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.

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