Nicholas Culpepper – Classical European Herbalist and Healer
Nicholas Culpepper was an English botanist and herbalist, which at the time was synonymous with also being a physician. He was born in 1616 and died at the very young age of 38. He wrote or translated a total of 79 books. Two of the most notable are The English Physitian (1652) and the Complete Herbal (1653). He did however; use the classical method of classifying herbs by Element, planet and constellation and left behind an excellent body of reliable pharmaceutical and herbal knowledge on that basis. Details on this method have been placed elsewhere on this web site. To know more click here.
Culpepper is both a heroic and humble personage who’s active Christianity became evident in his practice of healing. In many ways Nicolas Culpepper would have gotten along quite well with the “firebrand,” Paracelsus. They are “birds of a feather.” He questioned traditional methods and knowledge of healing in search of more humane, reasonable, intelligent and effective methods and, he also questioned the establishment as did Paracelsus.
Nicholas Culpepper is influential in the English speaking world because he wrote in English rather than in Latin or Greek and classified herbs in the classical manner and thereby kept this methodology alive for posterity. Culpepper knew Latin and Greek but wrote in English for the sake of the majority and the poor who only understood English. Culpepper’s father was a church minister and was well versed in matters Christian, Biblical, astronomical and astrological.
Nicholas became fascinated watching the stars at night at an early age which naturally lead to an interest in time and the various time pieces that kept it; clocks and sundials. He noticed that time bore a strong correlation to the activities of village life; what was being done and when it was being done. Some believe it was his grandfather who aroused Nicholas’ interest in astrology after Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos and his grandmother who first exposed Nicholas to the use of medicinal plants. His talents were likely inborn.
Culpepper definitely had a mind of his own and did not graduate from his Cambridge Divinity studies protesting that he preferred to study medicine. He later dropped out of college and eloped with a childhood sweetheart who died after being struck by lightning before they could wed.
After getting over his heart break, he was apprenticed to an apothecary in exchange for teaching him Latin. As part of his training his interest in Astrology grew and in visiting the famous astrologer William Lilly he was told, “You as an apothecary and physitian, you should consult your planetary 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.”
It should be remembered that astrology as it was practiced by Culpepper bears little resemblance to what it has become today. In Classical Astrology herbs were classified by Element, planet and constellation, as they had been for millennia, based on their color, geometry, degree of heat, time of maturation, and other factors. The planetary association was used symbolically and not literally to derive the nature and character of the herb and from this, its action and subsequent medicinal use. To gain knowledge of theherb, some contemplation of the symbolic associations of each planet (not physical planet) – parts of the body, humeral correspondences, degree of heat, etc – in relation to the indications presenting themselves, to see how and when the herb can be used. This type of understanding and use of astrology, it seems,would be difficult to teach another person unless they had a natural inborn aptitude or at the very least a strong desire to honestly learn it. One thing is certain, the average person, although wanting, could not merely open a book and immediately comprehend it.
An example of this methodology out of Culpepper’s writing is as follows: On the herb Lovage: “It is an herb of the Sun, under the sign of Taurus. If Saturn offend the throat, (as he always doth if he be occasioner of the malady, and in Taurus in the Genesis), this is your cure.”
Keep in mind that in this application of astrology the Sun is hot and dry and Saturn is cold and moist. They naturally oppose each other. This does not mean that Saturn literally rules over the throat. It means that the condition present (cool) produces a condensation of “substance” to take place in the area of the throat that warmth will dissolve and break up. Warmth on a sore throat almost always works to clear it.
The logic behind this being that solar herbs being warming and drying, generally strengthen the vital force and lovage as a sun herb flowering in the month of July. Taurus is the main sign generally ruling the throat, this “conjunction” or association directly indicates that this herb strengthens the vital force of the throat. This logic isevident throughout Culpepper’s writings and the writing of others. The physical astronomy and the associated planetary qualities (Kabbalah) or virtues of plants were put to predictable, logical and practical use through this methodology.
The internal organs were also referred to by planet. The Heart – Sun, Gallbladder -Mars, Stomach – Moon, Spleen – Saturn, the Liver – Jupiter etc. The aspect of this manner of thinking having to do with planetary astronomy is associated with the natural world both within the human body (the microcosm) and effects outside the human body in Nature (the macrocosm) and is a very broad topic to cover. The premise being, that a person can make themselves subject to nature – the planets being part of nature – through physical abuses or neglect. This is rather difficult to explain on this page. Click here to know more. Once at this page look under the Kabbalistic Astrology Versus Astronomical Phenomenon Tab.
After losing his love, Culpepper became motivated to help the suffering of others bringing his medical knowledge to the poor and the needy. In time his enthusiasm and knowledge of his new profession was so proficient that, following the death of his employer, he was able to carry on the business.
In time Culpepper married the daughter of someone he had cured and became a Good Samaritan to the poor, whom he charged very little or nothing for his service. He would gather his herbal remedies from nearby fields and cared for many free of charge.
Culpepper was vocal about the medical professionals of the day stating “that they were too focused on keeping the health care too expensive and out-of-reach of the general public; in this way the medical community was able to profit quite heavily.” Saying, ”no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician.” These sentiments did not endear him to his peers. Like Paracelsus, who helped the poor for little or no fee and taught them the names of the healing herbs in their own language rather than the incomprehensible Latin.
Other physicians would liked to have stopped Culpepper from bringing his remedies to the common folk; he translated some of the standard Latin medical texts into English; the equivalent of revealing closely guarded medical secrets. To reveal such knowledge was a banned practice because of medical monopoly enforced by government. Culpepper cleverly waited until the English Civil War which made it all but impossible for the College of Physicians to enforce the laws. He made his translated writings available in the vernacular English and sold them at a low price, making it possible for anyone who could read to have them.
Culpepper’s heartfelt desire was to make herbal medicine available to everyone, especially the poor who often could not afford to visit a physician. He published an English 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 Culpepper 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.”
At this publication his uncle cautioned Nicholas of possible consequences. He said to Nicholas, “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 the gutsy 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 truth is that opening the book shows what jumble of obscure and costly ingredients the prescriber intends to burden our stomachs with.”
Culpepper’s success as an herbalist made him particularly critical of the Royal College of Physicians. Of them 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.” Again, he sounds just like Paracelsus.
As a healer Culpepper naturally recognized that there was a need to be sensitive to the ailing person’s emotional needs which clearly contributed to his healing success. Culpepper states: “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.”
The power of putting someone’s mind at ease is more conducive to well being than most remedies. People, who had been told that they would be dead in 6 months, often do just that. They are killed by their own fears more than what actually ails them. Even the best of remedies will not help under that kind of antipathetic mental state.
It is noteworthy and not insignificant that Nicholas Culpepper’s most famous work, The Complete Herbal(1653) was , aside from the Bible, the only text in history to never go out of print! Herbalists today still revere it and find much value within its pages. Thanks to his determination to bring healing to the masses by introducing them to the wonder of the herbs and plants available to even the poorest of people, Culpepper represents so much of what draws many of us to herbalism in the first place. He recognized the right we all have to good health and the wonder of the plant kingdom which can make that health freely available to all.
After his time at Cambridge he had little respect for priests, the authority of the Church and the suppression of knowledge. This sobering experience lead him to state that: “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.”
Culpepper’s personal beliefs with regard to society, well being, and its power brokers is not that out of sync with other times in history, including our own. He believed that medicine was a public asset rather than a commercial secret, and the prices physicians charged were far too expensive compared to the cheap and universal availability of nature’s medicine. He felt the use of Latin and expensive fees charged by doctors, lawyers and priests worked to keep power and freedom from the general public.
He stated: “Three kinds of people mainly disease the people — priests, physicians and lawyers — priests disease matters belonging to their souls, physicians disease matters belonging to their bodies, and lawyers disease matters belonging to their estate.” Like most who are genuine, Nicolas Culpepper, as is already clearly evident, didn’t think much of those in his profession. At present a few more could be added to this list but, for his time, he was spot on!
It is not insignificant that Nicholas Culpepper like all other true healers had very deep spiritual convictions that he attempted to apply through his work rather than just allow to exist passively within him. Again, as with all healers, his work eventually lead him to explore the “world within’ through Hermetic philosophy as is evident in his work; The Treatise of the Aurum Potabile, which he describes as “Being a description of the Threefold World; elementary, celestial, intellectual, containing the knowledge necessary to the study of Hermetic Philosophy.” This work mirrors that of Jakob Boehme, Robert Fludd, Paracelsus and others who all espoused a deep Christian faith that was expressed through the same common thread of Christian mysticism in all their works. Like the previously mentioned, Culpepper realized the importance of knowledge that can only be awakened from within and he stated “all the religion I know is in Jesus Christ and him crucified, and the indwelling of the spirit in me.” This work essentially explains the philosophy behind his life and written works setting out how the study of the Four Elements and planets in true philosophy can lead to an unfolding of the Christ principle within producing an inner alchemical transformation.
All we have today is his writings to assess his worth by. Culpepper sums up his very simple and direct methodology when writing: “This not being pleasing, and less profitable to me, I consulted with my two brothers, DR. REASON and DR. EXPERIENCE, and took a voyage to visit my mother NATURE, by whose advice, together with the help of Dr. DILIGENCE, I at last obtained my desire; and, being warned by MR. HONESTY, a stranger in our days, to publish it to the world, I have done it.”
In short, Culpepper clearly states that he used cold blooded reason, proven by experience through observation in Nature through great diligence and good conscience to write about what he did for a living. It seems pretty straight forward.
It is interesting to note that in some things the world does not change. The powerful and interest minded always seem to suppress the rest. However, if Culpepper’s practices worked, as is evident that they did, then why is it summarily presumed that they would not work today? The answer to this fundamental question is in Nicholas Culpepper’s own writings and Paracelsus’ writings before him.