As January brings its seasonal coughs, colds, chills, and fevers what does Culpeper’s Herbal suggest by way of a remedy? Plenty as it turns out – feverfew, poppies, and verbascum, to name but a few – are said to offer some relief to the sufferer.
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal which is still in print today was first published in 1652 as The English Phyisitian. Priced at three pence Nicholas Culpeper’s purpose was to make accessible to the public information about the medicinal properties of plants that were readily available, and teach them how they might use these to treat common illnesses. Culpeper also encouraged others to help those who could not afford to pay high fees for medical treatment – as we see in the entry for butterbur which suggests that gentlewomen might preserve some of the root to share with their poor neighbours.
Published without illustrations, which would have made The English Physitian too expensive for ordinary people to buy, Culpeper gives instead detailed descriptions of most plants, although he considers some ‘so generally known to most people that I shall not trouble you with a description thereof’. Later editions of the book expanded the list of plants, as new plants were introduced, and some carry illustrations. According to the University of Virginia, over 40 editions have been published.
Culpeper (1616-1654) trained as an apothecary and set up his practice in Spitalfields, just outside the city of London. His translation of the official textbook for pharmacy, the Pharmocopoeia Londinenis from Latin to English challenged the authority of the medical establishement and made Culpeper a hugely controversial figure.
Readers of the herbal will notice that Culpeper’s philosophy of medicine is informed in part by astrology. It’s worth remembering that modern medicine, based on the science of anatomy, biology, pharmacy, pharmacology, and psychology, is very different to to the systems of belief that underpinned medicine in the 17th century.
In Culpeper’s time conventional medicine was based on a belief in the four humours, earth, air, fire and water. Developed in Ancient Greece this system taught that a balance of the four humours was needed for good health, and that an imbalance was the cause of disease. Treatments were an attempt to restore a correct balance. Diseases and their medicines like plants and minerals were classified by their ‘temperature’; so that garlic, considered ‘vehement hot’ by Culpeper, was effective against ‘cold’ diseases such as ‘jaundice, falling-sickness, cramps, convulsions, the piles or hemorrhoids’.
Another system which ran alongside the belief in humours was astrological physick which held that the twelve signs of the zodiac, the sun, moon and planets were influential over different parts of the body. Simon Forman (1552-1611) and Richard Napier (1559-1634) were well known astrologer-physicians of their day. Napier was a clergyman as well as an astrologer, showing the overlap that was tolerated at this time between Christianity and astrology. Their case notes are preserved in the Bodleian Library (see link at the end of this post).
William Lilly (1602-1681) published Christian Astrology in 1647 which includes a section on health and disease and explains how the aspiring astrologer could create charts to find out ‘whether the Disease will be long or short’ or ‘whether the sick would live or die’. Lilly lists over 80 plants that can be used to treat disease.
Here follow some cold remedies from Culpeper’s English Family Physician (1792), which contains hand coloured illustrations. (Personally, I would hesitate to try any, before understanding if the plant is toxic, or if it could react adversely with any other medicines you might be taking.)
Elecampane (top picture) It is under Mercury. The fresh roots of Elecampane preserved with sugar, or made into a syrup or conserve, .. help the cough, shortness of breath, and wheezing in the lungs.
Butterbur It is under the dominion of the Sun, and therefore is a great strengthener of the heart and cheerer of the vital spirits; .. the decoction of the root, in wine, is singular good for those that wheeze much, or are short-winded. It were well if gentlewomen would keep this root preserved to help their poor neighbours. It is fit the rich should help the poor, for the poor cannot help themselves.
Poppy The herb is Lunar; and a syrup is made of the seed and flowers, which is useful to give sleep and rest to invalids, and to stay catarrhs and defluxions of rheums from the head into the stomach and lungs, which causes a continual cough, the forerunner of comsumption;
Feverfew Venus commands this herb .. The decoction thereof, made with some sugar or honey put thereto, is used by many with good success to help the cough and stuffing of the chest, by colds;
Hawkweed Saturn owns it. The decoction of the herb taken in honey digests phlegm and with hyssop helps the cough.
Verbascum or Mullein It is under the dominion of Saturn. A decoction of the leaves, with sage and marjoram, and camomile flowers, and the places bathed therewith, is good for colds, stiff sinews, and cramps.
Purple Sea Rocket It is a martial plant, of a hot nature, and bitterish taste, opening and attenuating, good to cleanse the lungs of tough, viscid phlegm
Sheep’s Rampion It is under the dominion of Mercury, and of a bitter, light, astringent quality, excellent in disorders of the breast, such as coughs, asthmatic affections, difficulty of breathing, &c, for which purpose an infusion of the flowers is the best preparation.
Silverweed This plant is under Venus, and deserves to be universally known in medicine. An infusion of the leaves .. sweetened with a little honey is an excellent gargle for sore throats.
Sea Starwort This is under the dominion of Mercury. A slight tincture or infusion of the plant promotes perspiration, and is good in feverish complaints.
Field Scabious, Lesser and Greater Mercury owns the plant. It is effectual for all sorts of coughs, shortness of breath, and all other diseases of the breast and lungs, ripening and digesting cold phlegm, and other tough humour, voiding them forth by coughing and spitting;
Culpeper’s English Family Physician 1792
Christian Astrology by William Lilly 1647
The Casebooks Project is a digital edition of Simon Forman’s and Richard Napier’s medical records 1596 – 1634 (held at the Bodleian Library).
Kew’s Library, Art and Archives Blog
Post about Nicholas Culpeper