Nicholas Culpepper, Herbalist of the People.

The life of Nicholas Culpeper is notable for both the brevity and personal tragedy that often accompanies people who lead creatively productive lives. Tragedy started for Nicholas even before he was born: his father, the Reverend Nicholas Culpeper, died 13 days before the future herbalist's birth on October 18th, 1616. Only a few months before, his father had been made Lord of Ockley Manor in Surrey and with his death the Manor passed into other hands.

Nicholas' childhood was spent in Isfield, Sussex, where he was brought up by his mother at her family home. His maternal grandfather, the Reverend William Attersole, then minister of St Margaret's Church, Isfield, had a powerful influence on Culpeper's early development. Attersole was author of many theological treatises including a commentary on the Book of Numbers. He taught Nicholas Latin and Greek, while instilling a strong puritanical influence and a healthy disrespect for the Crown.

During his formulative years Nicholas was fascinated by watching the stars at night. He became increasibgly interested in time, being absorbed by his grandfather's collection of clocks. The sundial on the south wall of St Margaret's Church especially intrigued him, demonstrating the strong correlation between the movements of its shadow and the activities of village life. His grandfather must have aroused Nicholas' initial interest in astrology. Attersole's writings show that he had a great respect for astrology and was conversant with Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos. By contrast, it was his maternal grandmother who first exposed Nicholas to the use of medicial plants.

During his formulative years Nicholas was fascinated by watching the stars at night. He became increasibgly interested in time, being absorbed by his grandfather's collection of clocks. The sundial on the south wall of St Margaret's Church especially intrigued him, demonstrating the strong correlation between the movements of its shadow and the activities of village life. His grandfather must have aroused Nicholas' initial interest in astrology. Attersole's writings show that he had a great respect for astrology and was conversant with Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos. By contrast, it was his maternal grandmother who first exposed Nicholas to the use of medicial plants.

At the age of ten Nicholas started reading astrological and medical texts from his grandfather's library. In particular Sir Christopher Heydon's Defence of Judicial Astrology (1603) greatly impressed him. He was fond of reading and looking at the illustrations in William Turner's New Herball (1568). From his early teens he was familiar with all the local species of herbs that grew in his part of Sussex. BY 13 he was an avid reader of many of the books available in the library. His grandfather however did not approve of the young Nicholas studying in his library, only really allowing him to read the Bible.

On one occasion he found a copy of Anatomy of Man's Body by Thomas Vicary, who was barber-surgeon to Henry VIII. He stole the book out of the library and secretly read it in the hayloft above a nearby barn. He was fascinated by its descriptions of the sexual organs and the mysteries of reproduction. This work is a discernible influence on Culpeper's own Directory for Midwives (1651). The finding of this work must have deeply inspired his own calling to be a physician.

In 1632, aged 16, Culpeper was sent to Cambridge University. His grandfather and mother had decided that he should follow in his father's footsteps and become a Minister. In order to prepare for the Church he was to study theology at the university. Nicholas, however, thought otherwise, augmenting his study of the classics with lectures on anatomy and the materia medica of Galen and Hippocrates. He never took his theological studies seriously and became increasingly frustrated that he could not study medicine instead. It was at a time when Archbishop Laud desired to enforce strict rules of moral conduct and Catholic ritual within worship at the University, but Nicholas spent most his time socialising in taverns and playing sports such as tennis, bowls and swimming in the River Cam. While at Cambridge he picked up the newly fashionable habit of smoking. In the end, he never did graduate from University.

Nicholas' tme at Cambridge was rapidly terminated by emotional events. He planned to marry the heiress Judith Rivers whom he had known since childhood. Their relationship developed unnoticed by their respective families. When Nicholas was sent to Cambridge they had to endure a painful separation, though they remained in touch by letter. They desired to be united by marriage however, and knowing that Judith's family would not give them their consent, they decided to elope. Their plan was to meet near Lewes, to secretly marry and then remain a while in the Netherlands until the familial animosity died down. Tragically, his beloved's coach was struck by lightning on the way to the rendezvous and she was killed. On learning the fate of his fiancée Nicholas was overcome by intense sorrow.

It was a devastating event that became a radical turning point in Culpeper's life. He became deeply melancholic and remained reclusive for a long time thereafter. His mother too was deeply hurt and depressed over the event; she died soon afterwards, never having recovered from the shock of the affair. His grandfather was particularly angry that he should have abandoned his theological training in such a capricious way. As a consequence, Nicholas became disinherited by his mother's family. 

The young Culpeper had irrevocably burnt his bridges as far as returning to Cambridge and completing his training to be a Minister was concerned; the study of medicine was likewise denied to him. It was William Attersole who first suggested that he should become an apothecary.

Culpeper became an apprentice to Francis Drake, an apothecary who owned a shop in Threadneedle Street, Bishopsgate. Culpeper's relationship to Mr Drake must have been a particularly fruitful one for Nicholas is known to have taught him Latin in exchange. According to William Eyves, his amanuensis: Being himself excellent in the Latine, he taught Mr Drake in Threadneedle Street that tongue in less than a year and a half.

As part of his training he was led on excursions to identify and collect medicinal herbs by Thomas Johnson, who was an assistant of the Apothecary Society and editor of the newly enlarged Gerard's Herbal of 1633. It was the same herbal that his grandmother had followed in her use of medicinal plants.

In resolving his grief from the death of Judith Rivers, Culpeper became highly motivated to help the suffering of others. He adopted his new profession enthusiastically and was soon so proficient in his knowledge of the materia medica that, following the death of his employer, he was able to carry on the business.

The sending of Nicholas to London was also important for the furthering of his astrological knowledge. For a long time Culpeper had admired the work of the famous astrologer William Lilly (1602-81). At the time Lilly was living in the Strand, near Strand Bridge. One November day in 1635, Nicholas decided to pay him a visit. Lilly cordially demonstrated his collection of astrological apparatus to him. Nicholas was profoundly impressed by their meeting, being particularly inspired by Lilly's explanation of the 'art of astrology'. Lilly in turn expressed an interest in Culpeper:

You as an apothecary and physitian, you should consult your planteary influence in each patient, to regulate your prescription accordingly. In that case I am persuaded that more immediate relief will in most cases be afforded the sick and languishing patient. Astrological science should be very useful in guiding your medical enquiries to promote the cure of overt and latent diseases. 

Afterwards Lilly offered to teach Culpeper the 'art of astrology'. At their parting, Lilly gave Culpeper some ephemerides for the years 1636-40 along with some Aphorisms for Physicians. Culpeper undoubtedly accepted this offer, for Lilly's influence can be seen permeating Culpeper's astrology, as evidenced in his Astrological Judgement of Diseases. He clearly held Lilly in high regard:

You are all bound to bless God for raising up that famous man Mr. WILLIAM LILLY, who has through God's assistance made the Art of Astrology so plain to you that you not only see your former ignorance but be in a capacity to do yourselves good. 

Culpeper had become profoundly inspired by astrology. Of its nature he said, "Astrology is an art which teachest by the book of creatures what the universal Providence mind and the meaning of God towards man is." Furthermore, quoting from Genesis in support of his view: "God made the Sun, Moon and Stars to rule over night and day... to be signs of things to come."

Now that Culpeper was in a position to fulfill his personal calling, his excellent classical training became useful in understanding many of the medical and astrological texts available, as these were predominantly in Latin or Greek.

After his disasterous first attempt to be married, Nicholas finally found love in 1640 at the age of 24, when he married Alice Field. Alice, 15, had just inherited a considerable fortune. They met whilst Culpeper successfully treated her father for gouty arthritis. Using her large dowry he was able to build a house on Red Lion Street, next door to the Red Lion Inn in Spitalfields, now in the East End of London. Here Nicholas set himself up as an astrologer and herbalist. He soon gained a considerable reputation in both disciplines among the poor folk of the area, whom he charged very little or nothing for his labours. He never denied treatng anyone, and as a result often saw 40 patients a day. Sensitivity to his patients' needs must have contributed to his success, as evidenced by the following comment on his work:

Many a times I find my patients disturbed by trouble of Conscience or Sorrow, and I have to act the Divine before I can be the Physician. In fact our greatest skill lies in the infusion of Hopes, to induce confidence and peace of mind.

Working amongst the poor, Nicholas realised that treatment had to be inexpensive and readily available, contributing to his belief in "English herbs for English bodies". His reputation as a healer began to attract a number of students, in particular William Ryves, who became his amanuensis. Not only did Ryves assist Culpeper in his voluminous literary output, but he also wrote the contemporary biography: The Life of the admired Physician and Astrologer of our times, Mr NICHOLAS CULPEPER.

Culpeper's success as a herbalist made him particularly critical of the Royal College of Physicians. Of their practices he said:

They are bloodsuckers, true vampires, have learned little since Hippocrates; use blood-letting for ailments above the midriff and purging for those below. They evacuate and revulse their patients until they faint. Black Hellebor, this poisonous stuff, is a favourite laxative. It is surprising that they are so popular and that some patients recover. My own poor patients would not endure this taxing and costly treatment. The victims of physicians only survive since they are from the rich and robust stock, the plethoric, red-skinned residents of Cheapside, Westminster and St James. 

During the Civil War (1642-9), Culpeper's anti-Royalist attitudes aligned him politically with the Parliamentarian cause. In 1642 he responded to the call-to-arms and fought at Edgehill on Cromwell's side. He was intent on serving at the front line. However, when the recruiting officer found out his profession he said:

We do not need you at the battle front but you can come along as a field surgeon, since most of the barbers and physicians are royal asses and we have use for someone to look after our injured.

In preparation, he immediately studied his surgical texts and then collected medicinal herbs on the way to the battlefield. In the event, the battle of Edgehill ended with no clear victor. In 1643, Culpeper received a commission to captain a troop of infantry. In London he raised a company of 60 volunteers to fight at the siege of Reading. During the battle, he was wounded in the left shoulder by a spent bullet and had to be brought back to London by carriage.

One of the consequences of the Civil War was the ending of the legal authority of the king through the abolition of the Star-Chamber, which led to the suspension of official censorship by the Company of Stationers. Censorship had been in operation since 1603, when James I granted the Company a monopoly of censorship over publications. All printed matter was brought under their scrutiny, and, naturally, anything that contravened the authority of the Church was banned.

The printing, selling or possession of books which had not been seen and revised by the ecclesiatical authorities could incur corporal punishment. This censorship severely restricted what could be published and particularly affected the publication of astrological works. Consequently the collapse of censorship in 1641 led to a flowering of all aspects of knowledge that had been previously suppressed. The written works of Nicholas Culpeper benefited enormously from this change in political climate.

Culpeper's deepest desire was to make herbal medicine available to everyone, especially the poor who could ill afford to visit a physician. In 1649 he published in English a translation of the Pharmacopoeia Londonesis of the Royal College of Physicians, calling it A Physical Directory, or a Translation of the London Dispensary. Of this work Culpeper said:

"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 want to keep their book a secret, not for everybody to know. Not long ago parsons, like the predecessors of grand-father [William Attersole], used to preach and prey in Latin, whether he or 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."

His uncle Anthony Parris cautioned Nicholas of the consequences of his translation:

"Be careful and do not attempt an illegal translation or anything that can harm you and your family. People in high places may indict you before the Star-Chamber."

To which Nicholas replied:

"The Star-Chamber has been abolished, thank God, and I am not afraid of punishment. Imagine the doctors saying, that laying medicine more open to mankind would lessen their patients' faith in it. The turth is that opening the book shows what jumble of obscure and costly ingredients the prescriber intends to burden our stomachs with."

The move sparked a major controversy and the College counter-attacked in the periodical Mercurius Pragmaticus. They strongly disapproved of his translation:

"The Pharmacopoeia was done (very filthily) into English by one Nicholas Culpeper who commenced the several degrees of Independency, Brownisme, Anabaptisme; admitted himself of John Goodwin's school (of all ungodliness) in Coleman Street; after that he turned Seeker, Manifestarian, and now has arrived at the battlement of an absolute Atheist, and by two years' drunken labour hath Gallimawfred the Apothecaries book into nonsense, mixing every receipt therein with some scruples at least of rebellion or atheism, besides the danger of poysoning mens' bodies. And (to supply his drunkenness and lechery with a 30-shilling reward) endeavoured to bring into obloquy the famous Societies of Apothecaries and Chyrurgeons."

Contrary to this critique, the work is a very exact translation of the Pharmacopoeia. Yet what Culpeper did was to add his own commentary about the uses and virtues of each drug. This is what particularly excited the ire of the College of Physicians - hence the 'danger of poysoning men's bodies' through the lay person not knowing how to prescribe medicines. Clearly the physicians were rattled by Culpeper's actions though there was very little they could do about it. The College's monopoly and legal status over the practice of medicine had been granted by Royal Charter, yet they were unable to prosecute Culpeper due to the abolition of the Star-Chamber. Furthermore, the trying of such an outspoken supporter of the commonwealth in the new political climate would have had little support. The execution of Charles I just prior to the publication of A Physical Directory was a powerful blow to their authority. It is interesting in this account to see the Royalist rhetoric against the 'rebellion' of the Parliamentary cause.

In 1651 Culpeper published his Semeiotica Uranica, or an Astrological Judgement of Diseases. This work explains decumbiture, the particular use of astrology to diagnose disease from the time a patient falls ill. This is an important work for it explains the principles of disease and how it should be treated, providing a key to his herbal, The English Physitian. The book was largely based upon a translation of a work by Noel Duret, the French royal cosmographer. The Semeiotica Uranica is prefaced by a translation of the Arabian astro-physican Abraham Avenezra's The Treatise of Critical Days, and also contains a section Upon The First Decumbiture of the Sick by Hermes Trismegistus. The work contains a further admonishment of the Royal College of Physicians. Amongst the astrological aphorisms indicating Signes of Death is found:

"Of the Lord of the 8th house be in the mid-heaven, and afflict the Lord of the Ascendant, the Physitian will be in a shrewd mistake, and instead of curing go near to kill."

To which he added the following commentary:

"Listen to this, O College of Physitians, let me intreat you to learn the principles of your trade, and I beseech you no longer mistake avarice for wit and honesty." 

I should explain that the Lord of the 8th house indicates death in a decumbiture chart. If the planet indicating death is in the mid-heaven, the part of the chart that represents the medicine, it signifies that the medicine is poisonous. Moreover, if this planet afflicts the Lord of the Ascendant, significator of health and vitality for the patient, it indicates that the poisonous medicine is adversely affecting the patient's health and vitality. Culpeper's commentary critically implies that if the physicians used astrology they would be able to see whether their medicine was going to poison the patient, hence improve the standard of their practice.

Also in 1651 Culpeper completed a work on midwifery entitled A Directory for Midwives; or a Guide for women in their conception, bearing and suckling of their children, etc. The topic of midwifery is certainly unusual for a man most well known as a herbalist and astrologer, however tragedy in his family life focused his attention on this issue. By his 14th year of marriage to Alice, they had seven children but only his daughter Mary outlived him. Doubtless this sadness contributed to the following conviction:

"No part of medicine is of more general importance than that which relates to the nursing and management of children. Yet few parents pay proper attention to it. They leave their offspring to the sole care of nurses, who are either too negligent to do their duty or too ignorant to know it. I venture to affirm that more human lives are lost by the careless inattention of parents and nurses than are saved by physitians. A sensible lady therefore should read a medical treatise which will instruct her in the management of her children. A little knowledge about cleanliness and care can do more good than many costly potions from the apothecary." 

Culpeper openly recognises the importance of women in this role and apologises for being a man writing a book on the topic. For the dedication reads:

"To the matron.

If you by your experiences find anything which I have written in this book not according to the truth (for I am a man and therefore subject to failings) first judge charitably of me, acquaint me with them, and they shall be both acknowledged and amended.

My rules are very plain and easie enough; neither are they so many that they will burden your brain, nor so few that they will be insufficient for your necessity. If you make use of them, you will find your work easie, you need not call for the help of a Man-Midwife, which is a disparagement, not only to yourselves, but also to your profession."

The book concludes with The Instruments dedicated to Generation, which deals with the anatomy of the sexual organs, and Of the Formation of the Child in the Womb, where Culpeper uses some astrological ideas to explain the topic. For example, under his descriptions of the male genitals is found:

"The Delights or Desires of Venus cause the Yard to stand; and that's the reason venereal sights and tales will do it. It need be no stranger to any that Venus (being a planet cold and moist) should add heat to those parts, that the Moon (being colder and moister than she) should burn by night..."

Further chapters include Of what hinders Conception, together with its Remedies; What furthers Conception, providing advice on conception including diet, exercise and herbal remedies; A Guide for Women in Conception, focusing on pregnancy, and further sections on labour and miscarriage. It concludes with A Guide for Women in their lying-in and Nursing of Children. The Directory of Midwives was remarkable as the first textbook on the subject written in the English Language. After The English Physitian, it is Culpeper's second most popular work.

In 1652 Culpeper translated from Latin Galen's Art of Physic. His reason: "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". The principles of Galen's physic are based upon the knowledge of the four Elements: Earth, Water, Air and Fire. Each Element is associated with a particular combination of the 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). The sensation of a particular herb on the tongue gives the physician a picture of what effect it will have on the vital force in the body generally.

For example, cucumber has a cold and moist taste which demonstrates that it has a cooling and moistening action on the vital force, so it can be applied locally to soothe the inflammation of a cut or bruise. By contrast, mustard has a hot and dry taste which demonstrates that it has a heating and drying action on the vital force. Applying mustard to the skin will cause redness and inflammation, powerfully aggravating any cut or bruise. Galen further explores these primary qualities, classifying them into varying degrees of heat and cold, then describes the range of physiological effects they produce.

In 1652 Culpeper wrote Catastrophe Magnatum, or the Fall of Monarchie. This is a mundane astrological work based upon the solar eclipse that occurred about nine in the morning on 'Black Monday', 29th March 1652. Mundane astrology is concerned with the affairs of the world, political events, nations and governments. As the title suggests, Culpeper was anti-Royalist in his astrological judgements too! His judgement of the chart for the eclipse included the comment: "The Fifth Monarchy is coming but he is not Scotchman nor English." Ironically, this created a Parliamentarian outcry for it showed that he was not in favour of Oliver Cromwell, who became Lord Protector in 1652. He predicted a collapse of the established order of government and the heralding of a new age under the divine guidance of Christ and his Saints. Perhaps with his anti-royalist leanings he had unwittingly perceived, though incorrectly, the coming to the throne of Charles II, who had been residing in France since the Civil War and the Restoration.

Predictably, after all that Culpeper had written about the College, the physicians aimed another broadside at Culpeper entitled "A farm in Spittlefields where all the knick-knacks of Astrology are exposed to open sale. Where Nicholas Culpeper brings under his velvet jacket: 1. His Chalinges against the Doctors of Physick; 2. A pocket medicine; 3. An abnormal circle." They were still greatly embarrassed by the medical success and popularity of the upstart apothecary.

On September 5th 1653, Culpeper completed his herbal The English Physitian, or an Astrologo-Physical Discourse of the Vulgar Herbs of this Nation. This is the work that has had such an enduring impact through the centuries, something that Nicholas was confident would happen, for in a letter to his wife Alice he wrote:

"...and my fame shall continue and increase thereby, though the period of my Life and Studies be at hand and I must bid all things under the Sun farewell."

What had Culpeper done to make it so unique that it still sells today? Clues lie in his Epistle to the Reader which prefaces the earlier editions, wherein he anticipates his critics with the question:

"What need have I written on this Subject, seeing so many and famous men have written so much in the English Tongue, much more than I have done? To this I answer: neither Gerard nor Parkinson or any that ever wrote in a like manner ever gave one wise reason for what they wrote, and so did nothing else but train up young novices in Physic in the School of Tradition, and teach them just as a Parrot is taught to speak... But in mine if you view it with the Eye of Reason, you shall see a reason for everything that is written, whereby you may find the very ground and foundation of Physic."

What is the 'Eye of Reason' he alludes to? To most researchers today his herbal seems to just contain abridged material that can be found in Gerard and Parkinson with the addition of a planetary ruler. The fact that material from Gerard and Parkinson is contained within it is hardly surprising since it reflects Culpeper's own herbal training, with Thomas Johnson, editor of Gerard's Herbal as one of his tutors. Culpeper's unique contribution was his inclusion of an astrological framework for presenting the basis of physic. Ever since his first instruction by William Lilly in the art of astrology, Culpeper saw how this knowledge lay at the root of the European herbal tradition, which contributed to his statement:

To such as study Astrology, who are the only men I know that are fit to study Physic, Physic without Astrology being like a lamp without oil...

The planet associated with each herb is used symbolically to derive its medicinal use. To gain knowledge of the herb, the student is expected to contemplate the symbolic associations of each planet - parts of the body, humoral correspondences, temperature, etc - in relation to the listed indications, to see how the herb can be used. For example, take Loveage (ligusticum levisticum) which Culpeper denotes "a herb of the Sun, under the sign of Taurus". Since solar herbs strengthen the vital force and Taurus is a sign ruling the throat, this directly indicates that the herb strengthens the vital force of the throat. Hence:

If Saturn offend the throat, (as he always doth if he occasion the malady, and in Taurus in the Genesis), this is your cure.

The heat and light of the Sun are opposite in nature to the cold and darkness of Saturn. "Saturn offending the throat" particularly indicates chronic catarrhal conditions of the pharynx and larynx. Hence the solar herb counteracts infection, strengthens the tissues and dries up the catarrh.

Thus with the symbolic Eye of Reason, his herbal can be seen as a masterpiece of very clever scholarship. This is the main reason why the herbal has had such an enduring popularity. Of Culpeper's scholarship, the contemporary astrologer John Gadbury described it as: "..a work of such rarity that never any herbalist durst adventure to do."

Culpeper's health in later years was not good. It is thought that he contracted tuberculosis from the bullet wound to the shoulder during the siege of Reading. The pressure of all his studies and writing, coupled with the ravaging effects of consumption wasting him to a mere skeleton, proved too much. Finally Cupeper died on January 10th 1654 at the age of 38, shortly after completing The English Physitian.

As a powerful 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. This in many ways is 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, intellectual, containing the knowledge necessary to the study of Hermetic Philosophy." It sets out how the study of elements and planets in true philosophy can lead to an unfolding of the Christ principle within, or as Culpeper puts it in his symbolic ideas, the attainment of "drinkable Gold". It is a reflection of the religious uncertainties of his age that he wrote about his inner experience using alchemical imagery and left the treatise for posthumous publication. Following his time at Cambridge he had little respect for priests, the authority of the Church and the suppression of knowledge:

"Unless a man have gotten a very large estate he is not able to bring up his son to understand Latin. A dozen years of expense of time will hardly do it as they have ordered matters, in which time, whipping and cruel usage, the brains of many are too stuped that they are unfit to study. People miserably hampered by a scholastical net that they cannot get out of if they do see it. Righteous God look upon poor people and redeem them out of such Egyptian bondage."

Culpeper clearly saw the importance of knowledge that comes from within when he said "all the religion I know is in Jesus Christ and him crucified, and the indwelling of the spirit in me".

The freedom to print lasted about twenty years until Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. By 1662 the Company of Stationers was reinvoked and seeking particular revenge against astrological writings and almanacs. Culpeper's work flowered in the twenty years of the Interregnum, giving herbalists today an unprecedented glimpse of the knowledge that lies at the basis of our western herbal tradition. The English Physitians Library as Culpeper referred to his herbal legacy, is perhaps best summed up in his own words:

I have written seventeen books of Physick (besides those already published) which will discover to you the whole method of physick, both according to Paracelsus and Galen's practice. 

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