The rebel herbalist of the mid-seventeenth century made medicine accessible to the poor.
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.
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.
Many apothecaries prepared their own traditional plant medicines for the poor who couldn’t afford expensive medicines.
Culpeper might never have gotten himself into trouble with the Royal College of Physicians if he had simply stuck to the practice of pharmacy. But there was a serious shortage of licensed doctors in London and a great many complaints about the exorbitant fees charged by members of the Royal College. Many apothecaries were offering to the poor what treatment they could—and not from the official London Pharmacopoeia, the “Secret Handbook” of medical recipes which called for exotic, expensive medicines. Instead, they prepared their own traditional plant medicines from herbs sold on the streets of London. This angered the Royal College, of course, and the group began to crack down on the renegades. They reprimanded Leadbetter for allowing Culpeper to break the rules, and in 1642, they imprisoned Culpeper and had him tried for witchcraft, an offense that carried the death penalty. He was acquitted, however, and released.
By the time of his trial, Culpeper was a married man. His bride, whom he wed in 1640, was a fifteen-year-old girl named Alice Field. But the country was in the midst of a civil war, and Culpeper—who supported the radical views of those who wanted to increase the power of Parliament and give more power to the people—went off to fight against the King, where he received a chest wound.
After the war, Culpeper used his wife’s dowry to set up an apothecary shop on Red Lion Street, Spitalfields, in London’s notorious East End. There, he ministered to the poor, treating them with herbal medications, and continued to collect and record as much as he could about the uses of medicinal plants native to England. He developed a reputation for his compassionate treatment and his philanthropy, and continued his criticisms against the Royal College for their undemocratic control of medicine.
Culpeper always had difficulty in holding his tongue, and in 1649 his plain-speaking got him into even deeper trouble. Motivated by a desire to expose the secret practices of the exclusive guild of physicians and make their medicines available to people who were unable to pay their fees, he enraged the medical establishment by translating the Latin London Pharmacopoeia into English and publishing it as The London Dispensatory. The doctors fought back by claiming that his translation was nothing more than “Cul-paper, fit to wipe one’s breech withall,” and that lives were endangered because Culpeper had encouraged unskilled readers to meddle with powerful medicines.
But the political winds were blowing in Culpeper’s direction—the Parliamentarians had defeated the Monarchists in the war—and the Royal College lacked the power to stifle his criticisms. Energetically, he continued to write, aiming his books at the people with whom he wanted to share his knowledge of readily available plant medicines. In 1651, he published the first English textbook on midwifery and childcare, The English Midwife, which emphasized nutrition and cleanliness and offered a variety of herbal remedies for common problems of pregnancy and childbirth. In the same year, he published a self-help manual entitled The Judgement of Disease, encouraging readers to diagnose their own ailments.
In 1652, he brought out his most famous work, The English Physitian: or an astrologo-physical discourse of the vulgar herbs of this nation, an easy-to-use handbook designed to teach ordinary people how to find and use herbal medicines. The book listed the medicinal uses of plants to be found in the garden, hedgerow, and field, and indexed these to a list of illnesses. The emphasis was upon “simples” that is, herbs used alone, as poultices, infusions, or decoctions, rather than in complicated compounds. The book also employed explanations based on the astrological model that the people already understood rather than the more “scientific” model known primarily to members of the Royal College. It was written in an easy-to-read, unembellished style, lightened by humor. And it sold for a mere three pence, so that even the poor could have a copy.
Nicholas Culpeper often wrote the way he talked, with an intemperate sense of humor and a strongly ironic twist.
Thirty-eight-year-old Culpeper died (apparently of tuberculosis) in 1654. But his wife Alice (with whom he had shared his knowledge) edited and published his unfinished manuscripts and continued to publish all of his books. Through her efforts and those of Culpeper’s growing group of followers, The English Physitian became enduringly popular. It was the first medical text printed in North America and has appeared in more than 100 editions in the 350 years since its publication.
When we glance through Culpeper’s 1649 Dispensatory (which is contained in the facsimile of the 1814 edition), it isn’t difficult to see why the College of Physicians was so enraged by his open publication of their secret remedies. More than that, though, they were afraid of him, with very good reason. Culpeper was smart, outspoken, and self-assured, ready to take on the medical establishment and point out that the emperor had no clothes. He rejected the expensive imported drugs that the College preferred, pointing out that there were plenty of free herbs, which would do just as well. But he went even further, naming, in plain English, the exotic “pharmaceuticals” that the Royal College prescribed, including the fat of a beaver, stork, hedgehog, and lion; thirteen kinds of dung, including dog and sheep dung; and the brain of a sparrow, the heart of a stag, the horn of a unicorn, the skull of a man killed by a violent death, fox lungs, and the testicles of a horse. It isn’t difficult to imagine the disgust people must have felt when they read such nonsense.
In his translation, Culpeper also includes the detailed prescriptions and provides an explanation (often sarcastic) of the ailments they are designed to treat, which the Royal College had intentionally omitted so that the apothecaries couldn’t make unauthorized use of it. For example, at the end of one prescription, which includes three pounds of earthworms, two gallons of snails, powdered hart’s horn, and powdered ivory (among other ingredients), he adds tersely: “Tis a mess altogether.” Commenting on a prescription for “Tincture of Strawberries” which takes twelve days to prepare, he says, “A fine thing for Gentlemen that have nothing else to do with their money.” About “Neopolitan Ointment,” he says, “Hundreds are bound to curse such ointments and those that appoint them.” In fact, once translated from their mystifying Latin into English, many of the College’s prescription medicines seemed very much like witches’ brews.
But it was Culpeper who the Royal College accused of witchcraft.
By Culpeper’s day, the ideas of astrology were being replaced by the new science of astronomy, and traditional medicine was being reinterpreted through a more scientific understanding of physical anatomy, the circulation of blood, and the nature of infectious disease. Culpeper’s astrological explanations of the various uses of plants made him an easy target for his enemies, who attempted to make him appear dangerous on the one hand (accusing him of witchcraft) and ludicrous on the other (calling him a superstitious fool, a “frowsy-headed coxcomb,” and an ignorant quack). Eleanour Sinclair Rohde, in her study of old herbals, describes Culpeper as “an old rogue standing at the street corner,” haranguing the crowd about herbs and astrology. Others deride his use of herbal astrology as “ridiculous old wives’ tales” and “arrant and outlandish nonsense.”
But it is exactly Culpeper’s extensive documentation of these “outlandish” astrological beliefs that makes his work so fascinating to us today. To his valuable reports of the various folk uses of native plants—many of them previously undocumented—Culpeper added what he had learned from his studies of medical astrology and with astrological botany. There was nothing new in this, of course, but what sets him apart from almost all other herbalists, is his application of these principles to plant medicines widely available in England, and his insistence on writing for ordinary people. He annotated each herb with a physical description, an indication of where the plant grew and when it was in season, and an extended comment on its various uses. By telling his readers where the plant might be found (wall rue, for example, “grows at Dartford, and the bridge at Ashford in Kent, at Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire. . .”), he made it easy for them to locate and harvest the plant, as well as prepare it for use.
Culpeper’s ideas about medical and herbal astrology are clearly defined and in line with the beliefs of earlier physicians who shared this philosophy—Hippocrates, Galen, and Paracelsus, among many others. It had long been held that the human body is built of four “humors,” each related to one of the four elements: choleric (fire), phlegmatic (water), sanguine (air), and melancholic (earth). In medical astrology, these humors and elements are ruled by planets, as are all body parts, all physiological processes, all diseases—and all medicinal plants. In most works of medical astrology, plants governed by an opposing planet or planets were recommended to treat the diseased part. Culpeper believed, however, that the use of opposites was only one way to treat a disease. Some ailments, he said, should be treated by sympathy—that is, by selecting medicinal plants ruled by the same planet that governed the diseased part.
This approach gave Culpeper a great deal of flexibility in prescribing herbal medicines and required more “art” on the part of those who copied his methods. It probably also increased the chances for success, because the more plants a sick person could choose from, the more likely it was that one of them might have some effect.
In The English Physitian, Culpeper gives a full example of his method, using the herb blessed thistle:
The Herb is Carduus Benedictus, or blessed Thistle or holy Thistle. . . It is an Herb of Mars, and under the Sign Aries; now in handling this Herb, I shall give you a rational Pattern of all the rest, and if you please to view them throughout the Book, you shall to your content find it true.
It helps Swimming and giddiness of the Head, or the Disease called Vertigo, because Aries is the House of Mars.
It is an excellent Remedy against the yellow Jaundice, and other infirmities of the Gall, because Mars governs Choller.
It strengthens the attractive faculty in man, and clarifies the Blood, because the one is ruled by Mars.
The continual drinking the Decoction of it helps red Faces, Tetters, and Ringworms because Mars causeth them.
It helps Plague sore, Boils and Itch, the Biting of mad Dogs and venemous Beasts, all which infirmities are under Mars. Thus you see what it doth by Sympathy. . .
He goes on to list several applications “by antipathy.” In opposition to Venus, blessed thistle cures the French pox; in opposition to Saturn, it cures deafness and melancholy.
Once the astrological rulerships and relationships are learned (and Culpeper’s audience would certainly have been familiar with them), his logic is not difficult to understand. In fact, it often seems that what Culpeper is really searching for is the why of herbal medicine: “If you please to make use of these Rules,” he says in the introduction to The English Physitian, “you may be able to give a Reason of your Judgment to him that asketh you.” The astrological model is certainly mnemonic, if nothing else, and must have made it easier to remember which herbs were associated with which parts of the body. Sometimes, too, I suspect that Culpeper is writing with his tongue firmly in his cheek, making fun of the astrological connections even as he uses them:
Wormwood is an herb of Mars . . . I prove it thus: What delights in martial places, is a martial herb; Wormwood delights in martial places (for about forges and iron works you may gather a cart-load of it), ergo, it is a martial herb.
A reader who misses the comic tone in this passage might indeed think that Culpeper was a fool or a quack. Personally, I believe he was neither. I think, rather, that he was a maverick with a renegade wit and a sharp tongue, who often wrote the way he talked, with an intemperate sense of humor and a strongly ironic twist.
When we read Culpeper’s work in the context of his own social and political environment, it is easy to see the importance of his contribution to the history of medicinal plants. Culpeper understood, far better than any other medical man of his day, that people ought to know how their bodies function, what readily available remedies they might apply to their physical ailments, and how to obtain and use these simple remedies. Without a doubt, his books are the very best documentation we have of the uses of medicinal plants in Great Britain at the beginning of the age of Enlightenment.
Those of us who read him in later centuries should be very glad that this upstart apothecary’s apprentice chose to use the astrological model to explain the relationships between the plants and the planets. If he had not, the fascinating information that was mostly conveyed in the oral tradition would certainly have been lost. And that, I believe, would have been a tragedy.
Note: The source for the quotations from Culpeper is the original edition of The English Physitian: or an astrologo-physical discourse of the vulgar herbs of this nation. London: Peter Cole, 1652. Subsequent editions (from which the currently available “facsimile” editions are copied) contained material added by Alice Field Culpeper and later students of Culpeper’s method. The 1652 edition, the only one approved by Culpeper, is available at www.med.yale.edu/library/historical/culpeper/culpeper.htm.
Susan Wittig Albert is the author of the China Bayles Herbal Mysteries. Her new mystery, Bloodroot, is now available in bookstores.