'Kisse myne arse': Doctor's notes reveal bizarre medical cases from 400 years ago

Highlights from one of the largest surviving sets of medical records in history, now available online, open a "wormhole" into 17-century life.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
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Leslie Katz
3 min read
Bodleian Library

In early 17th-century England, Simon Forman and Richard Napier became well known for their apparent ability to diagnose and cure medical ailments -- from delirium and depression to gonorrheaand "bloody flux" -- by studying the positions of planets and stars.

Reams of their handwritten notes on 80,000 cases survived, but filled with cryptic scribbles, mysterious astral symbols and prescriptions for curious treatments involving tobacco and horse dung, they'd be hard for most people to decipher.

That changed on Thursday. To mark a decade of the University of Cambridge's Casebook Project, aimed at digitizing one of the largest surviving sets of private medical records in history, researchers released transcriptions of their 500 favorite cases online, put into accessible English for anyone to browse.

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Richard Napier's case notes for John Wilkingson, a 28-year-old bachelor who "violated another's wife" and got gonorrhea. The transcription notes that at the time Wilkingson came to see the astrologer-doctor, "it is of Sun in Capricorn Moon separating from Mercury in Aquarius."  

Lauren Kassell, Michael Hawkins, Robert Ralley, John Young, Joanne Edge, Janet Yvonne Martin-Portugues, and Natalie Kaoukji

There are many treasures to be found here. Joan Broadbrok, 40, has a throbbing headache and "thinks her children to be rats & mice." Edward Cleaver's worrisome ill thoughts ("kisse myne arse") may stem from the witchery of a neighbor who suckled a puppy.

The project "opens a wormhole into the grubby and enigmatic world of 17th-century medicine, magic and the occult," Professor Lauren Kassell of Cambridge's History and Philosophy of Science Department and one of the project's leads, said in a statement.

"Channeled through the astrologers' pens are fragments of the health and fertility concerns, bewitchment fears and sexual desires from thousands of lives otherwise lost to history."

Indeed, the transcribed cases, which include patients' names, ages, locations, occupations and symptoms, offer a fascinating and sometimes sordid snapshot into the afflictions of patients from infants to seniors living hundreds of years ago.

The language in the cases reflects another era (28-year-old John Wilkingson, for example, was most unfortunate to have "a rapier in his privy parts," aka venereal disease, while Ellen Mariot, 25, experienced a "swimming in her head & did swoon"). But many of the ailments are the same ones that bring patients into the offices of doctors and therapists today: colds, fevers, chest pain, headaches, miscarriages, broken bones, dog bites, insomnia, anxiety, heartbreak and unhappy marriages.

Reads the case of one Elizabeth Church, 46: "Was much troubled in her mind for one that she had loved long & ago who is now married & she meeting him of late told him that if her old husband dies that then she will marry him, but she meant it not as she told me because that his wife is living. Her husband is 80 years old & does whip her & scourge her black & blue egged on by his child."

The practitioners

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An oil painting from circa 1900 thought to be of Simon Forman and probably based on the portrait of the astrologer by John Bulfinch. 

Wellcome Library, London

Simon Forman, an Oxford dropout, moved to London in the early 1590s and had limited success in business. But after becoming ill with the plague in 1592 and claiming to have cured himself, he reinvented as an (unlicensed) healer. Despite the fact that some doctors considered him a hack, he had a thriving practice. His surviving casebooks from 1596 to 1603 document up to 2,000 consultations a year.

Patients included maids, merchants, courtiers and at least one archbishop. They or their families would come to see him and his protege Napier, a country rector, and the pair would read the planetary positions at the moment of the query and judge the effects of stellar motions on the patient's health.

They'd then create an astrological chart and suggest treatments. More often than not, those involved bloodletting, purging elixirs, herbal or animal remedies. One case prescribes "bees burnt," while others suggest patients put the bodies of dead pigeons against their own: "a pigon slitt & applyed to the sole of each foote."

A little over 55% of the patients described in the casebooks were women, according to Cambridge, and many shared with striking openness details of their sex lives, fertility concerns and what today would clearly be seen as post-partum depression.

The complete casebooks are fully searchable and can be found here. The archive also includes the astrologers' diaries, which feature domestic details like punishment of a servant. But a warning: Anyone fascinated with history and medicine might need a cure for a new obsession after discovering these intriguing ledgers. Hopefully it doesn't involve sheep's blood.