Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Book Review

The Herbalist: Nicholas Culpeper and the fight for medical freedom by Benjamin Woolley, Harper Perennial, 2004; Paperback (ISBN: 0-00-712658-1), 402 pp, £8.99

A couple of weeks ago I walked along the river bank from Chorlton to Fletcher Moss in Didsbury. I found a few interesting plants but my best find was this book in the Oxfam bookshop in Didsbury village.

The author tells the story of one of the most famous of all English herbalists, Nicholas Culpeper. Nicholas lived during the first half of the 17th century – one of the most turbulent in all English history. His life was relatively short but it was an eventful one. He was born the son of a country parson, but his father died when Nicholas was an infant. His mother took him to live with her father, another country parson who was also a Puritan (what we would call today a ‘religious fundamentalist’) and a biblical scholar. Nicholas’s relationship with his grandfather does not appear to have been a happy one. Eventually the grandfather sent Nicholas to Cambridge where he learned Latin but did not graduate. Then Nicholas really ‘blotted his copybook’ by falling in love with the daughter of a local nobleman – a circumstance which had the potential to severely embarrass his grandfather. The couple decided to elope and made their way, by separate routes, to the south coast. On her way to the tryst the girl was struck by lightning and killed. A heart-broken Nicholas was banished to London where he took up an apprenticeship in the Apothecaries trade. For a variety of reasons Nicholas eventually had to abandon his apprenticeship and then got married and set up an unlicensed medical practice with his wife. This practice, which was largely based on herbal remedies, offered “medical help to anyone who needed it, no matter how poor.”

And this was a time when medical help was desperately needed because cities, towns and villages were over-crowded, insanitary and breeding places for countless infectious diseases. People, especially young children, died in droves from everything from chickenpox to smallpox. Periodically plague would appear and wipe out thousands of people (well over 40,000 Londoners died in the ‘plague year’ of 1625 alone).

At the point in Nicholas’s life when he should have been settled another catastrophe befell England – the Civil War. This brutal conflict, a result of the religious, political, economic and social tensions which had been building up for decades, if not centuries, killed more British people, in proportion to the population of the day, than did the First and Second World Wars combined. Inevitably Nicholas was swept up in it and was severely wounded in one of the first battles of the war, the Battle of Newbury in 1643.

Woolley suggests that Nicholas never really recovered from this wound – but he had other battles to fight. Medical practice was controlled by the haughty and patrician College of Physicians. They were concerned that the Apothecaries were undermining their monopoly by treating patients. The Physicians succeeded in licensing the Apothecaries and insisted that they confine themselves to the preparation of medicines only. The only medicines that the apothecaries were allowed to prepare were those listed in a weighty Latin tome called Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, which had been written and published by the Physicians. Nicholas translated the Pharmacopoeia into English, added information on the medical uses of the various preparations, and succeeded in publishing it. This work was a best seller and severely undermined the Physicians’ monopoly. Bolstered by his new found fame Nicholas wrote and published several other works, including one on midwifery and his most famous work, ‘The English Physitian, or An astrologo-physical discourse of the vulgar herbs of this nation’ (alternative title: ‘Culpeper’s Complete Herbal’). This book, first published in 1652, was to remain in print for centuries. Nicholas died in 1654 aged only 37.

In this book Woolley contrasts Nicholas’s career with that of the most famous Physician of his day, William Harvey. Although they probably would not have had much sympathy with each other Harvey was just as much a rebel and revolutionary as Culpeper. In the 17th century medical orthodoxy insisted that all medical knowledge was contained in the works of ancient Greeks and Romans and, in particular, the works of the Roman physician, Galen. Harvey dared to contradict the Galenic tradition by describing the working of the heart and the circulation of the blood based on his own observations. Today Harvey is regarded as the father of modern scientific medicine whilst Culpeper tends to be dismissed as something of a quack and a charlatan – mainly because of his interest in astrology. Woolley points out that this is not a fair assessment. In spite of Harvey’s discoveries the Physicians still clung to Galenic methods, which involved such harmful practices as blood-letting and treatment with powerful emetics and purgatives. It’s suggested that they may have killed at least two kings: James I and Charles II with their deadly meddling (and they may actually have been implicated in the assassination of the former). On the other hand Culpeper’s work may have involved a bit of harmless astrological mumbo-jumbo – no more irrational than much of the Galenic tradition – but for centuries countless people swore by his herbal remedies and could rely on little else during times of sickness.

One aspect of this book that I found particularly striking was the chapter headings. Each chapter is prefaced with the name of a herb, Nicholas’s description of that herb and it uses, and some modern remarks and observations on the same plant. The twelve herbs are: Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), Borage (Borago officinalis), Angelica (Angelica archangelica), Balm (Melissa officinalis), Melancholy Thistle (Carduus heterophyllus), Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), Rosa Solis, or Sun-Dew (Drosera rotundifolia), Bryony, or Wild Vine (Bryonia dioica), Hemlock (Conium maculatum), Lesser Celandine, or Pilewort (Ranunculus ficaria), Arach Wild & Stinking (Garden Orache = Atriplex hortensis) and Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). I have found nine of these twelve herbs in the Mersey Valley. Some, like Lesser Celandine, are common and found everywhere, whilst I have found Garden Orache only once. Of the remaining three, Sun-Dew was, until the mid-19th century, common on all the Mosses (i.e. peat bogs) hereabouts such as Carrington and Barton Mosses and Baguley Moor - but, with the draining of these areas, is now extinct. Melancholy Thistle once grew up around the Bury area and may still occur in the southern Pennines but I have never seen it in the Mersey Valley and don’t expect to do so. I have not seen Wormwood in the Mersey Valley for many years but it still occurs on waste ground in the city centre.

In spite of the plants missing from the above list many others mentioned in Culpeper’s book still grow around here and it is remarkable to think that, in a sense, we still live surrounded by the ingredients listed in a 17th century herbal!

I note that this book is still available from Amazon. I recommend it highly.

Dave Bishop, September 2009.

No comments: