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Heal Thyself: Nicholas Culpeper and the Seventeenth-Century Struggle to Bring Medicine to the People

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The first full biography of Nicholas Culpeper, the English seventeenth-century pioneer of herbal medicine whose actions and beliefs revolutionized medicine and medical practice

In the mid-seventeenth century, England was visited by the four horsemen of the apocalypse: a civil war that saw levels of slaughter not matched until the Somme; famine in a succession of failed harvests that reduced peasants to "anatomies"; epidemics to rival the Black Death; and infant mortality rates ...

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Overview

The first full biography of Nicholas Culpeper, the English seventeenth-century pioneer of herbal medicine whose actions and beliefs revolutionized medicine and medical practice

In the mid-seventeenth century, England was visited by the four horsemen of the apocalypse: a civil war that saw levels of slaughter not matched until the Somme; famine in a succession of failed harvests that reduced peasants to "anatomies"; epidemics to rival the Black Death; and infant mortality rates that emptied crowded households of their children. In the midst of these terrible times came Nicholas Culpeper's Herbal — one of the most popular and enduring books ever published.

Culpeper was a virtual outcast from birth. Rebelling against a tyrannical grandfather and the prospect of a life in the Church, he abandoned his university education after a doomed attempt at elopement. Disinherited, he went to London, Milton's "city of refuge, the mansion house of liberty." There he was to find his vocation as an herbalist — and as a revolutionary.

London's medical regime was then in the grip of the College of Physicians, a powerful body personified in the "immortal" William Harvey, anatomist, royal physician and discoverer of the circulation of the blood. Working in the underground world of religious sects, secret printing presses and unlicensed apothecary shops, Culpeper challenged this stronghold at the time it was reaching the very pinnacle of its power — and in the process became part of the revolution that toppled a monarchy.

In a spellbinding narrative of impulse, romance and heroism, Benjamin Woolley vividly re-creates these momentous struggles and the roots of today's hopes and fears about the power of medical science, professional institutions and government. Heal Thyself tells the story of a medical rebel who took on the authorities and paid the price.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Ostensibly a biography of Culpeper, who first translated Latin medical works into English in the 17th century, this book goes well beyond the life of one individual to document the transformation of medicine during one of the most traumatic periods in English history. Culpeper is best known today for Culpeper's Complete Herbal, a comprehensive listing of English medicinal herbs along with directions on their use. Still in print after more than 350 years, the Herbal is, in Woolley's words, "one of the most popular and enduring books in publishing history, perhaps the non-religious book in English to remain longest in continuous print." Emmy-winning British journalist Woolley (The Queen's Conjurer) does a wonderful job of situating Culpeper (1616-1654) within the English civil war of the era. As he demonstrates, the politics associated with the creation of the medical profession were every bit as important as the science underlying specific treatments. Culpeper's lower-class, populist roots and sentiments are contrasted with those of William Harvey, a royalist and one of England's greatest scientists. As a member of the medical establishment, Harvey helped keep medical knowledge from the common people while Culpeper fought to do just the opposite. The book is enjoyable on many levels and in a time preoccupied with empowering patients and making information available on the Internet, this tale has particular resonance. 25 b&w illus. (July) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Chances are, there's a version of Nicholas Culpeper's Complete Herbal on your library's shelves. In well over 300 years, it has never been out of print. But check an encyclopedia, and you will find at most a brief reference to its author, one of Britain's most influential citizens. Woolley (The Queen's Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Adviser to Queen Elizabeth I) rises to the challenge of piecing together the little historical record that remains of Culpeper's life, blending 17th-century social history, the Puritan Revolution, and the history of medicine. Most striking are Culpeper's philosophy of focusing on the patient, rather than the disease, and his practice of using local ingredients, prepared simply, while encouraging hygiene and healthy living. He was perhaps the first "professional" consumer health advocate, publishing a people's version of what was previously restricted knowledge (including a book favorable to the midwifery profession). Woolley's impeccably researched and engaging book has enough drama to appeal to history lovers, fans of herbal lore, and the biographically curious. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries, this will make a fine companion to Complete Herbal.-Andy Wickens, King Cty. Lib. Syst., WA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060090661
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/29/2004
  • Pages: 402
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.28 (h) x 1.32 (d)

Table of Contents

Tansy 1
Borage 33
Angelica 71
Balm 113
Melancholy thistle 133
Self-heal 163
Rosa solis, or sun-dew 177
Bryony, or wild vine 209
Hemlock 235
Lesser celandine (pilewort) 263
Arrach wild & stinking 303
Wormwood 335
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First Chapter

Heal Thyself
Nicholas Culpeper and the Seventeenth-Century Struggle to Bring Medicine to the People

Chapter One

A dark, gnarled yew stood next to the lych-gate, poisoning with a drizzle of noxious needles anything that grew beneath it. Rose bushes still in flower were scattered across the graveyard, planted, according to local tradition, by the betrothed on the graves of their dead lovers. A mound of fresh earth marked the spot where, a few days earlier, Maurice Sackville, the late rector of Ockley, had been interred. This was the scene beheld on 15 September 1615 by the Revd Nicholas Culpeper, Sackville's hastily-appointed successor. He had arrived just four days after Sackville's funeral from his old post as vicar of nearby Alciston. He was in his mid-thirties and, for a country parson, uncommonly well educated, boasting a degree from the University of Cambridge.

Ockley was a modest but busy parish on the border of the counties of Surrey and Sussex, straddling Stane Street, the Roman road that still acted as the main thoroughfare from Chichester on the south coast to London. The church itself was a quarter of a mile from the village, perched on a hill, next to the remains of a castle and Ockley Manor, owned by Nicholas's cousin and patron Sit Edward Culpeper.

Nicholas and Sir Edward were from branches of the same family that was joined three generations back, part of a voracious dynasty that grew like white bryony through the counties of Sussex, Kent and Surrey. The origin of the Culpeper name is obscure. Some have speculated that it derived from the place where the first family members settled, perhaps Gollesberghe in Sandwich, Kent or Culspore in Hastings, Sussex. To most, however, it was more suggestive of politics than geography. 'Cole' was a prefix meaning a fraud, as in cole-prophet, a false prophet, or 'Colle tregetour', a magician or trickster mentioned by Geoffrey Chaucer in his poem The House of Fame. Colepeper, one of innumerable spellings, would therefore mean a false pepperer, someone trading illicitly as a grocer outside the Fraternity of Pepperers, the guild incorporated in 1345 which later became the Grocers' Company. Or the 'pepper could simply refer to the herb's association with offensiveness. Jack Straw, a supposed leader of the fourteenth-century Peasants' Revolt, was described by a contemporary writer as a 'culpeper', meaning mischief maker.'

Elements of the family had certainly lived up to this interpretation of the name. Wakehurst, the family's main seat in Sussex, had come to the Culpepers after the daughters of its original owners were abducted by brothers Richard (1435-1516) and Nicholas (1437-1510). A grandchild of their elder brother John, Sir Thomas Culpeper, was beheaded in 1541 for treason, accused of being the lover of Catherine Howard, Henry VIII's fifth wife, herself the daughter of Joyce Culpeper, Thomas's sixth cousin, once removed.

By the early seventeenth century, the leading Culpepers were eager for respectability. Edward Culpeper, the current occupant of Wakehurst and the great-great-grandchild of Richard, had risen to become a Sergeant-at-Law (a high-ranking barrister). But in those days, lawyers, like physicians and merchants, were not considered gentlemen. Titles and land were the real currency of social rank, and Edward was ruthless in his pursuit of both. In 1603, he bought himself one of the new knighthoods that James I sold on his succession to the English throne in order to finance an opulent court. Through legal action as well as acquisition, Edward also enlarged his estate at Wakehurst into one of the most extensive in Sussex, and built an impressive mansion in the middle of it to show off his new-found status. Among the many lucrative plots for which he litigated was one of 120 acres at Balcombe, on the south-west border of his Wakehurst estate. This had been the principal possession of the Revd Nicholas Culpeper's grandfather, leaving that branch of the family incurably reduced. Nicholas had inherited just £120 on his twenty-first birthday, enough to pay for his education at Cambridge University, where he received an MA in 1608. Thereafter he was dependent on the patronage of Sir Edward.

Now, as rector of Ockley, entitled to the living or 'benefice' generated by local church taxes, Nicholas could look forward to a comfortable, if undemanding, life. He had also become engaged to Mary, the twenty-year-old daughter of another rector, William Attersoll of Isfield, a village near Nicholas's old parish of Alciston and within the same deanery or church administrative district. A month after Nicholas took up his position at Ockley, they were married at Isfield.

Nicholas's first few weeks in the parish were busy with funerals. Coffin after coffin was carried past the old yew into the church yard, six before Christmas, a high number for a village with a population of a hundred or so. One of them contained Katherine Sackville, wife of the late rector, suggesting that both had succumbed to a disease passing through the village. Nicholas must have been concerned about the infection lingering in the rectory he and his new wife had so recently occupied!

Within the year, Nicholas too was dead, around the time of the first anniversary of his marriage to Mary, who was about to give birth to their first child. There is no record of what killed Nicholas, but there was a ready supply of possible causes. At around this time, the practice began of hiring old women -- 'ancient Matrons' -- to roam parishes as 'searchers of the dead', recording the number and causes of death for regularly published 'Bills of Mortality'. There was some controversy about this practice. According to John Graunt, who started analysing these figures in the 1660s, people questioned 'why the Accompt of Casualties is made', since death was a divine, not a demographic, matter; its time preordained; its cause the instrument by which God's will was performed. No intervention, physical or otherwise, could prevent it ...

Heal Thyself
Nicholas Culpeper and the Seventeenth-Century Struggle to Bring Medicine to the People
. Copyright © by Benjamin Woolley. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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