Spring is here and with it the onslaught of hayfever. If Nicholas Culpeper were still around, he’d suggest you look to the planets Mercury, Venus and the Moon for the various herbs they govern in an attempt to cure those watery eyes and itchy noses.

In Culpeper’s The English Physitian, the “juice of dog mercury snuffed up into the nostrils”(Culpeper 191), or the flowers of poppies made into a syrup and distilled into a liquor, could ease your congestion. In 2020 you might not have access to ragwort or flower-de-luce to mix into a poultice for your head and temple, but fear not, Culpeper has something for what ails you. Some modern gardeners who have ready access to catmint and strawberries will benefit from their healing properties for rheums and colds. Although for more serious concerns we’d suggest sticking to your local chemist, Culpeper’s remedies were groundbreaking and led to the development of seventeenth-century herbalism. 

Who was Nicholas Culpeper?

Culpeper was born in 1616 to a well respected clerical family, from whom he received an excellent education before attending Cambridge to study medicine. Radicalised by the preacher James Goodwin, Culpeper went on to reject the ‘elitist’ approach to medicine of the College of Physicians, refusing to keep medical knowledge secret for money. Seventeenth-century contemporaries of Culpeper were spellbound by the publication of medicinal herbals of plant-based cures. Culpeper’s The English Physitian was one of the first English language herbals to be published with a distinct focus on English plants and sought to make medicine accessible in the vernacular (Moore, 2004). His work joined other herbal translations emerging on the continent, in particular the Iberian Peninsula and Italy, contributing to the shift away from the restricted dissemination of medicine and health knowledge through text. Medical journals prior to this point were predominantly written in Latin, the language of universities and the academic study of medicine. Most medical knowledge that was not contained within the Latin treatises was passed down via oral tradition and was often lost or misremembered over the centuries.

The English Physitian

The English Physitian lists the names and descriptions of plants and the emphasis is on the medicinal properties of each plant including their aromatic, tonic and culinary powers. The English Physitian is informed by astrological herbalism and includes writings on disease causation, therapies and medicinal practices. Beneath each plant listing there is information on which planet governs it, medicinal tinctures and descriptions on how to identify them in your garden. For example, Honeysuckle. You can see in this one that Mercury is listed as the governing planet and the plant’s virtues aid in the curing of gout, inflammation and bloodshot “pin and web” (Culpeper 304) sore eyes. Culpeper instructs readers on what part of the plant to use and how to prepare it, such as boiling the leaves and flowers for gout, making it into a poultice for inflammation, or squeezing the juice into the eyes. In addition to the astrological aspects, Culpeper’s text draws on ‘modern medicine’, which originated in Ancient Greece and was transmitted through the Middle Ages to the Early Modern period. The basic premise of this system was that the body constituted four humors and that these were controlled by four recognisable elements, fire, water, earth and air.

For Culpeper, the planetary governance of plants directly related to parts of the body. For example, the heart is ruled by the sun under the celestial sign Leo, because it is “the preserver of life under God”(57). Culpeper combined astrology with what is referred to as the, ‘doctrine of signatures’; an ancient motto that suggests if a plant that looks like a body part it is likely to help cure an ailment occuring there. For example, kidney beans are described by Culpeper as a “flattish round fruit made like a kidney”(31), and its virtues are that they are the “great strengtheners of the kidneys”(31) with “no better remedy than it”(31). 

Challenging privilege

Nicholas Culpeper’s works were printed during an era of print culture that saw a rampant increase in revolutionary pamphlets that challenged established institutions of knowledge and privilege. Culpeper’s use of the popularity of the printing press meant that he could pursue an approach that undermined the early development of ‘Big Pharma’ and the copyrighting of prescriptions. The English Physitian was, “issued in cheap octavo with a densely typeset text and no illustrations” (Leong 562) and was well received amongst the general public as well as medical readers and note-takers. The popularity was such, even into the twentieth century, that by 1960 there were over a hundred editions of his works, reflecting how influential Culpeper was even in modern terms (Leong 569). 

More than this, the combination of Culpeper’s personal practice as well as the popularity of his works meant that his pharmacopoeial works entered into the everyday home. His marriage to Alice Field in 1640 set him up financially to be able to open his own pharmacy in the poor borough of Spitalfields, and start disseminating treatment for free. Historians such as Rebecca Laroche and Elaine Leong can find his influence on domestic applications of herbal medicine through the surviving archives of women such as Elizabeth Freke and Margaret Boscawen, which document how they used his treatments and remedies, for example in their annotated copies of Culpeper’s work and home remedy journals that name him directly. 

Medicine has progressed a long way since Culpeper and his contemporaries, but his work was highly influential on how medicine and herbalism was practiced and discussed in the western world. While we would not use one of Culpeper’s pimple cures, like the juice of devil’s-bit, flax-weed, or vinegar with fumitory, and instead invest in hygiene, there are elements in there that have gone on to inform modern medicine. For example, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory ingredients like rose to “cool and cleanse” (251) and honey to “clean”(251) and “purge”(259). 

Access the edition

The Library’s  Special Collections holds a print copy of Culpeper’s 1669 edition of The English Physitian, as well as access to a digitised version. The collection includes editions from 17141770, 1792 and 1802, alongside other titles published by Culpeper during his lifetime, offering a range of his translations for the cures of ailments that ranged from warts to witchcraft, to the King’s evil (or in modern terms, leprosy) . 

The Special Collections are held at Matheson Library and can be requested for viewing in the Special Collections Reading Room. Use Library Search to discover items in the collection and select the ‘request’ button on the item record to reserve them. For general enquiries and further information contact the Rare Books Collection staff:

Tel: +61 3 9905 2689

Email: specialcollections@monash.edu

Reanna Kissell is a Librarian at the Hargrave-Andrew Library.


References

Culpeper, Nicholas. [The English Physitian Enlarged : with Three Hundred, Sixty, and Nine Medicines, Made of English Herbs That Were Not in Any Impression until This : Being as Astrologo-Physical Discours of the Vulgar Herbs of This Nation, Containing a Compleat Method of Physick Whereby a Man May Preserve His Body in Health, or Cure Himself Being Sick for Three Pence Charge, with Such Things Only as Grow in England]. Printed by John Streater, 1669.

Leong, Elaine. “’Herbals She Peruseth’: Reading Medicine in Early Modern England.” Renaissance Studies, vol. 28, no. 4, 2014, pp. 556–578. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24423854. Accessed 8 Oct. 2020.

Moore, Caroline. “Medicine for the Masses Nicholas Culpeper’s ‘Herbal’ Meant that Treatment was no Longer just for the Rich, Finds Caroline Moore.” The Sunday Telegraph, Feb 15, 2004, pp. 13. ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/docview/309462512?accountid=12528.