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J R Soc Med. 2001 November; 94(11): 604–605.
PMCID: PMC1282258

The Notorious Astrological Physician of London: Works and Days of Simon Forman

Reviewed by Harold J Cook

Barbara Howard Traister
250 pp Price £19; US$30 ISBN 0-226-81149-9 (h/b)
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001 .

Simon Forman became notorious after his death in 1611. He was tainted with involvement in the scandalous death of Sir Thomas Overbury in the Tower on 14 September 1613. Overbury had been imprisoned for refusing an ambassadorship to Russia. Had he accepted the post, it would have got him out of the way of James I's favourite Robert Carr (Viscount Rochester, soon to be Earl of Somerset) and Frances Howard, wife of the Earl of Essex. Carr and Howard were carrying on an affair at court and hoping to marry after getting Howard's marriage annulled, which they eventually managed. Overbury had advised Carr, and was strongly opposed to the relationship—so it was planned to remove him abroad. Unfortunately, Overbury refused to get out of the way, was imprisoned for saying no to the King, and died. In 1615, after Carr quarrelled with James' new favourite George Villiers, rumours circulated that Overbury had been poisoned for knowing too much, and Chief Justice Coke undertook an investigation. Howard eventually pleaded guilty to the poisoning and obtained a pardon, while Carr was found guilty in a prosecution and spent six years in the Tower himself until pardoned in 1622. During the investigation, Anne Turner, widow of a physician and friend of Howard's, was accused of having helped Howard to procure Carr's love by consulting Forman, who had used black arts to help them before himself dying suddenly. Turner and three others attached to the Countess were executed for their part in the affair, although Mrs Forman escaped. Ever after, Forman's name was associated with deep plots and demonic magic. In 1974, A L Rowse wrote a book (Simon Forman: Sex and Society in Shakespeare's Age) that continued to depict him as a representative of the lusty and superstitious Elizabethan age: to Rowse, Forman was a foolish magician, a sexual glutton, and a physician to the highest ranks of English society.

Traister will have none of it, although she almost manages to avoid saying so. From examination of Forman's extant manuscripts (which survive in large parts but only for years before 1603, the rest presumably having been destroyed or confiscated at the time of the Overbury trials), Traister finds him to have been serious and diligent, engaged in medical practices typical of the period in both methods and clientele (poor and ordinary people figuring far more than the few high-placed ones); he was a virgin until the age of 30 and afterwards hardly a rake. Hers is, in fact, a fundamentally revisionist account. What a pity, therefore, that it is not more robustly presented. Forman's reputation is dealt with only at the end, although she remarks throughout on Rowse's opinions. Forman's life and character are available, but only if the reader makes an effort. For instance, she notes that, apart from the Rev. Napier to whom Forman taught astrological medicine, Forman seems to have been almost friendless, and thus vulnerable to attacks by the College of Physicians and others. (Napier's practice on patients with troubled minds was detailed thoroughly by Michael MacDonald in 1981.) How individuals managed in a corporatist society does not figure in her analysis, however; instead, she lightly touches on whether ‘self-fashioning’ is a fair word for his life, carefully waffling on the point. She quotes at length from his writings, and then summarizes what he wrote, which doubles the descriptions and risks irritating either those familiar with Elizabethan prose and spelling (for whom the summary is not necessary) or those for whom the quotations will be almost unintelligible. Above all, one comes away disappointed that Traister has not gone more deeply into Forman's system of thought, which is treated descriptively but not probed analytically.

In short, Traister's study is by implication a fundamental revision of the accepted view of Forman. For the student of Elizabethan medicine and society, there is much of interest. But she has not been bold enough, or made her mind up clearly enough, about many issues to make it enjoyable for the uninitiated. The notorious Forman himself may have been equally ambiguous about himself in his journals, but hardly so in public. He deserves a more judgmental treatment.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press