1600-1650: What Sickness Could Your Protagonist Suffer From?

Are you in need of an illness, sickness or some other form of human pain — and your novel is set in Elizabethan England?

Choose from 85000 medical consultations, held between 1596 and 1634.


1600 in England. Imagine you could hear a patient talking. How she suffers. How she suddenly opens up and reveals everything, because she trusts her doctor … About not getting pregnant, or about getting pregnant and not wanting it. About constipation, bad breath or serious sleep problems — raw, honest confessions of a desperate human seeking help. A woman who worries about her life. In fear of death.

When you read these 1600s casebooks, you listen closely. And you’ll also learn how much the patient had to pay …


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Just for authors — Confidential doctor-meets-patient information from 1600-1650

The two gentlemen who noted down these confidental encounters were: Astrologer-physicians Simon Forman & Richard Napier.

In the 1600s, they consulted with ordinary (as well as rich and famous!) people who were worried about their health. Now, you can read their medical casebooks on a digital database.

A caveat: This online resource is not geared towards authors, but towards historians. However, the editors provide several helpful articles which will make reading the casebooks much easier for you. Ignore the notes on 1600s punctuation, or Forman’s odd Latin vocabulary, and filter out just the information that you could use for plotting your novel. The articles reveal so much background knowledge on the doctors’ and patients’ daily lives.

Browsing through the topics of consultation alone will spark ideas for your 1600s novel. Search their database of medical problems. Or examine their list of certain illness symptoms, including bleeding, hiccups, worms or “cannot speak”.

But the patients did not only see Dr Forman & Dr Napier because of medical problems. The extensive list of non-medical categories contains … 


… for example: A man is concerned because of the disease of his animals (actually, he DOESN’T ask the astrologer-physicians to CURE them, but he wants to know which kind of spell has caused this!)

Personal Affairs

… like ship owners asking about the welfare of an absent ship. Others ask questions about the location of missing possessions. Also: Which of two or more people will die first? Should I embark on a journey, and when? Or: Should I remain in or change my current employment?

… and Sex, Romance & Marriage.



Many, many queries deal with sexual fidelity (past, present or — yes, future) of spouses. It almost seems as if Simon Forman was some sort of “Elizabethan therapist”.

“A lot of women would talk to him about their sex lives,” says Dr Lauren Kassell, Director of The Casebooks Project when talking about the astrologer in an interview with http://www.cam.ac.uk. “It is clear that he thinks a woman’s sexual activity is fundamental to her health. One of my hypotheses is that part of Forman’s success was down to the fact that women felt they could approach him to discuss sexual issues.”



If you want to delve deeper, then you can work with the original casebook entries.

See a typical page here: http://www.magicandmedicine.hps.cam.ac.uk/the-manuscripts/anatomy-of-a-case

And read the annotated version here, with further explanation: http://www.magicandmedicine.hps.cam.ac.uk

* Other points of interest you could use for a 1600s novel: Forman oversaw his own practice in London, whereas Napier’s practice was in rural Buckinghamshire. Scan their notes for particular “city” or “rural” health problems.

* You can also find entries about REFUNDS if the diagnosis is proven wrong!

(A possible conflict for your story?)

* Pay attention to who is actually the “Querent” (the person asking the question), and who is the patient. If a woman asks something about her husband’s prospects, her husband is actually the ‘patient’ — even if he’s not even there!

That said: The editors advise caution when it comes to interpreting terms such as mother, father, brother, sister, son or daughter. They could also mean ‘mother-in-law’, ‘brother-in-law’, or ‘stepmother’, ‘stepbrother’ etc. Sometimes, these terms could also be used to refer to godparents or godchildren. (Read more here)

The glossary of terms — both for English and Latin words — proves extremely helpful when reading the documents. In addition to that, a dictionary from Shakespearean times might also be useful to understand the entries.


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»What is my disease? Am I pregnant? Will I die?«

In early modern England, the popular astrologer-physicians Simon Forman & Richard Napier noted down what made their patients suffer. Being in business for almost 40 years, they recorded 85000 consultations with their clients. 

This extensive digital database provides an extraordinary insight into Elizabethan society. Therefore, it can be a useful source for any novelist who wants to write about early modern England.

> Read the Casebooks: http://www.magicandmedicine.hps.cam.ac.uk


Eye-glasses, ca. 1600. ~ Credit: Wellcome Library, London


All quotes from Lauren Kassell (ed.), with Michael Hawkins, Robert Ralley and John Young: The Casebooks Project at http://www.magicandmedicine.hps.cam.ac.uk/, accessed on March 13th, 2015.