Herbs, Astrology and Early Modern Medicine

by 0507emk on October 19, 2016 - 10:23pm

Empirical Observations:

The book that was analyzed at the Osler Library was The English Physician Enlarged with Three Hundred Sixty Nine Medicines Made of English Herbs by Nicholas Culpeper. The copy of this book at the Osler Library was published in 1794. It was written in English, which was Culpeper’s vernacular. It is seventeen centimeters long, eleven centimeters wide and three centimeters thick. It is fairly light as well since it weighs approximately 300 grams. Its contents are primarily an extensive list of herbs and their uses for curing sicknesses. The beginning of the book contains a list of herbs similar to that of a table of contents. The book also mentions the connection between herbs and astrology. The font is small and seems to be Times New Roman. There is also very little spacing between words. The book is brown and seems to be bound in leather. The pages are thin and yellow with the edges appearing brown and old. The spine is almost completely broken which indicates the originality of the book. The book does not emit any smells. It also does not look like a modern medical book.


The English Physician Enlarged is a text of herbs that demonstrates how medicinal and pharmaceutical knowledge were produced and disseminated during the Early Modern Period. The production of knowledge was very different from today yet still shared some similarities with the 21st century.      

This book was originally published in 1652 but the version that was studied at the Osler Library was published in 1794 (Davis). This is significant since medical knowledge changed drastically over the time gap. For example, according to Harold Cook, “By the end of the seventeenth century, what had been for Avicenna a less than precise bodily “matter” […] had become materialized with precision” (60). All of the newly discovered knowledge about the human body would have heavily impacted pharmaceuticals as well. Therefore, even though Culpeper’s work was considered as useful medicinal knowledge during its original publication, it was most likely downgraded to just a collector’s item in the late 18th century. This concept is present in today’s science department as well. People study the latest texts about the newest scientific developments and older texts are often considered useless in acquiring knowledge.                                                                                                                                        

The English Physician used astrology to help cure disease. For example, Culpeper used his book to explain “[…] What Planet governeth every herb or tree […]” (A1). The concept of using planetary alignments in medicine dates back to the ancient Greeks and some European physicians in the 16th century recovered this ancient knowledge to help them heal sicknesses (Cook 50). Even though Culpeper’s book was published 100 years later, it still retained very similar ideas which suggests that he acquired some of his knowledge from classical learnings. This shows how medical knowledge in the 1600s still retained elements of knowledge that was created over one thousand years ago. This reflects how the old paradigm was still in place when this book was originally published. However, this was significantly different from modern medicine since in the 21st century, astrology is not part of curing sicknesses at all. There has been a complete change in the way people approach the medical field.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

This book’s main purpose was to teach people different methods of curing disease with herbs. For example, Culpeper described how “The powder [of wood betony] mixed with pure honey is no less available for all sorts of coughs and colds […] (36). This knowledge most likely originated from many different sources like the knowledge gained from the recovery of classical Greek texts that described herbs (Cook 50). The usage of natural herbs as the primary medicine is a major difference from modern pharmaceuticals, which mainly uses synthetic drugs made in labs. However, even though the drugs and treatments themselves are very different, people in both time periods use the knowledge and resources available to them to try to find cures for illnesses. The difference is that the resources are different. In the early modern period, the only materials available were those found in the natural environment. They did not have much technology to process these resources like the scientists of the 21st century. Therefore, it can be concluded that they used the materials that were naturally available to them to develop pharmaceutical knowledge.                                                                                

The printing press has already been in use by the time this book was originally published as proven when Cook states: “[…] the increasing availability of printers […]” (53). It will be even more prominent by the 18th century. Therefore, books like The English Physician can be distributed in large quantities with the use of the printing press and this facilitated the spread of knowledge. Even today, printing technology plays a major part in disseminating knowledge. However, the technology for printing books has become more sophisticated and the emergence of new inventions like the internet has increased the spread of knowledge in the 21st century.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

To conclude, The English Physician can be used demonstrate how knowledge was produced and distributed during the early modern period and can also be compared and contrasted to modern medicinal knowledge.


Works Cited

Cook, Harold. “Medicine.” 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 Sixty Nine Medicines Made of English Herbs, 1794.

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