Written and compiled by George Knowles
Nicholas Culpeper is perhaps one of the best-known figures in the field of herbal medicine and was popularly regarded as the father of alternative medicine. His books the The English Physician (1652) and The Complete Herbal (1653) contain a rich store of pharmaceutical knowledge, and give an unparalleled view into the holistic principles of medicine in relation to astrology and plant lore as was extant during his time.
Culpeper was the only son of the Rev. Nicholas Culpeper, Rector of Ockley in Surrey and his wife Mary Attersole. The Rev. Culpeper and his wife were married in October 1615, and just a few months later he was appointed Lord of Ockley Manor. Mary was already pregnant when they arrived at Ockley Manor, but just 13 days before the child was born the Rev. Culpeper died and was buried in the graveyard of St Margaret's Church in Isfield. After their son was born on the 18th October 1616, Mary called him Nicholas in memory of his father.
Culpeper's childhood was spent in Isfield, Sussex, where he was brought up at his grandfather’s home. His grandfather the Rev. William Attersole was Minister of St Margaret's Church in Isfield. An intellectual, Attersole was a strict, stern and devout Puritan, who had much to do with Culpeper's early education and development. His plans for his grandson's future were that he should receive a good early education and then go on to Cambridge, where he himself had been educated, in preparation for a future career within the church. Attersole was the author of many biblical commentaries and theological treatises including a commentary on the Book of Numbers, and taught Culpeper to read and write in Latin and Greek.
From an early age Culpeper was fascinated by the stars at night, and by the age of 10 was reading books on astrology from his grandfather's library. In the library he also found a copy of William Turner's Herbal (1568), which inspired his early interest in medicine and medicinal plants and herbs. He quickly became familiar with all the local plants and herbs that grew in his part of Sussex. By the age of 13 he was avidly reading many other books available in the library, but his grandfather did not approve and restricted him to reading the Bible.
In 1632 at the age of 16, Culpepper was enrolled at Cambridge University, where to satisfy his grandfathers desire that he become a church Minister, he was to study theology and the classics (Greek and Latin languages). Although he proved himself a capable student, theology was not to his liking, so Culpeper augmented his studies with lectures on medicine and astrology, at the same time studying the materia medica works of Galen and Hippocrates. Frustrated at not being able to choose his own course of study, Culpeper spent much of his time drinking, socialising, playing tennis and swimming in the River Cam. He also picked up the newly fashionable habit of smoking.
Culpeper had long planned to marry his childhood sweetheart Judith Rivers, but she being the heiress of a rich and powerful family, they both knew her parents would never grant them consent. While he was away at Cambridge they remained in touch by letters and decided to elope and get married secretly. Their plan was to meet near Lewes in East Sussex, marry and then sail for and remain in the Netherlands until all the fuss died down. However on the way to the rendezvous near Lewes, Judith’s coach was struck by lightning and tragically she did not survive. Culpeper was naturally devastated; depressed he abandoned his studies and for a time remained reclusive.
A year later his mother died, some say she never recovered from the shock of his affair with Judith Rivers. To make matters worse, after he refused to resume his studies at Cambridge, bitterly disappointed his grandfather had him disinherited from the family fortune. Conscious of his position as Culpeper’s sole guardian, Attersole did not totally disown him, but used his contacts to set Culpeper up as an apprentice to a master apothecary ‘Daniel White’ in Temple Bar, London, paying fifty pounds to cover his apprenticeship training fees. After which, Attersole wish nothing more to do with his errant grandson.
A normal term of apprenticeship in those days was 7 years, and Culpeper started his term working for White in November 1634. While much of his time was taken up collecting and cataloguing medicinal herbs, Culpeper continued to study astrology, and particularly admired the work of the famous astrologer William Lilly (1602-81). By coincidence, Lilly was living in the Strand at the time, and in November 1635, Culpeper chanced to pay him a visit. Lilly greeted him cordially and demonstrated his collection of astrological equipment. Culpeper was profoundly impressed by their meeting and inspired by his explanation of the ‘art of astrology’.
According to an early biography by his later secretary W. Ryves (see resources below), early in 1636, his master Daniel White went bankrupt and disappeared to Ireland with what remained of Culpeper’s apprenticeship fees. However, records of the Society of Apothecaries state that it was three years later and due to the death of White, that Culpeper was moved on to another master apothecary ‘Francis Drake’ in Threadneedle Street, Bishopsgate. Having lost what remained of his fees paid to White, Culpeper agreed to teach him Latin and Greek in return for his keep.
When Francis Drake died some 18 months later, Culpeper and a
fellow-apprentice Samuel Leadbeaters took over his business in Threadneedle
Street, but as they were not yet fully qualified, they did so under the
supervision of Stephen Higgins, Master of the Society of Apothecaries while they
completed their training. As part
of their training they were taken on excursions to identify and collect
medicinal herbs by Thomas Johnson, an assistant of the Apothecary Society and
editor of John Gerard’s newly
enlarged “Herbal or General History
of Plants” (1633).
Having overcome his grief at the death of Judith Rivers and his failed attempt to marry her, Culpeper married 15-year-old Alice Field in 1639. Alice was the daughter of a wealthy merchant he had earlier treated for gouty arthritis, and from whom she had just inherited a considerable fortune. Marriage meant that Culpeper had to forfeit his indenture as an apprentice, but having studied for the past five years and with just two years remaining to qualify, he felt he had gained more than enough knowledge to go it alone, a decision perhaps bolstered by his wife’s inheritance.
With his newfound prosperity and independence due to Alice’s inheritance, Culpeper was able to build his own house and shop in Red Lion Street, Spitalfields, located in the poorer area of London’s East End. There he set himself up as an astrologer, herbalist and physician, much to the chagrin of the Society of Apothecaries, for they vehemently disapproved of him practicing while not being fully qualified, and viewed him as an upstart bent on challenging their authority.
Despite their objections Culpeper persisted and soon gained a reputation as a healer among the poor folk. Perhaps due to his own experiences with grief and life’s difficulties, Culpeper was highly motivated and able to ease the suffering of others. He charged very little or nothing for his services, never turned anyone away and often saw up to 40 patients a day. His knowledge of Latin and Greek proved most useful in understanding the many medical and astrological texts used to aid diagnosis, and with his practical knowledge of medicinal herbs, he soon adapted to his new position.
Six months later on the 30th of May 1640, Culpeper’s grandfather William Attersole died. Attersole had never forgiven him for discarding a career in the church and made his displeasure clear in his Will, he left four hundred pounds to each of his other grandchildren, but only forty shillings to Culpeper. While saddened by the loss of his grandfather, in Cuppeper’s mind, Attersole had been a strict puritanical parent who had treated him as a burden, a necessary duty, rather than a family member, so his final snub came as no surprise.
For a short while everything looked rosy for Culpeper, he had a new wife and home, and money enough not to worry about finances. As a free man he also had plenty of time to concentrate on his new business, but troubles and controversy would continue to dog him. London during the 1640’s was a hotbed of political intrigue and much unrest among Royalists and Puritans, and like his father and grandfather before him, Culpeper’s sympathies were strongly Puritan.
At the outset of Civil War in 1642, Culpeper responded to the call-to-arms and fought at Edgehill for the Puritan cause. Culpeper was initially intent on fighting in the front line, but when the recruiting officer found out about his profession, he was persuaded to serve as a Field Surgeon. Armed with his surgical texts, Culpeper joined in the march to battle collecting medicinal herbs along the way. After his efforts to aid the injured at Edgehill in 1643, Culpeper received a commission to captain his own troop of infantry.
Back in London he raised a company of 60 volunteers and marched to fight at the first Battle of Newbury. On the 20th of September 1643, a day when 6,000 men fell in battle, Culpeper was busy conducting battlefield surgery when a stray musket shot severely wounded him in the chest. Later that day he was conveyed back to London by carriage, his fighting days were over. The Puritans may have won the day at Newbury, but Culpeper never fully recovered from his injury.
As a field surgeon, Culpeper had gained invaluable knowledge and medical experience during his active period in the Civil War, and on his return to London he set about using that knowledge for the benefit of his patients. Working amongst the poor in London’s East End, he realised that treatment had to be inexpensive and readily available for all. In this he again courted controversy by taking on not only his old adversary the Society of Apothecaries, but also the Royal College of Physicians, the elite authoritative body for the whole medical establishment in those times.
Culpeper believed that the College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries
opperated a “closed shop” manopoly of drugs and medicine as a means of
keeping prices high and lineing their own pockets.
While the Society had been given authority to act as a
professional body by Royal Charter in December 1617, they were only allowed to
mix medicines according to strict guidelines laid down by the College
in the London Pharmacopoeia, first published in 1618.
Being the only authorised text used to produce medicine in the UK, the
Pharmacopoeia was written in Latin and used by Physicians to prescribe
only the most expensive drugs and medicines.
During his indenture as an apprentice with Francis Drake, Culpeper had started to translate the London Pharmacoepia and other medical texts from Latin into English, but had been unable to publish any of his works due to the censorship laws in force during those times. Since 1603 the Company of Stationers had been charged with censoring all English publications, and anything that argued against the establishment was rejected out of hand. To publish without permission was a serious crime and could lead to prosecution through the dreaded ‘Court of the Star Chamber’, whose punishments to offenders could often be severe and included: fines, imprisonment, the pillory, whipping, branding and mutilation.
In 1641, during the early days of the Civil War the newly formed Long
Parliament abolished the much-hated Star Chamber, and for a brief period brought
to an end to official censorship. This opened the gate for Culpeper and many others like him to
publish without fear of persecution. He
started with his translation of the London Pharmacopoeia, which he
Physical Directory or a Translation of the London Dispensary,
Being that book by which all Apothecaries are strictly commanded to make all
their Physick’ published
by Peter Cole in 1649.
Needless to say the College of Physicians were furious and sparked off a major controversy, they countered with an article in the Royalist periodical ‘Mercurius Pragmaticus’, which stated that Culpeper “was an absolute atheist, and by two years drunken labour, hath gallimawfred the apothecaries book into nonsense”. In fact Culpeper’s translation was a fairly true rendition of the original, although he did include all sorts of personal and often humorous asides, particularly in the section on non-vegetable drugs.
Of his work Culpeper wrote: “I am writing for the Press a translation of the Physicians’ medicine book from Latin into English so that all my fellow countrymen and apothecaries can understand what the Doctors write on their bills. Hitherto they made medicine a secret conspiracy, writing prescriptions in mysterious Latin to hide ignorance and to impress upon the patient. They wanted to keep their book a secret, not for everybody to know. Not long ago parsons, like the predecessors of my grand-father William Attersole, used to preach and prey in Latin, whether his parishioners understood anything of this language or not. This practice, though sacred in the eyes of our ancestors, appears ridiculous to us. Now everyone enjoys the gospel in plain English. I am convinced the same must happen with medicine and prescriptions”.
Naturally the College of Physicians were enraged by Culpeper's assertions though there was very little they could do about it, they could no longer prosecute him due to the abolition of the Star-Chamber, and trying such an outspoken supporter of the common people in the new political climate would have had little support. The execution of Charles I on the 30th of January 1649, just prior to his publication of ‘A Physical Directory’ was also a powerful blow to their authority.
Culpeper’s next book was ‘A Directory for Midwives’, published in 1651 again by Peter Cole. Child mortality and deaths during childbirth were commonplace during those times, but what most probably prompted him to write it was his personal grief over the deaths of his own children. During his 12 years of marriage to his wife Alice, they had produced seven children, but tragically only one ‘Mary’ survived him, and she is thought to have died a few years after him. A contemporary expert has suggested that Alice was probably suffering from ‘toxemia of pregnancy’ (blood poisoning during pregnancy), a condition that is still not fully understood today. However, Alice did have a son by her second husband the astrologer John Heyden who survived into adulthood.
While Culpeper’s knowledge of herbal medicines allowed him to
prescribe cheaply available local herbs, rather than the costly imported plants
favoured by the College of Physicians, it was common for herbs and medicines to
be associated with astrology and their qualities to be expressed in astrological
terms based on the four Elements -
Earth, Water, Air and Fire. Each
Element was associated with four primary qualities:
hot, cold, moist and dry (Earth is cold and dry, Water is cold and moist,
Air is hot and moist, Fire is hot and dry).
Culpeper as a keen astrologer was familiar with these principles,
and published a number of books on the subject, the first being ‘Semeiotics Uranica
or An Astrological Judgement of Diseases’ in 1651.
The second in 1652 was a translation from Latin of Galen’s ‘Art of
Physic’, in which he reasons: “That
thou mayest understand... in a general way the manifest virtues of medicines...
such as are obvious to the senses, especially to the taste and smell”.
Also in 1652, Culpeper publish his most famous work ‘The English Physician’. It was initially sold for only 3 pence to make it more widely available, and became so popular it sold as far afield as colonial America. Culpeper's deepest desire had been to make herbal medicine available to everyone, especially to the poor who could ill afford to visit a physician. He believed that medicine was a public asset not a commercial secret, and that nature's medicine was universal and cheap. In his own practice he used the common English names of plants rather than Latin names, which enabled him to communicate with his poorer clients who could then collect their own remedies free of charge in the nearby countryside. That in mind, he followed it with ‘The Complete Herbal’ in 1653.
‘The Complete Herbal’ was the last of Culpeper’s works to be published in his own lifetime, about it he wrote: “I consulted with my two brothers Dr. Reason and Dr. Experience and took a voyage to my Mother Nature, by whose advice, together with the help of Dr. Diligence, I at last obtained my desire; and being warned by Mr. Honesty, a stranger in these days, to publish it to the world, I have done it”.
A year later on the 10th of January 1654, Nicholas Culpeper died. The official diagnosis of his death was tuberculosis exacerbated by overwork and his old Civil War wound. A comment by his secretary W. Ryves suggests another contributing factor was smoking: “the destructive Tobacco Mr. Culpeper too excessively took, which by degrees first deprived him of his stomach, and after other evil effects in the process of time, was one of the chief hasteners of his death”??
As a testament to his scholarly nature his widow Alice wrote: “My husband left 79 books of his own making or translating in my hands. One of these works ‘The Treatise of the Aurum Potabile’ was published in 1656 after his death. In many ways this was the most remarkable of all his works. The treatise is essentially a very important alchemical work that explains the philosophy behind his whole life and written works, being a description of the Threefold World: Elementary, Celestial and Intellectual, and contained all the knowledge necessary for the study of Hermetic Philosophy”.
Without any doubt, Culpeper’s greatest contributions to the annuals of English medical literature were his ‘The English Physician’ and ‘The Complete Herbal’, both of which have remained the most popular guides for herbal medicine in England for over 250 years.
Huge, here’s just a few to be going on with:
The Life of the admired physician and astrologer of our times, Mr Nicholas Culpeper by W. Ryves. Published in Culpeper's School of Physick 1659.
First published on the 04th March 2007, 18:22:05 © George Knowles
Best wishes and Blessed Be
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