Nicholas Culpeper - the Master Herbalist.

Culpeper is one of the best-known 17th century herbalists in the English speaking world. The main reason for this are his writings, and particularly his book the "Complete Herbal and English Physician", which gives an unparalleled view into the holistic principles of the Graeco-Arabic medicine that were extant at his time. His writings show an additional most interesting dimension, the integration of astrological principles. Astrology had been standardly used for the prognosis of disease for many centuries; the Hippocratic writings in fact mention the physician’s need for skill in astrological prognosis. Culpeper however, shows us a much more integrated system in which not just diseases, but also plants are given astrological attributes, thus making the application of medicinal plants in disease a simple and logical process that just about every person of his time would have been able to follow. It is therefore not surprising that Culpeper’s books sold by the thousands and are still popular today. So who was Culpeper?

Nicholas Culpeper was born in London on the 18th of October 1616. He commenced studying at Cambridge when he was 18 and although he was a bright scholar, he gave up his studies to commence what turned out to be a long apprenticeship with a London Apothecary.

On completion of his apprenticeship in 1640 he commenced practice as a Physician in Spitalfields. In 1649 he infringed on the monopoly of the medical establishment of the day by publishing an English translation of the physicians’ pharmacopoeia, "A Physicall Directory" that had up till then been carefully kept from the public eye by being in Latin. In 1653 he published his famous "The English Physician, or Herball".

Culpeper’s vast knowledge of herbal medicine allowed him to prescribe single local herbs rather than the exotic and costly imported plant materials and drugs that were favoured by the medical establishment of his day. In addition he used the English common names of plants in his practice rather than Latin names. This enabled him to communicate with his poorer clients who could collect their required remedies free of charge in the nearby countryside.

In Culpeper’s time it was common for medical practices and astrology to be closely interlinked and for the quality of medicines to be expressed in astrological terms that linked each medicine with its own specific ruling planet.
This system was further enhanced by the principles of the Graeco-Arabic medical philosophy that was in general use at that time, that ascribed the qualities Hot, Dry, Cold and Moist to medicines.
Click this button for a table of herbs with their qualities and ruling planets 
This combination of astrology and medicine was not new. By Culpeper’s time astrology had been a part of medicine for at least two millennia and probably much more. No doubt in ancient times the wise men of the community turned to astrology to provide a theoretical basis as to why certain plants were efficacious in the treatment of certain diseases and others were not. This is hardly surprising, as ancient communities were based on agriculture. To them there was an obvious relationship between events in nature such as the growth of plants and the times of the year as manifested by the position of the heavenly bodies. Thus an explanation evolved, based on the long experience of the people, as to the relationship between astrology and the efficacy of plants. Although this working model may seem foreign to us today, it provided a quite serviceable system of medicine. As may be expected therefore, Culpeper was, like many doctors of his day, also an expert astrologer and published a number of books on this subject including his "Opus Astrologicum" (1654) and his "Astrological Judgement of Diseases" (1655).
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Thus Culpeper’s medical philosophy in his "Herbal" is interwoven with Graeco-Arabic medical concepts as well as astrological principles. With this in mind, it is easy to comprehend his guide as to the correct treatment of a disease:

  1. "First of all, decide which planet is responsible for the disease.
  2. Secondly ascertain which part or parts of the body are afflicted by the disease, referring particularly to the flesh, the blood, the bones or the heart.
  3. Thirdly treat the disease by means of medicines that have qualities to them that are in antipathy to the qualities of the disease and any afflicted organ or part of the body.
  4. Fourthly, do remember to treat any organ or part of the body that has become weakened with medicines that have an affinity to the qualities of the weakened organ or part."

Without any doubt, Culpeper’s greatest contribution was his "Complete Herbal and English Physician" which remained the most popular guide for herbal medicine in England for over 250 years.

On the 10th of January 1654 Nicholas Culpeper died of tuberculosis at the relatively young age of 38. Many of his unpublished manuscripts were published after his death but many more were lost in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The early loss of this great man is a tragedy and what other wonderful things he would have left to posterity had he lived the full complement of his years, can only be guessed at.


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Source: Astrology in Medicine by Susan Hysen © 1984.