From Astrology to Herbalism : A True Paradigm Shift

by astrax on October 20, 2016 - 5:18pm

Empirical Observations
The English Physician Enlarged With Three Hundred and Sixty Nine Medicines Made of English Herbs is a medical book by Nicholas Culpepper, a student in physic (medicine) and astrology. Published in 1794, The English Physician Enlarged focuses on herbal medicine and its relation to astrology. Information is well-organized, as the text is an alphabetical collection of plants/herbs and their medicinal uses, each with its short paragraph. The book has a table of contents, yet no illustrations are to be found, which is surprising for a reference on herbal medicine. As for the text, it is written in English, Culpepper’s vernacular, instead of Latin.
The copy found at McGill’s Osler Library measures roughly 17x11x3 cm, and is quite light at around 300 grams. The book is bound by a leather jacket; however, that leather seems inexpensive and quite worn-out. Furthermore, the two cover halves are held together by a single string. As such, the book appears to have been significantly used. Though the pages of the book are visibly stained in yellow, as seen in the picture above, they are without smells, watermarks or annotations. The text, written in a serif font, likely Garamond, is highly legible despite the slightly small font size. Some “s” characters are written using the modern integral sign (∫).
The production of early modern medical knowledge has many differences with that of contemporary medicine, and Culpepper’s The English Physician Enlarged ties into those changes since it embodies medicine’s paradigm shift from rationalism to empiricism. 
In fact, 16th century academic medicine differs from contemporary evidence-based medicine as it “rested on an active investigation of nature and nature’s secrets” through a rational lens (Cook 48). That rationalism, often interconnected with tradition, clashed with observation-heavy fields such as herbalism or anatomy (52). While many of these practices stemmed from popular culture, educated practitioners — such as surgeons or apothecaries — who had more public interaction than academic physicians legitimized empirical methods and led the field into a period of transition (53). It is through this crossroad between tradition, rationalism, and empiricism that medicine has evolved to its modern state, and The English Physician Enlarged, initially published in 1653, is at the heart of it (Science Museum).
For instance, while Culpepper has a mainstream medical education, his text incorporates astrology to herbal recipes, a subject more in line with popular culture. Overall, the book can be classified under “Sachliteatur”, which describes a genre of recipe books containing traditional remedies without most of the quackery looked down upon by educated practitioners (Cook 53). As such, users of the original The English Physician Enlarged fall in-between folk healers and the educated elite : herbalists, apothecaries and surgeons likely used it as a reference. As for the late 1794 edition, it likely never had any practical use beyond being a nostalgic item, as medicine has significantly evolved a century mere century later.
The English Physician Enlarged illustrates the transition period from rationalism to empiricism through its (quite inaccurate) herbal descriptions. For instance, Culpepper notes that the “maple tree is under the dominium of Jupiter […] and it is excellent good to open obstructions both in the liver and spleen” (Culpepper 199). Those “observations” were likely drawn more from astrology than from empirical data, since the maple tree does not have any significant medicinal properties. And astrology, of course, is seldom used today to treat medical conditions. However, some of Culpepper’s descriptions do hold validity. For instance, he is well aware of the devastating symptoms of the poison hemlock: he warns that “[hemlock] is exceedingly cold, and very dangerous, especially to be taken outwardly”, and even advises one to get drunk if taken accidentally “before it strikes the heart”, hinting at its deadly potential (160). It is important to note that technological limitations of the time restricted medicine to mostly herbs and surgery, as synthetic drugs only came much later. 
The empirical streak in Culpepper’s herbal research is at the core of modern-day medicine and pharmacy. Though most herbs are of limited use, some plants do have legitimate medicinal properties, and those were subsequently transformed into modern drugs. Morphine, for instance, is derived from opium poppy. Interestingly, physicians of the time opposed and ridiculed Culpepper’s work (Science Museum), yet neither mainstream nor herbal texts of the 17th century resemble contemporary medical texts. It therefore suggests that elements of empiricism, though present, were still in their infancy. 
To conclude, Culpepper’s The English Physician Enlarged sits at the junction of medical change at the time of its original publication, since the book combines traditional/rational elements of astrology with bits and pieces of empiricism. As such, though the literal text is of little medical use, the overall approach of the book is still highly relevant in today’s scientific world where observation and testability reigns king.
Works Cited
Cook, Harold. “Medicine.” in Katherine Park and Lorraine Daston (eds.) The Cambridge History of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 407-434. 345-101-MQ Early Modern Knowledge, edited by Sarah Waurechen, Eastman Systems, 2016, pp. 47-61.
Culpepper, Nicholas. The English Physician Enlarged With Three Hundred Sixty Nine Medicines Made of English Herbs, 1794.
“Nicholas Culpepper (1616-54)”, Science Museum,