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We think of the National Health Service as being the brainchild of Aneurin Bevin and so it was but even mighty oak trees begin as an acorn of an idea and if anyone deserves the credit for offering medical treatment ‘free at the point of use’ it was Nicholas Culpeper. His Culpeper’s Complete Herbal was published about one year before his death in 1654 and he was working on a second edition when he died, so I think it’s fair to say it was his life’s work, although as he was only 38 when he died, it wasn’t a very long life. His Complete Herbal brought together all his accumulated knowledge of botany, herbal medicines, and astrology in one volume and for the next century or so it was the definitive work. Nowadays, of course, we’re a little more medically sophisticated but even today many of our medicines are derived from the same plants and are based on the work of the early herbalists, most notably Culpeper. For instance, many of the drugs used to treat heart disease are derived from digitalis (foxglove) and that universal painkiller, Aspirin, from willow bark.
Culpeper was the son of a parson though his father died before he was born and he grew up in the Sussex parsonage of his grandparents. After studying at Cambridge he was apprenticed to an apocathery who absconded with his indenture fees but fortunately Nicholas had married a woman with some money, though it seems that money was not high on his list of important things. Treating illness was, however, very much top of his list and he never turned anyone away who needed his medical help, even when they couldn't pay.
The book begins with Culpeper’s ‘Epistle to the Reader’ and it seems that proof reading and printing issues had dogged the original edition because Culpeper tells his readers that the earlier edition had ‘twenty or thirty gross mistakes in every sheet, many of them as are exceedingly dangerous to such as shall venture to use them.’ Eek! It sounds as though Culpeper may have lost some of his early readers through inadvertent poisoning!
Culpeper goes on to explain that whilst the rest of the seventeenth century medical profession discounted his radical method of turning to nature for a cure, he was convinced that his methods of natural healing were more efficacious. This is explained in wording very similar to what would be found in The Pilgrim’s Progress with talk of Brother Reason and Dr Diligence and Mr Honesty. What is clear from this introduction to the herbal is that Culpeper may have been a man of his time in that he put much faith in his God and in astrology and the effect that that ‘science’ has on both herbs and the human body, but it’s also clear that he had an overwhelming desire to help his fellow man to better health. This epistle is followed by a letter to his wife urging her to publish his collected works which he, somewhat immodestly, told her ‘I doubt not but the world will honour thee for divulging them. And my fame shall continue and increase thereby.’ Here was a man who knew his own worth and as his Complete Herbal is still in print over 350 years on, he was absolutely right.
Culpeper was very conscious of the fact that British herbs had many different names varying from county to county so he was at great pains to assure his readers that he’d listed all the common names of each herb. He was also aware that many people buying his book would not only need to know which herbs to use but also how to make up the various syrups and potions to administer them and he gives instructions on how to do so at the end of the book.
With regard to his illustrations of the various herbs, I think it’s fair to say that his knowledge of herbal medicine was considerably better than his artwork as the botanical drawings are fairly crudely executed and some are quite difficult to recognise. His description of each herb, however, makes the drawings more supplemental than anything and not all the herbs have accompanying illustrations. I’m assuming this is because the herbal was written at a time when the average man, woman and child for that matter was easily able to identify most common wild plants.
The details of each herb are laid out in a set format with the most common name as its heading, along with its Latin equivalent and any other regional name given to it. There is then a detailed description of what the plant looks like, followed by information about where it grows and at what time of the year it flowers. Culpeper sometimes uses the description as an opportunity to put forward his own philosophies and ideas, which can sometimes turn into a bit of a rant. For instance when describing the herb Angelica, he takes the opportunity to lambast all Heathens and Papists for changing the names of various plants to reflect their idolatrous ways. He cites Angelica as a case in point and regrets that it is a name which has stuck.
After the description and where it grows, Culpeper gets to the nitty gritty under the title of 'Government and Virtues'. For modern readers the emphasis on what planet rules the plant and to which astrological symbol it’s assigned may seem silly but this book was written at a time when there was still a great belief in the power of astrology, witchcraft and the like. In fact, some of Culpeper’s jealous medical colleagues accused him of witchcraft. Even today, though, there is a belief in the interconnection of nature with some of the planets and many people plant their gardens according to the phases of the Moon. Some scientists, too, feel that they’ve proved the theory of a correlation between the Moon, in particular, and enhanced plant growth.
When it comes to describing the curative powers of each herb, as a non-medical person I can’t say whether the remedies for the various illnesses actually work, although there are some standard herbal remedies dotted throughout the book which are still in use today such as lavender water to ease a headache, concoctions of liquorice for soothing a sore throat, etc. Reading between the lines, it seems our ancestors were a worm-ridden, scrofulous and scabby bunch and were generally unlikely to be cured by some of the treatments offered, though I’m sure you’ll all find it useful to know that a decoction of Spurge is very efficacious in the treatment of venereal diseases and that Common Liverwort was used not only for the treatment of liver diseases, as the name implies but was also used to treat the bite of mad dogs but only worked if administered four times daily and the patient bathed in the sea three times a day for a month!
Nicholas Culpeper may no longer be a household name but his Complete Herbal has never been out of print since its publication and used copies can be picked up for 1p plus postage. Although this work is listed as a medical book, I certainly wouldn’t advocate attempting any of the herbal remedies Culpeper lays out, but as a curiosity it's endlessly fascinating and would appeal not only to botanists and gardeners but also to those with an interest in history because it provides a window into the lives of the people of the seventeeth century, their illnesses and how they attempted to treat them. This is the life work of a man who if not the father of social medicine was definitely the great-grandfather.
Pictures of Complete Herbal - Nicholas Gent Culpeper
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