A Personal Medicine in Early Modern Europe

by rec98 on October 20, 2016 - 4:06pm



Upon visiting the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill University, my group and I had the chance to work with a book entitled The English Physician Enlarged written by Nicholas Culpepper, a student in physic and astrology. Published in English in 1794, the book is relatively small in size (perhaps 10 cm by 20 cm by 5 cm) and light (not much heavier than a phone, perhaps about 200 grams). Upon opening the book, my group and I quickly realized that it is an extremely fragile book, as its binding readily falls apart. The book’s cover is made of what seems to be discoloured cheap brown leather original from its time, and it felt quite dusty upon touch. As we read the texts, we noticed that the font of the book is neither illegible nor outdated; it closely resembled the modern font Times New Roman. The English Physician Enlarged begins with an alphabetical table of contents outlining the entirety of the herbs and plants mentioned in the book and astrological associations. In fact, this book contains a series of descriptions of herbs and plants, how they may be used to produce medicinal concoctions, and their astrological associations. Having no illustrations at all, the book does not resemble modern medical tomes at all. Although no water marks or marginalia were found, the book’s poor state suggests it has been used a lot by its owners throughout the years.




The English Physician Enlarged presents a myriad of herbs and plants that the reader can use to prepare medical recipes to improve personal health. This 1794 book reflects how early modern medicine was more focused on personal treatments than modern medicine.


In fact, during the 17th and the 18th centuries, recipe books were quite popular. According to J. Cook in “Medicine,” “many recipes both new and old turned up in the ‘Sachliteratur’ (handbooks of useful information). […] Members of civil society themselves, both men and women, kept medical recipe books and traded information about remedies by letter” (Cook 418). Indeed, historians have often encountered small books like The English Physician Enlarged that contained recipes not only for pharmaceuticals but also for cooking. In fact, the size of the book makes it more useful for everyday purposes.


The book is written in the vernacular, English, which is not like the books of the elite physicians in that period. These physicians often owned very large and prestigious books that were written in Latin. However, recipe books like The English Physician Enlarged are more addressed to a general public and are not restricted to physicians. From the content of the book, it seems that any literate person could take something useful out of it and obtain practical medical knowledge. Whether a loved one or oneself is ill, the book provides with easy and complete instructions as to how to relieve the ailment. The reader himself or herself is able to prepare these concoctions. However, if we draw parallels to modern medicine, we realize that medicine today has lost this personal aspect. Today, whether it is simply a cold or an infection, the usual routine is a trip to the local pharmacy for antibiotics or other pharmaceuticals or, for more severe conditions, a visit to the doctor. However, it is very rare that we prepare ourselves that which will relieve us. Instead, we rely on technology and on firms to provide us with the pharmaceuticals we need. Modern medicine is characterized by the great technological advances that have occurred in the past decades and by a global economy, but the personal level at which medicine functioned has completely shifted.


The English Physician Enlarged was published in 1794, which comes quite a long time after the paradigm shift in medicine. For instance, William Harvey published De motu cordis et sanguinis in 1628, which “challenged fundamentally physiological principles” (Cook 426). However, this shift in medicine occurred well before the publication of the 1794 edition of The Enlarged Physician Enlarged. The fact that this book is also a new edition of Nicholas Culpepper’s original text (as the 1794 version was published posthumously) tells us that a lot of people in the 18th century felt a nostalgic feeling towards medicine. Although the paradigm had already shifted, recipe books were still being published. It seems that some people were still clinging to the personal level at which Early Modern medicine operated. This nostalgia can be compared to today’s medicine insofar as that there is a clear loss of a medicine in which people take care of those around them in a very personal manner. Just as traditional medicine like homeopathy is often frowned upon by elite scholars, “learned physicians [in the Early Modern period] often objected strenuously to the practices of the unlearned” (Cook 419).


Although modern medicine is very efficient and beneficial and has considerably raised the life expectancy, traditional medicine – comparable to Early Modern medicine – is often dismissed as preposterous in today’s society. However, rare books like The English Physician Enlarged can give us an insight into the extent to which a modern society focused on technological advances and on the global market looks disapprovingly upon certain practices that essentially draw bring people together and create personal connections.



Works Cited


Harold J. Cook, “Medicine,” in Katherine Park and Lorraine Datson (eds.) The Cambridge History of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 407-434.