Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Barbara Traister on the Occult Physician Simon Forman

Posted by Darin Hayton on 03/31 at 10:15 PM

In the latest Brown Bag Lecture over at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Barbara Traister spoke about the infamous “occult physician” Simon Forman.1 Her talk focused on a particular manuscript—“Of Appoticaries Druges” (MSS Ashmole 1494 & 1491)—and her part in editing and publishing it. When the project is finished, the editors will produce an on-line edition of the text. Although Traister and her colleagues intend to produce something less ambitious than “The Chymystry of Isaac Newton” that Jim Voelkel spoke about last month (see this post), they expect the work to attract the attention of many different scholars. Perhaps because Forman was not as important a figure as Newton, Traister offered a justification for her project, claiming that his work provided a lens onto the cultural and intellectual context of early 17th-century alchemy and science more broadly. Throughout her talk she returned to Forman’s place as an early experimentalist, casting him as something of a forerunner of the 17th-century science more commonly associated with the Royal Society.2

Barbara Traister speaking on the English “occult physician” Simon Forman

Traister’s began by talking about the manuscript itself, why it was a manuscript rather than a printed text, why Forman preferred manuscripts, how it ended up in the Bodleian Library, and what sort of text it is. “Of Appoticaries Druges” is a practical text rather than a theoretical one. It includes nearly 300 recipes, operations, medical treatments, and astrological instructions—e.g., Aurum potabile, Of cutting of haire, Snake, Sublimation, Things forbidden in philosoph, and not to be used in the art, De Vitriole. Most of the text is in plain English, often referring to ingredients and apparatus familiar or available in England. Throughout the text Forman provided cross references to alchemical literature. Traister has tried to track down these references and found that many of them seem to be erroneous or, perhaps, entirely fabricated. Even those that include folio numbers often point nowhere. Traister suggested that Forman probably made up these references simply to remind himself that a certain author had written something related.3

Most of Forman’s texts survive as manuscripts. Traister claimed that Forman’s preference for manuscripts stemmed from an early attack he suffered when he printed a pamphlet and from the unfinished nature of manuscripts as opposed to the fixed or completed nature of a printed text. In the early 1590s Forman printed a short pamphlet, The Groundes of the Longitude, in which he promised to teach students a secret method of divining longitude. Thomas Hood, a London instrument maker, immediately attacked Forman in his own pamphlet. Forman apparently so feared future attacks that he didn’t publish anything else. Along with offering protection from such attacks, manuscripts allowed Forman to continue revising and editing his texts. Manuscripts are never finished. Forman could always add another observation or another reference. If he had printed books, any additions would have to be included in subsequent editions rather than incorporated directly into the originals. For these reasons, Traister said, Forman produced only manuscripts.

The text itself included numerous recipes. Traister read one—a recipe for pseudo liquid gold—to show the many twists and turns, the complicated operations and the multiple steps involved in an alchemical operation. She pointed out that it is no wonder, given the complexity of such recipes, that alchemy often failed to produce the sought after product and that alchemists continued to believe in alchemy despite their repeated failures. It was easy to blame a particular step in the procedure as having derailed the entire process.

Another example was Forman’s instructions for the weapon salve—a salve that was supposed to heal the wounded person when applied to the weapon that caused the wound. Again, the process was incredibly complicated and offered a host of variations, including substituting sticks for the actual weapon and anointing bullets or the barrel of the gun. Despite the complexity of the recipe, Forman used plain English and suggested using a range of ingredients that would have been more familiar to the standard Englishman. In other words, he consciously tried to make his recipes accessible rather than concealing them behind metaphorical and mystical language.

Forman’s plain approach is one of the key reasons his work is interesting. He expressed his work in clear terms accessible to any reader, just as the experimental philosophers did later in the century. Moreover, he was an experimentalist, at least a proto-experimentalist, before Francis Bacon and the Royal Society. He experimented on himself, kept clear notes from his observations and treatments so that he could refer to them, and modified his practices based on the success or failure of his previous efforts. In other words, Forman displays the very characteristics that became the hallmarks of “science” that developed later in the century.

What remains something of a puzzle is: For whom were these manuscripts written? Traister thinks that Forman intended to circulate them amongst a well-defined audience. This might be true, but she didn’t provide any evidence for that conclusion. If Forman didn’t intend to circulate the manuscript or if he intended only to show it to students or some other limited audience, how does this alter our interpretation of his use of English? Traister admitted that Forman coded and concealed some aspects of his work, but didn’t see this as indicative of the secrecy normally associated with alchemical practice. In fact, she dismissed his efforts to conceal his work, claiming that Forman was “forward looking” in his efforts to share his work and to tell people about it. But then why conceal anything? Why write English words in Greek letters if not to hide it from somebody?

Finally, Traister’s talk raises some historiographic questions: How do we justify studying a particular person or episode? Does there have to be some link to future progress? And why is alchemy an acceptable object of historical study, one that needs no justification, but astrology isn’t? Astrology taints even the study of alchemy: Traister claimed that Forman was an “occult physician” because he combined alchemy and astrology. Just alchemy was okay, but throw astrology into the mix and we have an occultist. Would Forman have thought that his astrological practices were occult?

1Forman seems to have become the latest John Dee: a quirky English alchemist who elicited derision and contempt from most of his peers and who, for centuries, escaped much notice in the historical scholarship only to be revived lately as a herald for various aspects of the development of 17th-century science. While Forman hasn’t yet generated a cottage industry, as Dee has, he has begun to attract considerable scholarly attention by, among others, Barbara Traister and Lauren Kassell. See, for example: J. Cook, Dr Simon Forman: A Most Notorious Physician; B. Traister, The Notorious Astrological Physician of London: Works and Days of Simon Forman; L. Kassell, Lauren Kassell. Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London: Simon Forman: Astrologer, Alchemist, & Physician
2In offering these justifications Traister began to address some of the questions lingering after Jim Voelkel’s talk, but left unanswered: Why a digital version? How will that be more useful than a printed version? If the answer is simply accessibility, we should be explicit about that.
3Another possibility that Traister mentioned but seemed to dismiss was that these references pointed to texts from Forman’s own collection. It seems possible that some of these texts have been lost or not yet identified. Because Traister has looked for and failed to find some of the specific terms Forman cites, she concludes that he couldn’t have simply been mistaken about folio numbers. It seems an open question: Was Forman making up references to remind himself to look up the actual folia? Was Forman mistaken? Was Forman citing his own copies of texts, copies that are now lost? Or …?

Tags: alchemy, barbara traister, brown bag lecture, chemical heritage foundation, public lecture, simon forman