by Farida Mestek
“Culpeper, the man that first ranged the woods and climbed the mountains in search of medicinal and salutary herbs, has undoubtedly merited the gratitude of posterity.”
Nicholas Culpeper (18 October 1616 – 10 January 1654) was an English botanist, herbalist, physician and astrologer. His published books include The English Physician (1652) and the Complete Herbal (1653), which contain a rich store of pharmaceutical and herbal knowledge, and Astrological Judgement of Diseases from the Decumbiture of the Sick (1655), which is one of the most detailed documents we have on the practice of medical astrology in Early Modern Europe.
Culpeper spent the great part of his life in the English outdoors cataloging hundreds of medicinal herbs. He studied at Cambridge and became apprenticed to an apothecary. He married the daughter of a wealthy merchant, which allowed him to set up a pharmacy in the halfway house outside the authority of the City of London at a time when medical facilities in London were at breaking point. Arguing that “no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician”, and obtaining herbal supplies from the nearby countryside, Culpeper was able to provide his services for free.
This, and a willingness to examine patients in person rather than simply examining their urine, Culpeper was extremely active, sometimes seeing as many as forty people in one morning. He used a combination of his experience, astrology and herbals to treat their illnesses. During the early months of the English Civil War he was accused of witchcraft and the Society of Apothecaries tried to rein in his practice.
Alienated and radicalised he joined a trainband in 1643 and fought at the First Battle of Newbury, where he carried out battlefield surgery. Culpeper was taken back to London after sustaining a serious chest injury from which he never recovered. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 38.
I am fascinated by the kind of language that he uses in his book and I admire his complete faith in herbs against all possible diseases (even though I myself do not quite believe in them). Here is one such example (just something that everyone is well familiar with):
This is so well known where it grows, that it needs no description.
Time: It bears fruit in the months of July and August.
Government and virtues: Mercury rules the tree, therefore are its effects variable as his are. The Mulberry is of different parts; the ripe berries, by reason of their sweetness and slippery moisture, opening the body, and the unripe binding it, especially when they are dried, and then they are good to stay fluxes, lasks, and the abundance of women's courses. The bark of the root kills the broad worms in the body. The juice, or the syrup made of the juice of the berries, helps all inflammations or sores in the mouth, or throat, and palate of the mouth when it is fallen down. The juice of the leaves is a remedy against the biting of serpents, and for those that have taken aconite. The leaves beaten with vinegar, are good to lay on any place that is burnt with fire. A decoction made of the bark and leaves is good to wash the mouth and teeth when they ache. If the root be a little slit or cut, and a small hole made in the ground next thereunto, in the Harvest-time, it will give out a certain juice, which being hardened the next day, is of good use to help the tooth-ache, to dissolve knots, and purge the belly. The leaves of Mulberries are said to stay bleeding at the mouth or nose, or the bleeding of the piles, or of a wound, being bound unto the places. A branch of the tree taken when the moon is at the full, and bound to the wrists of a woman's arm, whose courses come down too much, doth stay them in a short space.