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The Notorious Astrological Physician of London. Works and Days of Simon Forman and The Queen's Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. (Reviews).

Barbara Howard Traister, The Notorious Astrological Physician of London. Works and Days of Simon Forman

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. xviii + 250 pp. $30. ISBN: 0-226-81140-9.

Benjamin Woolley, The Queen's Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Adviser to Queen Elizabeth I

New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2001. xii + 8 pls. + 355 pp. $25. ISBN: 0-8050-6509-1.

John Dee (1527-1608/9) and Simon Forman (1552-1611), although of different generations and probably unacquainted, had much in common. Both were deeply interested in astrology alchemy, and magic, including communicating with spirits, and each suffered marginalization and stigma because of their occult interests, both in their own lifetimes and in their subsequent reputations. Both aspired to royal patronage in order to redress the impact of the Reformation and concomitant political shifts on family fortunes. Forman had the harder time. While Dee went to university Forman was self-educated. While Dee achieved marginal success at court, Forman could only dream of meeting the queen. In the end, Forman built a successful London practice with a number of prominent clients while Dee spent his last years away from court in growing poverty with few of his projects fulfilled. Together they provide an important window on intriguing strands of early modern life and culture.

Barbara Traister's aim is to rescue Forman from his reputation as a charlatan who practiced magic and fooled silly women. She accomplishes this through a study of Forman's manuscripts, from which emerges a more three-dimensional person. These manuscripts include what she calls the first autobiography in English, diaries, the earliest surviving medical case records, Forman's writings and poetry, reading notes, and books and manuscripts from his library, some of which contain annotations. Despite little formal education, Forman developed a very clear idea of self, which he consciously reworked in new circumstances in a manner she finds evocative of "self-fashioning." Without wealth and access to more conventional paths to social stature and identity, Forman was quite successful setting himself up as a practitioner of astrological medicine, eventually based in London. Forman's earliest medical books, one interleaved with copious notes from another book, allows Traister to reconstruct how Forman taught himself me dicine and reveals that he frequently tested what he read on himself. Forman's medicine derived from traditional Galenic humoral theory to which he added, over time, some Paracelsian remedies, but remained quite conservative. Forman also believed that occult influences, the chief of which were astrological, pervaded the universe, so astrology played an integral role in his medicine.

Unlike Dee and others supported by patronage, Forman lived by selling his knowledge to clients on a case by case basis. He was very successful, recording over seventeen hundred patient visits in some years. For most of these, he kept detailed case records that contain information about each patient, their symptoms, an astrological chart, and Forman's diagnosis and recommended therapy, for which he often supplied the medicinals. Traister constructs a vivid picture of his practice, including his fees and the variety of clients and their problems, allowing us to view the role of the practitioner in everyday life and the everyday world of urban London. The fact that Forman had affairs with some of his clients, even after his marriage, has generated some sensation and created the impression that Forman's practice served mainly lovelorn women and the provision of love potions. Traister dispels this image by presenting the variety of clients and their concerns. Forman saw men and children as well as women. People ca me to him for non-medical consults as well as medical, seeking astrological advice on decisions, lost objects, troubles with spirits and feats of bewitchment. We also follow Forman's frequent troubles with the Royal College of Physicians, who repeatedly summon, fine, and imprison him for challenging their monopoly on the practice of medicine in London. Attempts by elite professionals to suppress popular practitioners were nor unusual, but Traister also suggests that Forman's success attracted attention.

Traister also surveys Forman's interest in books, his busy household and the flavor of his social and domestic life, his interest in public events, and his records of plays he saw in the theatres. Traister is to be commended for being the first to thoroughly work through Forman's manuscripts. One of her aims is to introduce other scholars to the richness of this material, which she accomplishes through her revealing survey of all the facets of Forman's life, buttressed by a thorough command of other relevant sources.

Where Traister breaks new ground, Benjamin Woolley's book on Dee is more summative of previous research. Woolley is a journalist who has written the first popular biography of Dee since Charlotte Fell Smith's 1909 biography. Although the title, by sandwiching Dee between "Queen's Conjurer" and "Adviser to Elizabeth I," might portend some sensationalism, Woolley gives a considered and balanced account of Dee that is engaging and readable. We follow Dee through his studies at Cambridge and abroad, the troubles he and his father experienced under Mary, which undermined the family fortunes, through Dee's rise to favor under Elizabeth. There are some brief sidetracks on science -- Dee's birth chart provides the occasion to explain rudiments of astrology, and there are brief synopses of his Propaedeumata aphoristica and Monas hieroglyphica, but no special treatment of the Mathematiall Praeface to Euclid -- but the emphasis is on a narrative of Dee's personal and public life more than on Dee's role in contemporary science. There is a good account of Dee's role as advisor to Elisabeth and the court on a variety of matters, most of which had nothing to do with conjuring but entailed proposals to challenge Spain and laying the groundwork for Elizabeth's claims to North America, and his involvement in various plans for voyages of discovery. The bulk of Woolley's account is devoted to the period of Dee's conversations with angels through the skryer Edward Kelley from 1582 to 1589 which took Dee and Kelley on an adventurous journey to Poland and the Prague of Rudolf II and culminated in the famous episode of their sharing wives at the co mmand of the angels. Woolley is very effective at recounting the details of the Dee-Kelley relationship and at evoking a sense of time and place.

If Woolley has a thesis, it is only implied. Dee's turn to the spirits results from his growing despair with human sources of knowledge compounded by financial difficulties and a lack of support at court from William Cecil. While Woolley defends Dee as a "deeply committed Christian" (46), he was clearly unconventional and suspicious to many. He had a reputation for magic perhaps going back to the flying scarab Dee engineered for a production of Aristophanes' Peace at Cambridge, a story Woolley vividly retells, and his apparent collaboration with Bishop Bonner during the Catholic restoration gave him a dubious status in the new regime. On the perplexing relationship with Kelley, Woolley does not think Dee was merely a dupe. His journey was rather a response to the demotion in human stature in the cosmos that resulted from Copernicus and the voyages of discovery. Woolley concludes that Dee's hope in Kelley was that "they would navigate a northwest passage to universal truth before, with the onset of the modern, mechanistic age his own work helped to inaugurate, unity would become irrecoverable, and the magic would go out of the world forever." (298) As we learn from Traister's indication of the pervasive belief in the occult and the acceptance of crystal gazing by Forman and others, it was perhaps only the extent of Dee's interest in communicating with spirits and angels that was exceptional.

Woolley provides a bibliography and notes that indicate knowledge of the best scholarship on Dee. His main source is the recent edition of Dee's diaries by Edward Fenton, which explains the emphasis on the angelic conversation phase of Dee's life. At the level of detail and analysis, Woolley could have made better use of the more recent scholarship of William Sherman and Deborah Harkness. Woolley's basic touchstone remains the older Frances Yates and Peter French view of Dee as a key figure in the English Renaissance. Unfortunately, Dee's Copernicanism, his associations with the Sidney circle, and with Raleigh's "School of Night" all require a good deal of speculation and leaps from slim evidence. This is likewise the case with Woolley's suggestions of clandestine involvements by Dee, Kelley, and others in covert espionage activities. Woolley's command of scholarship and history beyond Dee is less firm, citing only older literature on Tycho Brahe and others, for instance, and having Columbus set sail from Lis bon does not build confidence. I would hope that the appeal of Woolley's account will serve to make Dee more accessible and as an invitation and not a substitute to pursue the more rigorous literature.
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Author:Clulee, Nicholas H.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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