Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Happy birthday, Nicholas Culpeper!

This herbal practitioner wrote The Complete Herbal in 1653—and it's still in print. Culpeper's work is a fascinating combination of astrological herbalism and careful observation of the way medicinal herbs were used in folk healing practices of his time.
Nicholas Culpepper was an English botanist and herbalist, which at the time was synonymous with also being a physician. He was born on October 18, 1616 and died at the very young age of 38. He wrote or translated a total of 79 books. Two of the most notable are The English Physitian (1652) and The Complete Herbal (1653). He did however; use the classical method of classifying herbs by Element, planet and constellation and left behind an excellent body of reliable pharmaceutical and herbal knowledge on that basis.
Nicholas Culpepper is influential in the English speaking world because he wrote in English rather than in Latin or Greek and classified herbs in the classical manner and thereby kept this methodology alive for posterity. Culpepper knew Latin and Greek but wrote in English for the sake of the majority and the poor who only understood English. Culpepper's father was a church minister and was well versed in matters Christian, Biblical, astronomical and astrological.
It should be remembered that astrology as it was practiced by Culpepper bears little resemblance to what it has become today. In Classical Astrology herbs were classified by Element, planet and constellation, as they had been for millennia, based on their color, geometry, degree of heat, time of maturation, and other factors. The planetary association was used symbolically and not literally to derive the nature and character of the herb and from this, its action and subsequent medicinal use. To gain knowledge of the herb, some contemplation of the symbolic associations of each planet (not physical planet) - parts of the body, humeral correspondences, degree of heat, etc - in relation to the indications presenting themselves, to see how and when the herb can be used. This type of understanding and use of astrology, it seems, would be difficult to teach another person unless they had a natural inborn aptitude or at the very least a strong desire to honestly learn it. One thing is certain, the average person, although wanting, could not merely open a book and immediately comprehend it.

An example of this methodology out of Culpepper's writing is as follows: On the herb Lovage: "It is an herb of the Sun, under the sign of Taurus. If Saturn offend the throat, (as he always doth if he be occasioner of the malady, and in Taurus in the Genesis), this is your cure."

Keep in mind that in this application of astrology the Sun is hot and dry and Saturn is cold and moist. They naturally oppose each other. This does not mean that Saturn literally rules over the throat. It means that the condition present (cool) produces a condensation of "substance" to take place in the area of the throat that warmth will dissolve and break up. Warmth on a sore throat almost always works to clear it.
Other physicians would liked to have stopped Culpepper from bringing his remedies to the common folk; he translated some of the standard Latin medical texts into English; the equivalent of revealing closely guarded medical secrets. To reveal such knowledge was a banned practice because of medical monopoly enforced by government. Culpepper cleverly waited until the English Civil War which made it all but impossible for the College of Physicians to enforce the laws.  He made his translated writings available in the vernacular English and sold them at a low price, making it possible for anyone who could read to have them. 
It is noteworthy and not insignificant that Nicholas Culpepper’s most famous work, The Complete Herbal(1653) was , aside from the Bible, the only text in history to never go out of print!  Herbalists today still revere it and find much value within its pages.  Thanks to his determination to bring healing to the masses by introducing them to the wonder of the herbs and plants available to even the poorest of people, Culpepper represents so much of what draws many of us to herbalism in the first place.  He recognized the right we all have to good health and the wonder of the plant kingdom which can make that health freely available to all.
The Complete Herbal is now available in digital copy at Bibliomania.  I love the fact that they have uploaded it by herb, of course these are the names of the herbs as he knew them so violets are under “heart ease.”  At the bottom are his recipes for curative syrups and conserves and other medicial uses. 
Like this one- Making Syrups
A syrup is a medicine of a liquid form, composed of infusion, decoction and juice. And, For the more grateful taste. For the better keeping of it: with a certain quantity of honey or sugar, hereafter mentioned, boiled to the thickness of new honey.

You see at the first view, that this aphorism divides itself into three branches, which deserve severally to be treated of, viz.
1. Syrups made by infusion.
2. Syrups made by decoction.
3. Syrups made by juice.

Of each of these, (for your instruction-sake, kind countrymen and women) I speak a word or two apart.

First, Syrups made by infusion, are usually made of flowers, and of such flowers as soon lose their colour and strength by boiling, as roses, violets, peach flowers, &c. They are thus made: Having picked your flowers clean, to every pound of them add three pounds or three pints, which you will (for it is all one) of spring water, made boiling hot; first put your flowers into a pewter-pot, with a cover, and pour the water on them; then shutting the pot, let it stand by the fire, to keep hot twelve hours, and strain it out: (in such syrups as purge) as damask roses, peach flowers, &c. the usual, and indeed the best way, is to repeat this infusion adding fresh flowers to the same liquor divers times, that so it may be the stronger) having strained it out, put the infusion into a pewter bason, or an earthen one well glazed, and to every pint of it add two pounds of sugar, which being only melted over the fire, without boiling, and scummed, will produce you the syrup you desire.

Secondly, Syrups made by decoction are usually made of compounds, yet may any simple herb be thus converted into syrup: Take the herb, root, or flowers you would make into a syrup, and bruise it a little; then boil it in a convenient quantity of spring water; the more water you boil it in, the weaker it will be; a handful of the herb or root is a convenient quantity for a pint of water, boil it till half the water be consumed, then let it stand till it be almost cold, and strain it through a woollen cloth, letting it run out at leisure: without pressing. To every pint of this decoction add one pound of sugar, and boil it over the fire till it come to a syrup, which you may know, if you now and then cool a little of it with a spoon. Scum it all the while it boils, and when it is sufficiently boiled, whilst it is hot, strain it again through a woollen cloth, but press it not. Thus you have the syrup perfected.

Thirdly, Syrups made of juice, are usually made of such herbs as are full of juice, and indeed they are better made into a syrup this way than any other; the operation is thus: Having beaten the herb in a stone mortar, with a wooden pestle, press out the juice, and clarify it, as you are taught before in the juices; then let the juice boil away till about a quarter of it be consumed; to a pint of this add a pound of sugar, and when it is boiled, strain it through a woollen cloth, as we taught you before, and keep it for your use.

If you make a syrup of roots that are any thing hard, as parsley, fennel, and grass roots, &c. when you have bruised them, lay them in steep some time in that water which you intend to boil them in hot, so will the virtue the better come out.

Keep your syrups either in glasses or stone pots, and stop them not with cork nor bladder, unless you would have the glass break, and the syrup lost, only bind paper about the mouth.

All syrups, if well made, continue a year with some advantage; yet such as are made by infusion, keep shortest.

Culpepper clearly states that he used cold blooded reason, proven by experience through observation in Nature through great diligence and good conscience to write about what he did for a living. It seems pretty straight forward.  I find it interesting to note that in some things the world does not change. The powerful and interest minded always seem to suppress those with the simplest and cheapest knowledge. However, if Culpepper's practices worked, as is evident that they did, then why is it summarily presumed that they would not work today?  Gives one something to think about, eh?

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