English Herbs and Astrology for the Sick

by Beigel on October 20, 2016 - 2:23pm

Empirical Observations             

            During the Osler Library trip, we had the opportunity to observe a selection of rare hundred-year-old books. I had the chance to look at Nicholas Culpeper’s The English Physician Enlarged with Three Hundred and Sixty-Nine Medicines, Made of English Herbs, that were not in any Impressions until This. The book is printed in English and dates back near the end of the 18th century, in 1794. The dimensions of the book are roughly 17 × 11 × 3 cm, and weighs approximately 300 grams. The font used is very similar to Times New Roman. The book has a slight distinctive old book smell to it, but is negligible. The plain book cover is made out of cheap brown leather and is barely holding itself together with a thread, which makes it very delicate. This is probably due to the excessive handling by local doctors, herbalists and quacksalvers (quacks) (Cook 418). There aren’t any notes written in the margins nor are there any watermarks. There weren’t any images nor any wood carvings in the book to be found, but there was a table of contents containing names of herbs and their connection to astrology.



            The contents of this book showcase the knowledge used by itinerant practitioners who are moved through neighbourhoods and markets (Cook 418). This demonstrates they way knowledge was produced and disseminated in the early period. There are still herbal medicine books today, though there are some notable differences. The first thing that you’ll notice when you get a hold of the book is that in the table of contents, each herb and plant is associated with astrology, astrological signs and planets. This is significantly different from modern medicine as astrology is not part of curing sicknesses at all. The description of each herb and plant and for what sickness they are used for is all in detail, showcasing vivid imagery. For example, garlick is described as “the offensiveness of the breath of him that hath eaten Garlick”, owned by Mars and can kill worms in children and get rid of though phlegm (Culpepper 133).

This book was originally published in 1652 (Davis). The copy of the book we observed was printed more than a hundred years later.  There have been many other republications of the book throughout that period, because of the printing press. Because of this, we can deduce that the English Physician Enlarged was reprinted with corrections and additions of herbs and plants, along with new recipes for ointments, oils, etc. According to Cook, “by the end of the seventeenth century, […] the science of physic had been fundamentally altered” (Cook 407); the publishing date nears the end of the 18th century where evolution of knowledge is inevitable. Thus, this book might have been printed for nostalgic purposes, to look back upon, since new editions or new knowledge surfaced. This still happens today, for example, we have newer editions of textbooks, therefore older editions become somewhat useless.

The modern understanding of the human body today follows the scientific method which is far more detailed and complex than simple humoral theory (the four humors) (Cook 410). In the early modern period, students of physic also studied astrology, along with mathematics in order to help them discover someone’s nature. Physicians tried to recover sources of philosophical medicine, especially those from Greece (Cook 411). This shows how medical knowledge dating back more than a thousand years ago still has influence on the knowledge in the 17th century. It also reflects how the old paradigm was still in place when this book was originally published.

Near the end of the book, there is a section dedicated to Directions. Just like in a recipe book, there are directions on how to make whatever it you are making. In this case, the directions indicate what to do with the herbs and plants: how to gather, to dry, to conserve, to mix, etc. There are also directions on how to make ointments, oils and pills. Furthermore, there is a table of diseases that have corresponding pages as to which herb(s) or plant(s) are used for curing the illness. All the necessities to cure a decease during this period come from natural resources, hence all the use of herbs and such.  Nothing was synthetic since the technology was not advance at all. These were the early stages of pharmaceutical knowledge. Though today, we still see the presence of such knowledge through homeopathy and naturopathy, ways of curing disease and illness through natural means.

This book demonstrates the way knowledge was produced and disseminated. It also establishes the fact that some bits of knowledge are still left in continuity. Therefore, we can presume that this book holds great significance to modern medicinal knowledge.


Word count: 787



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.

Culpeper, Nicholas. The English Physician Enlarged with Three Hundred and Sixty-Nine Medicines, Made of English Herbs, that were not in any Impressions until This, 1794.

Davis, Dylan. “Nicholas Culpeper Herbalist of the People.” Sky Script, http://www.skyscript.co.uk/culpeper.html.


I never knew garlic was owned by Mars! Also, you did a good job relating this book to Cook, for example, hypothesizing that this book might have been written for nostalgic purposes, because of the time it had been written at. Overall, nice review.

It makes total sense that the evolution of printing press is the reason why the book was printed more than a hundred years later (I wondered why but didn't figure it out). The comparison to newer editions of textbooks is very appropriate in the context and it makes the reader understand easily the significance of the book at 18 century. An other comparison that I like a lot at the end of your analyze is "Near the end of the book, there is a section dedicated to Directions. Just like in a recipe book" it also shows the differences between early medicine and modern medicine as it is unlikely to make a medicine at home following a recipe now days.