John Bossy

  • The Notorious Astrological Physician of London: Works and Days of Simon Forman by Barbara Howard Traister
    Chicago, 260 pp, £19.00, February 2001, ISBN 0 226 81140 9
  • Dr Simon Forman: A Most Notorious Physician by Judith Cook
    Chatto, 228 pp, £18.99, January 2001, ISBN 0 7011 6899 4

Twenty-five years ago A.L. Rowse, whose memory becomes more blessed in an age of research assessment exercises, made known to the world the riveting personality of the Elizabethan and Jacobean astrologer, private-enterprise medical practitioner, counsellor, sexual athlete and compulsive writer Simon Forman. Forman’s voluminous papers, case-notes, diaries and all sorts of other writings had been in the Bodleian Library since Elias Ashmole presented them in the late 17th century. They contained a vast amount of anecdote about all sorts of people, mainly in Elizabethan London: a treasure of knowledge which historians have found hard to place in their reconstructions of the Elizabethan soul and body.

Rowse had come upon Forman in the investigation of his candidate for Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, a promising one if such a person is required: the Court musician Emilia Bassano, Emilia Lanier once married, who consulted him as to whether her husband would get a knighthood and she become a real lady. She did not, though Forman said she would, but thanks to Rowse and to his informant Roger Prior, she has become sufficiently famous after her death to make up for her failure to become a lady in life. Rowse found another Shakespearian connection who had consulted Forman: the wife of a French wig-maker in Silver Street in London, Mrs Mountjoy. Shakespeare had lodged with her, to spare expense while he was accumulating his property in Stratford, and was on close terms with the family. He acted for the Mountjoys in persuading one of their apprentices to marry their daughter Mary, and performed the rite of betrothal with them: I presume he held their wrists and joined their hands while they exchanged their verba de futuro – a slightly antiquated performance which supports what his plays might suggest, that Shakespeare was something of a traditionalist. It is indeed a pity, as Rowse lamented, that the great man did not himself consult Forman: perhaps he was too busy, too healthy and too prosperous, possibly too sceptical or simply too male.

Aside from the Shakespearian angle, Rowse was mainly interested in Forman’s accounts of his prolific (hetero)sexual adventures: he had, says a more up-to-date historian than Rowse, Michael MacDonald, ‘a mesmerising personality and the sexual appetite of a goat’, and studded his diary with his ‘haleking’, as he put it, with an A to Z of his women, and with planning or avoiding such occasions as his consultation of the stars suggested. Halekekeros harescum tauro was Forman’s full version of the term, which has puzzled everybody, unduly I think. According to Liddell and Scott, the Greek ‘alektwr means ‘cock’, keraV, ‘horn’, ‘areskw, ‘to please’, and tauroV, of course, ‘bull’: hence the phrase means roughly ‘a horny cock pleasing to a bull’, reduced to ‘halek’ = ‘cock’. Forman’s Greek was evidently modest, like Shakespeare’s; and, for somebody who had taught in a grammar school, his Latin was no great shakes either. But his classics would do for the purpose.

‘What a free-for-all Elizabethan sex-life was!’ Rowse exclaimed complacently, seeing it as a specific feature of Elizabethan-Renaissance men and women. Well, Forman may have been a one-off city goat, as his contemporary the Italian miller Menocchio, recorded by Carlo Ginzburg, may have been a one-off village sceptic; but you can’t deny that he provides a heap of evidence about the penchant for adultery of Elizabethan wives. And just as Rowse’s speculations about Emilia Bassano were not absurd, since Emilia was at or about that time the established mistress of the patron of Shakespeare’s theatrical company, Queen Elizabeth’s cousin and Lord Chamberlain, Lord Hunsdon, so there may also be something in Rowse’s sexual free-for-all: one moral regime perhaps discarded, another not yet established, something like what Burckhardt claimed for Renaissance Italy.

Rowse’s enthusiasms do not cut much ice with Barbara Howard Traister, a professor of English tempted by the New Historicism. She has tried to embrace the whole corpus of Forman’s writings, and says that his manuscripts are more her subject than he is; she wants to pursue through them, not the ‘eccentric and exotic’, by which she feels that Rowse was lured from the true path of scholarship, but the ‘mundane details of 16th-century life’: haleking doesn’t appear, and then modestly, until Chapter 7, Shakespeare not at all. One can see the point, but one may also disagree with it. Hers is a sober, calm, elegantly written, scholarly and partly mistaken portrait of Forman’s writings and doings. She provides a thumbnail sketch of his life, in the spirit of Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning, more text than fact, but is convinced that he failed to achieve the goal of his self-construction, ‘a place in the power structure’. She is fine on his medical self-education, visible through his continuing elaboration and commentary on a 15th-century medical textbook: a progress in learning and skill which gave substance to his practice and to his writings about menstruation, plague and melancholy.

Forman’s method was a mixture of astrological prophecy, Galenic humoral theory, and the results of experience, but Traister plays down the astrology. Only 15 per cent of his consultations dealt with healthy people wanting him to foretell their success in love and marriage, promotion up the ladder of degree, the return of sailor husbands from the sea, the finding of lost dogs, dropped rings, buried treasure; and there is no evidence in his own writings that he handed out love potions. He was more respectful of symptoms actually described, which he was a pioneer in recording, than of astrological stereotypes. He was committed to curing the poor as well as the rich, as in the plague of 1593. True, he was expensive, but his charges were brought down by an element of no-win-no-fee, by non-payment, and probably by accepting from women sexual compliance in lieu of cash. He comes out as something of a public benefactor, rather than the wizard and con man he has been thought to be, or Rowse’s sex maniac and hanger-on of the aristocracy. His treatments were quite often followed by cures, which do not seem wholly coincidental: possibly more often than the urine-testing (‘pisspot’ diagnosis, he said) and pulse-taking practised by the learned College of Physicians, which persecuted him for illegal practice until he managed to acquire an MD from Cambridge in 1603.

All this is persuasive, and fits in with a view of astrological medicine now current. My only problem is with the way Traister places Forman’s career and reputation at the end of her book, where the metaphysics of New Historicism stick out awkwardly. She invokes these occult powers apropos of the most sensational case in that career, Forman’s connection with the amorous projects of the Jacobean society beauty Frances Howard, who wanted to divorce her husband and marry James I’s favourite Robert Carr, and apparently procured the death by poison of Carr’s friend Sir Thomas Overbury, who was against the marriage. Howard had consulted Forman about the fulfilment of her passion, and her confidante Mrs Anne Turner, who was supposed to have got hold of the poison, had been very intimate with Forman, and not, it seems, for haleking purposes. Turner was executed, and her villainy blamed on the diabolic arts of Forman, who was by then dead; Frances Howard got off with a short spell in prison. ‘In a patriarchal society,’ says Traister, ‘the idea that a young noblewoman might have herself planned the poisoning of a prominent courtier was unthinkable.’ So Forman took the blame, and at the trial and afterwards was vilified as a necromancer and charlatan. This will not do at all. In the 15th century it was absolutely normal for women of the high aristocracy to be accused of murdering personal or political enemies by witchcraft or poison, thought to be roughly the same thing. It’s true that this seems to have rather gone out in the 16th century: Mary, Queen of Scots, encouraged gunpowder and the dagger. But unthinkable, no. As used here, ‘patriarchal society’, like ‘institutional racism’, is an idea too metaphysical by half.

Judith Cook’s Dr Simon Forman: A Most Notorious Physician has a similar title to Barbara Traister’s, reports much the same events, and comes to much the same conclusions if we leave out patriarchal society, but it does so in a narrative framework, beginning at the beginning and ending at the end. It is technically amateurish; the style is rather sloppy; the references are chaotic; names are randomised; the grip on Forman’s historical circumstances is feeble. All the same, the book gives you a sense of Forman’s human history which Traister hardly conveys and, to be fair, is not really trying to convey. Traister doesn’t tell you, as Cook does, what must be an important fact about Forman: that he didn’t leave Salisbury and environs, where he was born, until 1589, when he was 37. He found his first, and continuing, love there; he began his medical studies there and acquired a good practice, which included the gentry; he had patrons and important friends, as well as the enemies who put him in jail from time to time; he was Lord of the Revels at Christmas. There was thus a dense provincial background to his celebrated career in London. Cook also has something to contribute about his final years, from his Cambridge MD to his death in 1611, reportedly from some kind of attack while rowing across the Thames: ‘Tranquillity’ is the title of this chapter, and it seems appropriate, though ‘Complacency’ might do as well. He was rich, settled in a substantial property in Lambeth, where he took to gardening, with a wife and one surviving child. He went to the plays on Bankside, including to Shakespeare’s, of which he wrote accounts; he was featured in some of them, as he was by Jonson as ‘Oracle Forman’. Rather an establishment figure, I’d say, pace Traister. We can be certain about his relations at Court, and fairly certain about his procurement of love potions for such as Frances Howard, though I see no sign that his services extended to the furnishing of poison. Since we don’t have his diary for the period, we are dependent on the evidence in the Overbury case for a judgment about his doings; but Cook is less sceptical than Traister about this, I think rightly. Forman’s alleged gazetteer of ‘what ladies loved what lords’ at Court sounds genuine, as do the two surviving letters from Frances Howard and Mistress Turner. We can’t doubt the reality of the ‘pictures in black lead, a man and woman naked, belly to belly in bestial fashion’, since they were produced in court, along with a brass mould for multiplying them. These were found in Turner’s effects, and it is not certain that they were the product of her long hours closeted with Forman. But I guess they came from him: brass moulds appear elsewhere in his correspondence, and it was a standard part of his medical practice to make ‘effigies’ of his patients. It seems a perfectly good conjecture that during this prosperous time his concern for the ‘distressed poor’ declined, and a profitable interest in the love affairs of the aristocracy took over.

If we try to work out what made Forman tick, I think we shall find that Cook’s clumsiness and naivety are more help than Traister’s sophistication. I take two of Traister’s judgments, which seem misguided. Forman, she says, was ‘a humourless, anxious man, trying desperately to become something he was not’; he had for his enemy ‘a social structure that was closed against him’. I can’t testify to Forman’s sense of humour, but ‘anxious’ is not the right word; as for the ‘social structure’, it isn’t something you can be an enemy of. Forman was very strong about genuine friends and enemies, and that is where we should start thinking about his frame of mind. This view of the social scene was one of the many traditional things about him, rather than a case of individual paranoia. It comes out markedly, as Traister reveals, in his numerous inelegant poems, as in ‘Forman his Thanksgiving and Acknowledgement of the Power of God . . .’:

And when I was in great despair
Then God did comfort send
Confounding all my deadly foes
That mischiefs did pretend.

It comes out most clearly in one called ‘Psalm per Forman of the Wickedness of the Time’, where he proceeds from a polemic against the rich for oppressing the poor and perverting justice to what he is more interested in:

And let mine enemies feel thy force
And those that me withstand
Find out thy force and let them feel
The Power of thy Right hand
And like an oven burn them Lord
With fiery flame and fume
Thine anger let destroy them all
And fire let them consume.

This is perfectly in accord with a literal reading of the Psalms, which are mostly about the persecution of the psalmist by his enemies and the appalling vengeance that God’s wrath will bring on them. For the conventional Christian this had all been spiritualised and allegorised away; not for Forman. No wonder he was thrilled by the Apocalypse; no wonder he was convinced of the maleficence of witches, and contemptuous of those like Reginald Scot who tried to stick up for them; no wonder he thought that visitations of the plague were frequently effects of the wrath of God, with which it was not proper for him to interfere.

We can be fairly sure that we are here somewhere near the centre of his beliefs, because in 1587, when he was still at Salisbury, he was ‘taken in the church praying and for my book I was sent to prison’. According to his enemy Giles Estcourte, the sheriff, he was ‘taken at morning prayer with a book in his hand wherein are contained divers bad and foul prayers and devices’. The book was probably a Catholic primer, a prayer book which would mostly consist of psalms in English or Latin; or possibly Forman had composed something of the sort for himself. The ‘bad and foul prayers and devices’ would, I guess, be prayers adapted or composed, with appropriate marginal drawings, symbols or incantations, to draw down God’s wrath on Forman’s enemies, Estcourte among them. This was, or had been, a permissible form of prayer, invented in early medieval monasteries and much cultivated by the laity, like King Richard III, in the 15th century. Forman’s practice of this old-fashioned kind of prayer is the best guide we have to the kind of Christian he was. Not, by the exacting standards of the seminary priests of his time, any kind of Catholic, or he wouldn’t have taken his book to church. His London love, the merchant’s wife Avis Allen, was indeed a Catholic recusant, and he was consulted by proportionately more Catholics than there were even in the upper classes of late Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

But he himself was evidently no such thing. I should place him as an undenominational survivor from a particular area of pre-Reformation belief, concerned with self-defence in a social universe of friends and enemies, with achieving beneficial effects in the material world and pulling off protective or aggressive gambits against the malice of others. In this moral landscape the place of haleking was insecure: something to be concealed, or he would not have put it down in pseudo-Greek, and perhaps only in the classroom the least of the deadly sins. A sin to be sure, if venial, even in marriage, as he haleked vigorously cum Tronco, his wife, and in its indiscriminate gluttony no doubt an agent of moral decline; but sometimes a high demonstration of friendship, which could not be bad.