The English Physician by Nicholas Culpeper, 1652
English astrological herbalism
One of the most influential writers in the history of herbalism was Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654). Culpeper popularized astrological herbalism, or what he called “astrologo-physical discourse of the vulgar herbs.” In his most famous work, The English Physician (1652), Culpeper’s descriptions of herbs and their uses are tightly intertwined with readings of the stars and planets.
Culpeper was a Puritan and Parliamentarian at a time when most of the College of Surgeons were Anglican Royalists. This in part accounts for his rejection by the College, and it might also explain his tremendous popularity with New England Puritans. Over forty editions of Culpeper’s The English Physician have been printed since its original publication.
The illustrations are from the Ebenezer Sibly 1810 edition of Culpeper’s herbal. Sibly’s work, along with a first edition of Culpeper’s unillustrated herbal of 1652, are housed in the Wilhelm Moll Rare Book and Medical History Room of The Claude Moore Health Sciences Library.
Like the ancient herbalists before him, Culpeper believed that rosemary improved the memory: “It helpeth a weak Memory, and quickeneth the senses.” Its connection with remembrance made it a symbol of friendship, especially of marriage. Bridal wreaths were decorated with rosemary, and the herb often served as a wedding or New Year’s gift. Culpeper also recommended rosemary against indigestion, flatulence, and jaundice. Smoked in a pipe, dried rosemary was supposed to “helpeth those that have any Cough, or Phtisick, or Consumption.”
For centuries, yarrow was used by army surgeons as a vulnerary, or wound-healing, herb. The plant’s genus, Achillea, derives its name from the legend that Achilles treated his wounded soldiers with yarrow. The ancients called yarrow herba militaria, “the military herb.”
Besides recommending yarrow for wounds, Culpeper suggested that the plant be used for toothache and to stop “the bloody flux.” He also prescribed yarrow as an ointment for the scalp, “to stay the shedding off of hair.”
The Latin expression, “Cur moriatur homo cui salvia crescit in horto?” (Why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden?), is a cogent summary of sage’s reputation among ancient and medieval herbalists. Culpeper associated sage with Jupiter, the almighty god of Roman mythology, and credited the herb with a wide variety of healing powers.
Sage was believed to promote conception and prevent miscarriage. It cured all manner of chest diseases, and was supposed to stop internal bleeding. In addition, Culpeper recommended sage as a diuretic, stomachic, and vermifuge. He added that “the juyce of Sage drunk with Vineger hath been of good use in the time of Plague at all times.”
Culpeper believed that, “Mercury owns the herb, and it carries its effects very potently.” A mere two or three drops of lavender oil could cure “either inward or outward griefs.” Culpeper recommended lavender oil, as a drink or applied to the temples or nostrils, against “the griefs and pains of the head and brains that proceed of a cold cause, as the Apoplexy, Falling-sickness, the drowsie or sluggish malady, Cramps, Convulsions, Palsies, and often faintings.”
Culpeper recommended fennel for the expulsion of kidney stones. He also suggested its use as a diuretic, as an anti-flatulent, and as an antidote against poisonous snakes, herbs, and mushrooms. Like the ancient Greeks, who called the plant marathron (from maraino, “to grow thin”), Culpeper believed that fennel boiled in broth helped large people lose weight.
Culpeper associated the marigold with the lion, an animal legendary for its courage and “heart.” Hence, he prescribed marigolds for heart disorders: “It is an herb of the Sun, and under Leo, they strengthen the heart exceedingly.” He added:
A plaister made with the dry flowers in pouder, Hogs grease, Turpentine and Rozin, and applyed to the breast, strengthens and succours the heart infinitly in Feavers, whether pestilential, or not pestilential.
White, or Opium, Poppy
Culpeper recommended the white poppy as a cure for menstrual cramps, toothache, and gout. He also prescribed the herb as a sedative:
The Garden Poppy heads with seeds made into a Syrup, is frequently and to good effect used to procure rest and sleep in the sick and weak.
Apparently frustrated by the difficulty of acquiring the poppy, he wrote:
The Herb is Lunar, and of the juyce of it is made Opium, onely for lucre of money they [druggists and opium suppliers] cheat you, and tell you it is a kinde of Tear, or some such like thing that drops from Poppies when they weep, and that is some where beyond the Sea, I know not where, beyond the Moon.
Used by the ancient Hebrews, Egyptians, and Romans, horehound has a long history as a medicinal herb. Culpeper wrote:
There is a Syrup made of Horehound to be had at the Apothecaries, very good for old Coughs, to rid the tough Flegm, as also to avoid cold Rheum from the Lungs of old folks, and for those that are Astmatick, or short-winded.