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Knowing you aries from your elbow: casebooks of Elizabethan astrologer doctors digitised

The Elizabethan age was an age discovery - not just in seeking new lands, but also exploring scientific advances.

Many of those scientific breakthroughs, would now be looked as dabbling in the occult or magic.

In fact when it comes to an image of 17th century science - the common conception might be something like this from Blackadder.

But while we might laugh at such beliefs now, a belief in alchemy, astrology and divination was a serious academic pursuit.

One of the most famous practitioners was Dr John Dee. He was an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. He dabbled in everything from alchemy and astrology to the study of serious maths.

Dr John Dee Credit: Ashmolean

Astrology, now mostly seen in daily newspapers and the occasional daytime TV segment, was actually a serious healthcare option back in the 1600s.

Now the University of Cambridge has just completed a major project to digitise the casebooks of one of the leading lights in using signs from the heavens for healthcare.

The Casebooks Digital Edition, funded by the Wellcome Trust and supported by the Bodleian Library, has taken ten years to complete.

Professor Lauren Kassell, from the University's History and Philosophy Science department and her team edited and digitised 400 year-old books from doctors who used the stars to diagnose disease.

Detail from an astrology-inspired medical book Credit: Wellcome Collection.

One of those books belonged to Simon Forman, a former prisoner who managed to cure himself of the plague.

He became a healer – using astrology to diagnose and prescribe for all manner of ailments.

“It was understood that celestial movements influenced human lives and bodies through hidden beams, just as today we accept the moon affects tides. Astrologers like Forman understood how these forces worked. “The Casebooks Project opens a wormhole into the grubby and enigmatic world of seventeenth-century medicine, magic and the occult

“These unique archives are now accessible to everyone. The Project site also explores a day in the life of an astrologer, the rudiments of their medical methods, and the ingredients in their treatments. There’s even a name directory that reads like a seventeenth-century phone book.”

– Prof Lauren Kassell
Simon Forman - cured himself of the plague Credit: Wellcome Collection

As well as the cases, the digital edition includes the astrologers’ diaries, featuring domestic details like the produce of an orchard or punishment of a servant, as well as musings on dreams – including one about impregnating the queen so her swollen belly keeps her skirt from the dirty street – and outlandish attempts to make the philosophers’ stone.

To mark the conclusion of their work, the Casebook team have produced a collection of their 500 favourite cases.

Watch the University of Cambridge's short video on the project below

The site has thousands of transcripts of the various cases the likes of Forman worked on.

These include the strange case of a seven-year-old called Henry Lane, whose blotchy limbs were thought to result from his eating a spider cut in half while spreading butter on bread.

They weren't however, universally popular. In fact Forman was repeatedly accused of quackery, by London's College of Physicians, who kept fining him, and tried to shut him down – even after he secured a license to practice medicine from the University of Cambridge.

Kassell recently worked with Jennifer Schneidereit from independent games developer Nyamyam to help devise a video game of his life.