When I teach the history of medicine, I ask students to think about how everyday people — people much like themselves, but in more Puritanical garb — responded to symptoms such as runny noses, sore throats, sprained ankles, and relentless diarrhea. Today, when we are experiencing a change in our bodily status, we Google it, determine that we are dying, and then, maybe, call the doctor for an appointment. What did people do hundreds of years ago?
If they were lucky and there wasn’t a physician around to bleed them (more on that another time), and if they were unlucky and there wasn’t a knowledgeable midwife around to tend to them, they were likely to turn to a book. There were many household medicinal books in print from the 17th century onwards. Assuming they or a neighbor had one and could read it, everyday folks had much of the same information available to them that any trained physician or midwife would rely upon. One of the most reliable and trusted of these books was — and continues to be — Nicholas Culpeper’s The Complete Herbal. When I asked the instructor to recommend some starter guides at the end of my first herbalism class, I was stunned when she recommended Culpeper. This is a volume I use to teach students about medicine of the past. To think it would now become my own reference seemed incredible.
First published in 1649, The Complete Herbal, remains in print today. The edition most currently available is Culpeper’s Color Herbal (Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 1983), which combines the original text with colored illustrations and modern day uses.
According to herbalist Dylan Warren-Davis, young Nicholas began studying astrology at the age of ten, sometime around 1626. He also snuck into his grandfather’s library to read the medical books shelved there. His grandmother passed on her own knowledge of herbal remedies. By the time he arrived at Cambridge University to study (but never to graduate), he was deeply interested in medicine. He spent his time reading Galen and Hippocrates rather than learning the theology his family expected him to pursue. A rebel in more ways than one, Culpeper eventually left Cambridge and found himself disinherited by his family. At this point, he decided to pursue an apprenticeship with a Bishopsgate apothecary. By 1640, Culpeper was married and living in London’s East End, where he had a vibrant practice dispensing astrological and herbal remedies to his patients.
Nine years later, Culpeper began publishing medical texts. The first edition of The Complete Herbal appeared in 1653 under the title, The English Physician. In the volume, Culpeper sought to make the knowledge used by physicians readily available to patients who either could not afford to see a physician or who did not have one nearby. The entries for each herb included the Latin name, but were organized by the common English names — Daisy, rather than Bellis perennis, for example. He wanted people to be able to treat themselves, safely and effectively. Firm in his belief about the relationships between the cosmos and plant life, Culpeper included astrological information for each plant as well as his own experiences with their utility in treating specific ailments and conditions. For those who wanted to know more about medicine, Culpeper also put his Latin and Greek to use translating Galen and other texts into the English vernacular.
In my history of medicine class, I give students pages from The Complete Herbal and ask them to think about the knowledge it gives and requires. Take a look at the page here. Think for a moment about what it assumes you know.
The assumption that we all know what it means that “Venus challenges this herb under Libra” is interesting. But beyond that, notice how many conditions it assumes the average reader is familiar with — kibes, chilblains, gout, dropsy. Note the knowledge of preparing medicinal juices, distilling water, producing ointments. And what about familiarity with anatomy? The entry also directs the reader’s attention outdoors, to think about their local landscape and where they might find “stony ground” and other places where kidneywort might thrive.
This last point — familiarity with the landscape — is one that always surprises students. I think this is because it makes them realize how unfamiliar they are with their own local environment. As I discussed in an earlier post, I was startled to find plantain growing all over my yard, even though I walked by it multiple times a day. The local landscape is something that my students tend to move through, not connect with. This isn’t because they don’t appreciate nature or time in outdoors; most of them do. But they are busy. Like so many of us, they move through the landscape in order to get from one place to another, rather than for its own sake.
Culpeper recognized that many of his contemporaries, even if they lacked formal education, had local knowledge that, when properly applied, could improve their health and remedy disease. His insistence that everyone had a right to this medical information infuriated many of the leading medical practitioners of his day. They argued that the knowledge was too complicated, that in the wrong hands, it could be dangerous. Their desire to maintain their status and profits certainly did not go unnoticed. Ultimately, they won. Centuries later, medical knowledge was — and to some extent continues to be — carefully guarded through regulations, licensing, and other professional apparatus. We may all know how to do an internet search to determine that our deaths are imminent. But we cannot walk through our landscape and see the plants that can benefit our bodies.
This is one of the things I find so intriguing about wildcrafting herbalism. There is knowledge to be reclaimed, and, in doing so, there is the potential to find a new relationship with the planet, with our bodies, and with our health. Thank you, Nicholas Culpeper.