Nicholas Culpeper and His Herbal Best Seller

In 1653 Nicholas Culpeper (1616–54) published The Complete Herbal. It was the last of his works to be published in his lifetime, and he wrote the following explanation of how he felt obliged to offer an alternative to what he regarded as the unnatural and harmful treatments of his medical rivals.

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 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.

The Complete Herbal had first appeared in 1652, entitled The English Physitian, or an Astrologo-physical discourse of the vulgar herbs of this nation. Being a complete method of physick, whereby a man may preserve his body in health; or cure himself, being sick. Culpeper's aim was to supply the information that would allow ordinary people to identify medicinal plants they could find growing in fields and hedgerows near their homes and use them to make ointments, poultices, infusions, or decoctions that would heal them. Sometimes he described precisely where a particular herb could be found. The book sold for three pence, which made it accessible to the poor, and Culpeper wrote in simple, straightforward English that ordinary people could understand. The Complete Herbal was an immediate success.

For more than 250 years it was the principal guide to traditional cures that ordinary people used, and it is still in print. Nicholas Culpeper is regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern herbalism. Both the book and its author were highly controversial, however. Culpeper firmly believed in astrology. Medicine had been strongly influenced by astrology since classical times, so Culpeper was not introducing anything new, but times were changing. Astronomy had become a science, and astronomers had shown astrology to be mere groundless superstition. That was not the only reason the medical establishment attacked Culpeper, though. He had struck the first blow, and the physicians were defending themselves.

Medical practitioners had to belong to the Royal College of Physicians, and they were allowed to prescribe only those remedies that were published in the Pharmacopoeiae Londonensis (London pharmacopoeia), published by the Royal College and dispensed by members of the Society of Apothecaries. The Pharmacopoeiae Londonensis was written in Latin, and physicians wrote their prescriptions in Latin. Most patients had no idea what medicines they were being prescribed. It was a secretive closed shop, and to compound matters doctors and apothecaries were charging exorbitant prices.

Culpeper did the unforgivable: in 1649 he translated the Pharmacopoeia Londonensis into English and published it as The London Dispensatory. He gave his reasons in the following words.

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. Not long ago parsons, like the predecessors of my grand-father William Attersole, used to preach and pray in Latin, whether 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.

His translation revealed that the ingredients going into the officially authorized medicines included many different kinds of feces, the skull of a man who had met a violent death, the brain of a sparrow, the horn of a unicorn, the fat of a lion, and many that were even more disgusting and even more absurd. The Royal College denounced him and said he was endangering lives by encouraging untrained readers to self-medicate, but they could not prevent publication or punish the author. In 1641 Parliament had abolished the Star Chamber. Until that time anyone who offended the sovereign—and the Royal College was under the sovereign's patronage and therefore protected—committed an offense that would be tried in the Star Chamber, which had the power to impose severe penalties and seize and destroy offensive publications. As an alternative to the official list of medicines, on the title page of The Complete Herbal Culpeper offered: “Such things only as grow in England, they being most fit for English bodies.” What was even worse from the physicians' point of view was that Culpeper's remedies were free.

Nicholas Culpeper was born on October 18, 1616, at Ockley, Surrey, where his parents, the Reverend Nicholas Culpeper and his wife Mary Attersole, had moved the previous year. The Reverend Culpeper died when his son was 13 days old, and the infant was raised in Isfield, Sussex, by his grandfather, the Reverend William Attersole, an intellectual but also a stern and devout Puritan. Attersole planned that Nicholas should study at the University of Cambridge and enter the church. From an early age, however, Nicholas read avidly, from books in his grandfather's library, about astrology, medicine, and medicinal plants.

In 1632, when he was 16, Culpeper entered Cambridge, but the courses on offer did not appeal to him, and he spent his time enjoying himself. He also took up the new habit of smoking. He and his childhood sweetheart, Judith Rivers, had planned to marry. Judith was a wealthy heiress whose family would never have permitted such a marriage, so the couple decided to elope, arranging to meet near Lewes, Sussex, where they could find a ship to take them to the Netherlands until the fuss died down. On the way to the rendezvous, Judith's coach was struck by lightning and she was killed.

Devastated, Nicholas abandoned his studies. Culpeper's mother died a year later, and his grandfather disinherited him, outraged because he refused to return to Cambridge. Instead, the Reverend Attersole paid ?50 for him to be apprenticed to Daniel White, an apothecary in London, and Culpeper began his seven-year apprenticeship in November 1634. Before completing the apprenticeship, however, White went bankrupt and disappeared to Ireland, taking what was left of Culpeper's fees with him. Another apothecary, Francis Drake of Threadneedle Street, agreed to take the apprentice on, Culpeper teaching him Latin as payment for his board and lodging. About 18 months later, Drake died. Culpeper and a fellow apprentice, Samuel Leadbeaters, took over the business, working under supervision until they had finished their training.

In 1639 Culpeper married Alice Field, the 15-year-old daughter of a wealthy merchant and a former patient. Marriage meant he had to abandon his apprenticeship—apprentices were not permitted to marry. He had completed five years and felt he knew enough to go into practice. He and Alice built a house and shop in Red Lion Street, Spitalfields, which was a poor district of London, and he opened a business as an astrologer, physician, and herbalist. The Society of Apothecaries denounced him for not being fully qualified, and physicians disapproved of the fact that Culpeper treated the poor, often for free.

Civil war broke out in 1642, and Culpeper, an ardent Puritan and republican, enlisted, serving as a field surgeon. On September 20, 1643, a musket ball hit him in the chest while he was tending a casualty. He was carried back to London and never fully recovered. He and Alice had seven children, but only their daughter Mary survived. In 1651 Culpeper published A Directory for Midwives.

Nicholas Culpeper died on January 10, 1654. The combination of tuberculosis, his old wound, and overwork was given as the cause of his death, but his secretary suggested that his heavy smoking might also have contributed. At the time of his death he had 79 books or translations awaiting publication.