Lauren Kassell

Talking Cures in Early Modern England

formanMy recent work on the astrological casebooks of Simon Forman and Richard Napier has focused on the role of written records in medical encounters. The astrologers documented most of their consultations as they were in progress, recording details about the patient and his or her question, then mapping the positions of the stars at the moment of the consultation. The astrologer needed to work with pen and paper, and these tools were part of the healing dynamic. They helped the astrologer to establish his authority and secure his patients’ trust. Trust, as the good physician knew, was the basis of a successful cure.

This paper asks a related question: what was the importance of the verbal exchange between the early modern practitioner and his patients? Talk, of course, is fleeting, and my evidence will be drawn from careful scrutiny of the astrologers’ casebooks, as well as from reflections about such exchanges in medical and astrological manuals and polemical works. The analysis will be framed in terms of recent work on the hydraulic body: now that we know that early modern healing practices were understood in terms of fluids and excretions, expulsive remedies have come to the fore in histories of medicine. ‘Better out than in’ is a narrative that applies to diseases, emotions and demons. With Freud, talk became codified, like earlier forms of confession and exorcism, as an expulsive mechanism. I’m not interested in Freud, but, I will argue, this narrative inflects much of the history that has been written about early modern healing dynamics. Modern historians, just like early modern physicians and natural philosophers who wrote about the physiology of prayer and dispossession, simultaneously accept the power of voicing a complaint and question its efficacy. Talking cures are difficult to test, and to suggest that they needed to be was to challenge a physician’s authority and imply that his patients were credulous.

Visit for the latest updates to the Casebooks Project: A Digital Edition of Simon Forman’s and Richard Napier’s Medical Records.

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