By Paul Henry / in , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , /

So in the decades around 1600 – these are
the decades when Queen Elizabeth is at the end of her reign, it the era of
Shakespeare, and plague is periodically raging particularly in London. What did
you do if you were sick? Well you could consult a physician if you had enough
money, you could consult a surgeon if you had a broken bone or skin lesions or you
can consult any range of irregular practitioners, people who are not
officially licensed by the college of physicians or the universities. And
amongst these were astrologer physicians. “Am I pregnant?”, “What is my disease?”, “Why can’t I sleep?”, “Why will the rash on my elbows not go away?”. We have all sorts of
questions recorded that people asked astrologer physicians and what the
astrologers traded in was their knowledge of the motions of the stars. This is a world in which everything is connected. So just as we fully accept that the moon affects the tides, so for them, the stars
affected everything on earth but the system was much more complicated and
what the astrologer could do was judge the effects of the planetary, the stellar
motions on your physical body. He would use the phrase “judgment” to say this is
what will happen. You will or will not be healed…. And here are the things that we
can do in order to help you to be healed. There are 65,000 individuals represented
in these casebooks but the people about whom they tell us the most are the
people who wrote them and these are astrologer physicians Simon Forman and
Richard Napier. The kind of astrology that Forman and Napier were doing is known as horary astrology and it is based on the moment at which you ask the
question or the moment at which your message arrives with the astrologer. And
he would ask you what your name was? How old you were? Whether or not you were married?
particularly if you were a woman. And probably where you lived as well. So he
would take the moment at which you had asked the question and he would then map
the positions of the stars and planets, at that time and create this lovely
twelve section chart. He would then decide that that was an indicator of the
nature of your illness in a particular kind of way. He then might also write
down a particular treatment and most of the remedies are about purges whether
they are gentle or less gentle purges but we also find remedies of other sorts
such as putting pigeons, dead pigeons on your feet. So the way medicine worked was
usually about rebalancing the body in some way or another. So we have pigeon
slippers, we have amulets, we have bloodletting, we have potions of all
different sorts. The remedies are as weird and wonderful as they they can be
across this period but usually either working with rebalancing the disruption
of the humors or channeling the stellar powers into a particular
part of the body. One of the things that we find in the casebooks that we find
most challenging are the cases of alleged witchcraft. So people would come to the astrologer and they would say “I think I have been
bewitched because I have an illness that will not go away with either the passage
of time or the usual remedies”. And part of the job of the astrologer physician
would then be to work out what was really the cause of this illness. These
guys were cause specialists. Sometimes they do assess that there’s a foul
social situation which is usually what you find in cases of witchcraft. “She
looked at me funny” and the evil eye is very much in play here. But often it’s
just a natural cause that is not responding to the usual treatments. So the case books are alive with grubby world of early modern medicine and the
occult. And we have everyone from Shakespeare’s
landlady to the Archbishop of Canterbury but what’s most remarkable about these
records is that they document the day-by-day hopes and worries of ordinary
people whether about their health and illness, about their fertility across
four decades in 17th century England. This is a world that is both very
strange to us and very familiar. This is the terrain that historians work with best.

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