Early Modern Medicine: A Pinch of Herbs and Another of Astrology
by Emerald Green on October 26, 2016 - 8:27am
The book that I had the opportunity to observe at the Osler library was called The English Physician Enlarged with Three Hundred and Sixty Nine Medicines Made of English Herbs. Its author is Nicholas Culpepper (1616-1654), who was an English herbalist, astrologist and physician. However, the book I examined was published only in 1794, which suggests that the book has been republished at least once. The book is a small encyclopedia of all medicinal herbs and their uses. It also includes directions for making syrups, ointments and more out of the herbs. Interestingly, the book also relates astrology with medicine, associating a planet and its properties for each plant. Different sections and an alphabetical table of all the herbs contribute to organize the contents of this book, which is completely exempt of illustrations. Even the cover has nothing on it.
The book itself is very small, with about 15 cm in length, 10 cm in width and 3 cm in thickness, and weighs roughly 250 grams. It is bound with now worn-out leather, possibly due to extensive use, and strings. The book is written in English, the vernacular at the time, and the font used is similar to Times New Roman. Finally, the book does not contain any hand-written notes.
During the Early Modern period, medical knowledge was still more or less concentrated among physicians, among professionals. Indeed, both the theory and the practice wing of the science of physic (the science of medicine at the time) rested on the exercise of reason rather than the art of treating the disease itself (Cook 408). Therefore, whenever someone got sick, he had to go see a physician, and many didn’t have the money to do that. Culpepper’s specialty being biology, he wanted to make herbal medicine available to everyone, especially to the less wealthy (Asiado). He thus made knowledge much more accessible to the population in general, by publishing books that everyone could use as reference to cure some small ailments themselves. Compared to the huge and expensive books physicians use, not only the books were of smaller size and more practical, but they were also written in vernacular rather than in Latin, which is extremely important, since most of the regular population didn’t speak or read Latin. The book is also written more for practical use than for encyclopedic compilation of knowledge, which suits the average peasant’s life very well. It is noticeable from the omitted descriptions of commonly used plants, such as plantains or hazelnuts, saying that they “are so well known, that they need no description” (Culpepper 145). Furthermore, in rural villages and households, medical knowledge often came from family, neighbors, or poorly educated ministers, which lead to many misconceptions (Cook 417). In that context, Culpepper’s work was even more valuable, since it provided an inexpensive and reliable medical reference book for anyone to use, which contributed to the spread and availability of medical knowledge we have today.
The book I examined was published in the late 18th century. However, the book was first published in 1653 (Asiado). How can a book still be printed and up to date more than one century and a half? This can partially be explained by the fact that this is an “enlarged” edition of the book, suggesting that more and more information was added to it over the years. Despite that, the core idea of the work remains, which implies that astrology is closely related to medicine. Throughout the book, each herb is associated to a planet. Culpepper could’ve done that by comparing the actual effect of the plant, which would be information determined empirically, and the characteristics associated with the planets. However, the book presents knowledge in more of an astrological way, saying that this plant is associated with that planet, and therefore, it has these properties. Therefore, the knowledge presented in the book comes from astrology instead of empirical observation. This is explained by “the classical and medieval presumption that the science of physic flowed from the certainty of first principles” (Cook, 416). In the 17th century, this presumption is still in place, although Cook says that it was slowly being undermined, that physicians relied more and more on investigations of nature. That began the empirical shift of medical and scientific knowledge in general, shift that shaped science into what it has become today.
I would say that Culpepper’s work was one that was extremely useful for the Early Modern population. It doesn’t use the empirical way of producing knowledge, still heavily relying on well-known astrological principles, but it does symbol the start of the propagation of scientific knowledge to all the population.
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.
Asiado, Tel. "Biography of Nicholas Culpeper". Ediblewildfood.com. October 25, 2016. http://www.ediblewildfood.com/bios/nicholas-culpeper.aspx