“The works of God are freely given to man, his medicines are common and cheap, and easily to be found.” - N. Culpepper
One of the most notable herbalists in the Western tradition, Nicholas Culpepper’s influence can still be felt today. His most famous work, The English Physician is still referenced and frequently consulted by professional and amateur herbalists alike. Born in England in 1616, some decades before the English Civil War, he would live during one of his country’s most chaotic eras. As medicine was becoming increasingly commercialized and monopolized, he would popularize rules and methods that would help the average citizen maintain some agency over their health.
Although he lived a relatively short life, dying at age 37, Culpepper made the most of his life from a very early age. By the time he was ten years old he was reading the books on astrology in his grandfather’s library, in Greek and Latin, no less. He soon became interested in the tradition of western herbal medicine and started studying the works of Hippocrates and Galen. However at this time he was enrolled at Cambridge to study theology. His grandfather had hoped he would become a Church Minister. However, he soon abandoned his collegiate studies and for that, was disowned from his family’s inheritance.
He soon began an apprenticeship at a local apothecary. For five years much of this time was spent cataloguing various medicinal herbs. Additionally he maintained a keen interest in astrology. Eventually he was able to start his own business. However, having never finished his formal education, let alone, having little formal schooling in medicine, the Society of Apothecaries were not impressed. Regardless, Culpepper began cultivating his reputation. He was able to provide his knowledge and medicine to the poor of London, seeing near 40 patients a day and charging very little. He came to believe that medical treatment should not be limited to the aristocratic class.
However, when he was 26, the English Civil War broke out. Culpepper was enlisted as a field surgeon on the side of the Puritans. At the First Battle of Newbury, he took a musket shot to the chest and was forced to return to London. While his next 12 years were to be his most prolific, he never fully recovered from his wound.
He began to translate various medical works from Latin into English, which further irritated the Society of Apothecaries and the College of Physicians. He went even further, publishing self-help guides, and manuals for public health in vernacular English. In his works, he employed a method of astrological herbalism, wherein every plant is considered to be ruled by a certain luminary. As such plants may be categorized, planted, harvested, and applied to according to the astrologic season and the astrologic condition of the patient. For each organ, disease, and, malady too had a celestial ruler. Herbs of Venus tend to assuage the maladies of Mars. And the herbs of Jupiter are particularly beneficial to the liver, its ruling that organ. A year before his death he released his most famous work, The English Physician, which is still in print today.
Culpepper exists as a bit of a paradox to the modern eye, and perhaps even to that of his contemporaries. He was a physician, yet not in the way we consider them today. He was an herbalist and yet he was considered a traitor by the herbal establishment, who went so far to accuse him of witchcraft. He was an astrologer and yet a devout Christian, as “the admirable Harmony of the Creation is herein seen, in the influence of Stars upon Herbs and the Body of Man.”