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Nicholas Culpeper’s English Physitian

In 1655, Nicholas Culpeper’s The English Physitian was reissued. Culpeper died the year before, and this reissue was of a book first published at the end of 1652, in which Culpeper signed the address to his reader ‘Nich. Culpeper. Spittle-fields next door to the Red Lyon. Novemb. 1652’. In the days before house numbers properties were often identified by their proximity to local landmarks – here the pub. The book’s title page styled Culpeper as a ‘gentleman and student of physick’. The book built on his previous translation of the Pharmacopoeia Londonesis the guide to drugs of the Royal College of Physicians which came out as A Physical Directory, or a Translation of the London Directory (1649). The original work was published in Latin for the exclusive use of physicians, and Culpeper’s decision to translate it for the general reader wasn’t universally popular amongst this group. One of the things he also did in the translation was to provide native alternatives from the British Isles to some of the more expensive and difficult to source imported plants of the source text. He wrote about this saying that other such books often recommended herbs which are very ‘outlandish’ which are ‘not at all to be gotten’ and which might in fact prove to be harmful. Culpeper wrote that these drugs would also be out of the reach of the poor.

As seen in the image below, the 1655 posthumous edition opens with an unfortunate typo – the sort of error that all authors live in dread of!

The address tells health practitioners how best to use the herbs it describes and tells that there is a need for ‘every Physitian to be an Astrologer‘ since herbs are best obtained at certain seasons of phases of the planets to be the most beneficial.

Image result for bramble bush

Just picking one plant gives a good idea of the sorts of directions the book contains: the description of the humble bramble states:

The Bramble or Blackberry Bush [is] so wel known that it needeth no Description. The Vertues thereof are as followeth.

The buds, leaves, and branches are good for mouth ulcers and other sores. The flowers and fruit if unripe are very ‘binding’ so good for diarrhoea or spitting blood. The root is good for kidney stones. Dried brambles are good for easing heavy periods. And the berries are good against poisoning by snake venom, and for piles too apparently.  The leaves, branches, fruit and flowers make a pleasant tasting drink which is good for fevers. And the leaves boiled up with lye will cure the dreaded itch (often used as a synonym for scabies) but will also dye your hair black! Unsurprising then that Culpeper thinks brambles are a store cupboard essential – the juice will keep all year round he says.

This plant, Culpeper explained, is a ‘Plant of Venus in Aries’ and he requested that you now turn to the end of the book to learn when best to gather it. And he advises that ‘if any ask the Reason why Venus is so prickly? Tel them ’tis because she is in the house of Mars‘ (pp. 17-18).  Turning to the end of the book from page 244 there is a section on ‘The Ways of Gathering, Drying, and Preserving Simples and their Juices’ as promised. There also follows an explanation of the types of medications the herbs can be manufactured into (including plasters, ointments, oils, syrups, pills, or lohochs [lickable medicine]).

My copy of this book is literally falling apart as it has been used and read over three centuries to the point it is very tatty, which is surely testament to how useful its readers have found it. It is a wealth of information and features throughout Maladies and Medicines: Exploring Health and Healing, 1540-1740 as you’d expect. Our book is now available to pre-order from the publisher for just £10.39. Culpeper’s book also features in a promotional film for our book, about which … more details soon!