The People’s Herbalist: Nicholas Culpeper

The rebel herbalist of the mid-seventeenth century made medicine accessible to the poor.

| June/July 2002

Nicholas Culpeper, notorious bad-boy herbalist of the mid-seventeenth century, may be responsible for giving medical herbalism its long-standing reputation for quackery. Vilified during his lifetime by the powerful Royal College of Physicians for daring to translate their Latin Pharmacopoeia into English, and denounced after his death for his beliefs, the name of Nicholas Culpeper is still synonymous with superstition and quasi-magical beliefs.

And yet we owe a very great debt to this renegade, who made a remarkably valuable contribution to the history and lore of herbs by preserving the fascinating tradition of orally transmitted superstitions and folk uses of plant medicines that dates from classical antiquity through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This oral lore belonged to the ordinary people, especially to the peasants who lived in the villages and countryside, and to the so-called witches, the wise ones who understood the ancient healing uses of plants—what today we call “green medicine.”

From the beginnings of chemical medicine in Europe, around the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, physicians and surgeons wanted to eradicate the tradition of self-healing and replace it with their own forms of care. With the cooperation of the church, they actively harassed the village healers, making every effort to discredit them and keep them from passing along their traditional knowledge. When the healers were gone, their knowledge was gone too. If it had not been for two men, a Swiss-German doctor known as Paracelsus and an English apothecary’s apprentice—Culpeper—that traditional knowledge might well have been erased. Paracelsus’ writings never achieved any great popularity, even in his homeland. Culpeper, however, is a different story.

Life and times

Culpeper was born and died in a century when it was dangerous for anyone but licensed physicians to possess and share medical knowledge. It is to him, however, that we owe much of our understanding of traditional herbal medicine, particularly that connected with astrology. In fact, if it had not been for his systematic documentation and preservation of this knowledge, and his insistence that it be put into the people’s hands in a form that they could use, the information would almost certainly have been lost.

Culpeper was born in 1616 a.d. in Surrey, England. The Culpepers were an aristocratic, land-owning family whose history went back to the time of King John (who reigned from 1199 to 1216 a.d.). Culpeper’s father, a young clergyman, died two weeks before his son’s birth. Culpeper’s widowed mother took the boy to live near her family. Her father, a clergyman who was also something of an astrologer, taught the boy Greek and Latin and then sent him off to Cambridge, where he was recognized as a brilliant scholar with a great deal of promise. He was also headstrong and willful, however, and within the year (1634) he had spent his father’s small fortune and fallen passionately in love with a rich young woman. The pair planned a clandestine marriage, but her coach was struck by lightning on the way to the wedding and the bride was killed.

This tragedy changed the direction of Culpeper’s life. Now nineteen, he left Cambridge and abandoned his plan to enter the church. His grandfather, at a loss as to how to help him, purchased an apprenticeship with a London apothecary, and although Culpeper was never licensed, this was to become his profession for life. Within a few years, he was established in business in Bishopsgate under the license of an apothecary named Leadbetter and had begun a serious study of herbal medicines and astrology.

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