In the papers Forman left behind are hand-copied books, manuscripts and notes on subjects that interested him, from astrology to astronomy, medicine, religion and mathematics. There’s even a volume he called his Bocke of Plaies; which contains rare eyewitness accounts of live performances of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale on stage at the Globe in 1611. But the astrologer doesn’t exactly qualify as the quintessential Renaissance man.
Shakespeare was a master at making hair on the heads of his Elizabethan audiences stand on end, and he routinely showcased the fatalistic assumptions of an age in which the concept of predestined futures continued to maintain a stranglehold on the public psyche. Forman worked the same audience, presumably with the intention of healing but apparently with the morals of a troll.
In his autobiography, Lilly refers to Forman as an “old fashioned magician.” Others have been less charitable, commenting on his alleged demonic allegiances and on the lurid details of his sexual prowess. The astrologer was a notorious womanizer and known to suffer with venereal disease — his reward for a lifetime of lustful dalliance. Despite flirtations with piety, in his bag of tricks were obscene wax images for use in love magic. He allegedly dabbled in devil worship with ladies of the court and was involved in dangerous liaisons and mischievous intrigues as well, to the point of being implicated in a scandalous murder plot. All of which makes it easier to sympathize with official efforts aimed at getting him off London’s streets.
Prof. Kassell hints at a broader problem: the Elizabethan period was unable to contain the astrologer’s implausibly conflicting persona. “From Jacobean plays to 19th-century romance novels Forman became the stock cunning man of old whose work was sinister and foolish in equal measure.” she observes.
And now, in the current century, the man is rapidly morphing as a ringer for the debauched, stereotypical conjurer skeptics seem to have in mind when scaring each other with tales about the evils of astrology. What else cultural historians will be able to learn from his fully transcribed notes and records remains to be seen, but Forman has clearly emerged in the information age looking for all the world like astrology’s worst public relations nightmare. Effectively, he personifies the archetypal charlatan authorities have been attempting to stamp out or suppress for 400 years and counting.
A More Optimistic Assessment?
Forman was no prize, but the Simon Forman Casebook Project, the first seriously funded research activity of its kind to focus exclusively on the thoughts and deeds of an astrologer, might conceivably project as a precedent-setting event that winds up opening doors to other funded research projects in the future. And there’s an outside chance Prof. Kassell’s scholarly inquiry into the life and times of a perversely interesting 17th century medical astrologer leads to further discussions regarding the legitimate role astrology can and should be playing to help alleviate pain and suffering on the planet.
Placing the astrologer at the epicenter of a magical medical treatment model isn’t likely to find much support or traction, certainly not in the western world. But a case can be made for the use of astrology in modern medicine during the discovery stage, when efforts by trained medical professionals are focused on diagnosing the origins of a disease or disorder. And astrology can be hugely helpful whenever a fertility doctor, pharmacologist or surgeon needs helpful timing advice.
Astrologer Eileen Nauman believes astrology is a cost-effective diagnostic tool that has provided life-saving insights in clinical situations. It has proven itself to be especially useful in situations where conventional medical scanning techniques have failed to diagnose the problem, or when it’s not clear to the medical professional where she/he should be looking for clues.
Nauman is author of Medical Astrology and the developer of Med-Scan, a program created to help medical practitioners use astrological “signatures” to ascertain likely psychological or physical weaknesses that might be causing disease. A trained Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) she also is author of Homeopathy 911, What to do in an Emergency Before Help Arrives and other books. Her Med- Scan program has been translated into several languages and currently is posted in English on the Cosmic Patterns Software website under the health link.
Insights and resources have continued to evolve, but professional pressures in Western societies make it difficult for medical practitioners to openly embrace astrological methods. And most are reluctant to learn enough about the subject to make an informed judgment about it. If anything, Nauman says authorities in the current era (the American Medical Association and groups like it in other Western countries) are even more unrelenting in their efforts to stamp out astrology — and any other alternative treatment options currently out of favor with the controlling organizations.
It’s unlikely we’ll see the sort of defiant push-back that characterized Forman’s rebellious antics anytime soon, but resistance has not been snuffed entirely. For example, Nauman says her Med-Scan program was greeted by a stony wall of silence when introduced 20 years ago, but some tiny fissures in the wall have appeared. She currently is working with a group of about 25 medical doctors from around the world who seek her advice when diagnosing difficult cases.
It’s a start, she believes.
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