Nicholas Culpeper: Better Living Through Botany

26 October 2017 | Posted in Michael Blencowe
Nicholas Culpeper: Better Living Through Botany
Illustration by Mark Greco

Just over 400 years ago, in 1616, a legend was born; a rebel who partnered up with Mother Nature to revolutionise British medicine. The herbal hero, the botanical bad boy, the father of alternative medicine, ladies and gentleman I give you...Nicholas Culpeper.

Nicholas did not have a great start in life. His father tragically died just days before he was born and he was rushed off to live with a relative who apparently had little patience with the boy and would lock him in a dark room. All young Culpeper needed was some magical powers and a distinctive scar on his forehead and you'd have a great idea for a story.

Culpeper did his growing up upstream from Lewes in Isfield. The lanes around Lewes and the starry Sussex skies were his classroom and the hedges and the heavens taught him botany, astronomy and astrology. And he learnt about love too. In 1634 Culpeper and his secret Sussex sweetheart planned a clandestine Lewes wedding followed by a hasty elopement to the Netherlands. But tragedy struck again when his love-struck lady’s carriage was struck by a lightning bolt en route to Lewes. She died instantly.

Young Culpeper explored the lanes around St Margaret of Antioch church in Isfield (above) where his grandfather was the rector. He was apparently obsessed by the sundial / scratchdial on the 800 year old church's south wall.

There’s no cure, herbal or otherwise, for a broken heart and Culpeper left Sussex and started a new life in London. He threw himself into his work as a lowly apothecary’s assistant cataloguing medicinal herbs on Threadneedle Street. At this time medicine was only practiced by elite physicians. They would charge exorbitant prices for their secret remedies and would not even demean themselves to talk to patients; instead requesting a sample of urine to make their diagnosis. Culpeper agreed with them on one thing; they were certainly extracting the urine. He believed medical treatment should be available to all - not just the privileged.

Setting up his own practice in a poorer part of London Culpeper started treating 40 patients a day with herbal cures derived from English plants. Then he dropped his botanical bombshell. Culpeper published an incredible book which instructed people how to pick their own remedies, free of charge, from the hedges and meadows. The book was ‘The English Physitian’ (1652, later enlarged as ‘The Complete Herbal’). His book promoted and preserved folk remedies at a time when physicians and priests were discrediting village healers and preventing them from passing along their traditional knowledge. The medical establishment was enraged, they even accused Culpeper of practicing witchcraft. But his book endured. It’s been in continuous print longer than any other non-religious English language book, running rings ‘round the tales of Tolkien and Rowling.

As we head towards the festive season some of Culpeper’s herbal remedies could come in useful for you; wild privet (for headaches), blackthorn (for indigestion), rosemary (for flatulence) and the juice of ivy berries ‘snuffed up into the nose’ (for hangovers). Culpeper also has cures sore breasts, worms, itches in the ‘privy parts’ and bruises. Hey – I don’t know what you lot plan to be getting up to over Christmas. So keep your copy of 'The Complete Herbal' to hand and raise your Nutribullets and ginseng teas to the healing properties of Mother Nature and to four centuries of Nicholas Culpeper.

Michael Blencowe.

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