Simon Forman

Simon Forman

Simon Forman (30 December 1552 – September, 1611) was a prominent English Elizabethan occultist, astrologist and herbalist active in London.


Forman was born in Quidhampton near Salisbury, Wiltshire. After an abortive apprenticeship in Salisbury, he attended Magdalen College, Oxford. After spending a brief period as a teacher in Salisbury, he moved to London in 1592 and in 1597 developed his interest in the occult. He set up a medical practice in Billingsgate, providing astrologically based remedies. Having survived the plague outbreak in London during 1594 his medical reputation spread and attracted the attention of the Company of Barber-Surgeons (now the Royal College of Surgeons of England) who successfully banned him from medical practice. Nine months later, following the death of one of his patients, Forman was jailed. He continued to dispute with the Company of Barber-Surgeons, eventually getting a license to practice granted by the University of Cambridge.

His papers, detailing his disputes with the Company of Barber-Surgeons and his largely unsuccessful magical experiments are now in the Bodleian Library. He predicted his own death in a boat on the River Thames.

After his death he was implicated in the murder of Thomas Overbury through his association with his two patients, Lady Frances Howard, and Anne Turner.

At one time he possessed the copy of the Picatrix currently in the British Library.

Forman left behind a large body of manuscripts dealing with his patients and with all the subjects that interested him, from astronomy and astrology to medicine, mathematics, and magic. His Casebook is the most famous of these resources, though he also produced diaries and a third-person autobiography. His texts have proven to be a treasure trove of rare, odd, unusual data on one of the most studied periods of cultural history. His intimate knowledge of Shakespeare's circle makes him especially attractive to literary historians. Incidentally, one of Forman's most famous patients was the poet Emilia Lanier, a leading candidate to have been Shakespeare's Dark Lady.

Modern scholars—A. L. Rowse is one prominent example, and others have followed his lead—have exploited Forman's manuscripts for the manifold lights they throw on the less-exposed private lives of Elizabethan and Jacobean men and women.

The Book of Plays

Among Forman's manuscripts is a small document titled the "Bocke of Plaies," which records Forman's descriptions of four plays he witnessed in 1610-11, and the morals he drew from them. The document is noteworthy for the listing of three Shakespearean performances—Macbeth at the Globe Theatre on 20 April 1610; The Winter's Tale at the Globe on 15 May 1611; and Cymbeline, date and theatre not specified—and also for the debate about the document's authenticity that has characterized much of its existence. Skeptics have suspected that the Book of Plays is one of John Payne Collier's forgeries. (Collier announced his discovery of the document in 1836.)

The odd content of the Book raised suspicions. The fourth play described by Forman is a Richard II acted at the Globe on 30 April 1611; but from the description it is clearly not Shakespeare's Richard II. No other play of the same title is known from this historical interval; and the idea of The King's Men acting a Richard II other than Shakespeare's, at the Globe, has puzzled some readers. The description of MacBeth mentions characters riding, a detail that readers with a knowledge of Jacobean dramaturgy and stagecraft have found startling if not incredible. To skeptics, the riding business has stood out as a red flag of warning.

The psychological content of the text has been a stumbling-block for skeptics. The idea that Forman, a worldly-wise and canny operator—a cynic might consider him a successful con-man—would spend his time drawing sententious morals from the stage plays he saw, has struck some as psychologically false.

The spellings in the document have also aroused suspicion. While English Renaissance orthography is certainly flexible, some of the document's vagaries—"Bocke" for "book," "Rog" for "rogue," "Bomia" for "Bohemia"—suggest the comical faux-Elizabethan extravagances in the earlier forgeries of William Henry Ireland.

Much of the debate on the "Bocke of Plaies" has centered on palaeographic arguments about the manuscript's handwriting. The amateur palaeographer Samuel A. Tannenbaum was vocal in his skepticism in the 1930s; but his palaeographic criticisms were refuted by other commentators. Many scholars have accepted the Book of Plays, despite its problematic aspects, as genuine. Skeptics, however, continue to appear.

References in Fiction

Simon Forman is the protagonist of the Elizabethan mystery series by Judith Cook, The Casebook of Dr Simon Forman -- Elizabethan doctor and solver of mysteries. These well-researched mysteries are based on the original casebook manuscripts, and contain a mix of historical and fictional characters.



  • Judith Cook, Blood on the Borders: The Casebook of Dr. Simon Forman–Elizabethan Doctor and Solver of Mysteries, London, Headline, 1999.
  • Judith Cook, Dr. Simon Forman: A Most Notorious Physician, London, Chatto & Windus, 2001.
  • Lauren Kassell, Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London: Simon Forman, Astrologer, Alchemist, and Physician, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Barbara Howard Traister, The Notorious Astrological Physician of London: Works and Days of Simon Forman, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 2001.

External links

  • Extracts from Forman's Metrical Autobiography with other notes (published 1853).

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