Nicholas Culpeper, English herbalist, apothecary and astrologer. 1616 - 1654

"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."

Nicholas Culpeper was one of those men who, despite being plagued by adversity and a short span of life, nonetheless managed to make an impact for the better. Born on 18th October 1616 into a large and somewhat puritanical family, he was brought up in Isfield in Sussex by his mother, as his father died two weeks before his birth.

As his maternal grandfather was the minister of St Margaret's in Isfield, he had a strong influence on young Nicolas' childhood and education, teaching him both Latin and Greek, in addition to inculcating a deep mistrust and disrespect for the Crown. A puritan in all respects, Attersole did not approve of his grandson reading anything other than the Bible. The two must often have come to blows, as Nicholas began working his way through the household library at the age of ten, preferring books on medicine, herbalism and astrology, at one time stealing a book on anatomy to read in a nearby hayloft.

At the age of 16 he went to Cambridge University to study theology, rather against his will. He was frustrated at not being able to study his beloved medical topics, and began attending anatomy lectures and reading the works of Hippocrates. A rebellious student, he would rather drink and enjoy the delights of newly-introduced tobacco than take his studies seriously, much to the chagrin of his family.

Another event which changed his life was the tragic death of his childhood sweetheart, Judith Rivers. They had long planned to marry, but knew that neither family would grant consent. As a result, they planned to elope and marry in secret whilst he was still at Cambridge. Nicholas arranged for them to meet near Lewes, but Judith's coach was struck by lightning and she did not survive. Desolate, he became increasingly reclusive and abandoned his studies.

The Apothecary Healer

The shock of learning of the affair had dreadful repurcussions. His mother went into a depressive decline and died a year later, his grandfather flew into a rage and had him disinherited. Alone and without any means of support, Nicholas became apprenticed to an apothecary in Threadneedle Street in London, where he became involved with cataloguing and collecting medicinal herbs. His experiences drove him to help others, and by the time his employer died, he had become sufficiently proficient in the art and knowledge of herbal medicine that he was able to take over the business.

1635 saw him working with the astrologer William Lilly, who taught him the art and science of medicinal astrology, and while Culpeper is not best known today as an astrologer, this period influenced him greatly.

In 1640 he met and married Alice Field, daughter of a wealthy merchant. Using the substantial dowry at his disposal, he set up in practice in Spitalfields, as an astrologer and herbalist. His strong humanitarian streak was demonstrated in that he would charge no more than a patient could pay. As a result, he gained some local fame among the poorer classes, whom he would treat for very little, or even at no charge. He would never turn anyone away, and was highly critical of those in the medical profession who were more interested in lining their pockets than curing the sick.

Of the Royal College of Physicians 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 Hellebore, this poisonous stuff, is a favourite laxative. It is surprising that they are so popular and that some patients recover."
This line did not make him popular with the medical profession as a whole. When he began to translate various works from Latin and Greek to allow a wider audience, he was pilloried for his efforts, on the basis that he was seen as undermining the doctors, who he saw as making medicine "...a secret conspiracy, writing prescriptions in mysterious Latin to hide ignorance and impress the patient."

Nevertheless, he continued his work, and wrote an astonishing number of books on herbs and their uses, a work on midwifery, as well as medical and prophetic astrology.

The Political Man

His upbringing and the experiences of his early adulthood became concrete during the English Civil War. A man of deeds as well as words, he desired to serve in the front line at Edgehill in 1642, but was later persuaded that his enthusiasm and skills could and should be put to better use. He became a field surgeon and later was commissioned to captain and led a volunteer infantry troop to fight at Reading, where he was wounded in the shoulder.

The war prompted many changes, notably (for Culpeper) the end of official censorship. Between 1603 and 1949, the Company of Stationers was charged with censoring all English publications. Influenced heavily by the Church, anything which spoke out against the establishment was unlikely to see the light of day, and if it were printed, published or read, the perpetrator of the crime was flogged.

This opened the floodgates for Culpeper, and many like him. His Catastrophe Mangatum, or the Fall of Monarchie was published in 1652, in which he predicted that the Government would be overthrown, and a theocracy established.

It is for his treatment of herbs that he is still best known, however. His scholarly approach to collecting, testing and researching makes his works fascinating down to today. His wit and wisdom is ever-present in what is possibly his most famous work, The English Physitian, better known today as Culpeper's Herbal.

Ironically, Nicholas was not a well man, and the effects of his wound in the war troubled him more and more, until he died on 10th January 1654, possibly of tuberculosis. Despite his fathering seven children, only one survived him.
Nicholas Culpeper - Herbalist of the People by Dylan Warren-Davis

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