Nicholas Culpeper: The Complete Herbal
Not only do many modern medicines have their origins in herbal medicine, more and more people are turning to herbal preparations—with or without also accepting modern drugs, vaccines and medications—and alternative, traditional treatments are popular. At Talking of Food we have our series on Vitamins, so we have decided to look into one of the most celebrated of herbalists, Nicholas Culpeper, who in the first half of the 17th century took knowledge of the medical use of herbs out of the grip of the Society of Apothecaries and made it accesible to ordinary people.
We cannot include the whole Herbal, which covers hundreds of plants, together with instructions for making the various kinds of medicaments, and an Alphabetical list of all human diseases with the names of the herbs that will cure them… it runs to 430 pages! So we will pick those herbs and plants that we use everyday in our cooking, plus others which we know are used medecinally today. If we miss any that you think should be included, let us know in a comment.
Image of Nicholas Culpeper by Thomas Cross, line engraving, published 1649, Catalogue NPG D29025. Used with permission from the National Portrait Gallery under Creative Commons licence. Image resized.
In his introduction to The Complete Herbal, Thomas Kelly says, ‘Culpeper was a writer and translator of several Works, the most celebrated of which is his Herbal, “being an astrologo-physical discourse of the common herbs of the nation; containing a complete Method or Practice of Physic, whereby a Man may preserve his Body in Health, or cure himself when sick, with such things only as grow in England, they being most fit for English Constitutions.” ’
Nicholas Culpeper (18 October 1616 – 10 January 1654), was a botanist, hebalist, physician and astrologer. Brought up by his mother and his maternal grandparents, he learned Latin and Greek at a young age, and became interested in astronomy, astrology, time, his grandfather’s collection of clocks, and medical texts in his grandfather’s library, and learned about herbs and medicine from his grandmother.
Bay leaves are a necessary ingredient in so many recipes, and having a bay tree in your garden or hanging a sprig of bay leaves over your door as a way of warding off ghosts and witches is part of common folklore. However, to Culpeper, the bay tree, it’s leaves berries and roots not only ward off evils, but also have many medicinal uses as well. Here is what he says.
Basil is a much-loved and very often-used herb these days, but clearly Culpeper and his antecedents thought it a herb that was only to be used with caution, if at all.
Have you ever wondered why in the UK cabbage was traditionally ‘boiled to death’—as one of the contributors to School Dinner Memories says, they were put on at 9 a.m. to be ready to eat at 1 p.m.—well perhaps Nicholas Culpeper is partly to blame. On the other hand he recommends cabbages and coleworts for use in curing all sorts of ailments and conditions. ‘Colewort’ is the original name for the vegetable from which cabbages and other brassicas were developed and therefore includes varieties of kale and the American ‘collard greens’.