Exactly 400 years ago, in 1616, a legend was born; a rebel who partnered up with Mother Nature to revolutionise British medicine. The herbal hero, the botanical bad boy, the father of alternative medicine, ladies and gentleman I give you, Nicholas Culpeper.
Culpeper did his growing up upstream in Isfield. The lanes around Lewes and the starry Sussex skies were his classroom and the hedges and the heavens taught him botany , astronomy and astrology. And he learnt about love too. In 1634 Culpeper and his Sussex sweetheart planned a secret Lewes wedding and a speedy elopement to the Netherlands. But tragedy struck when his love-struck lady’s carriage was struck by a lightning bolt en route to Lewes. She died instantly.
There’s no cure for a broken heart and Culpeper left Sussex and started a new life in London. He threw himself into his work as a lowly apothecary’s assistant cataloguing medicinal herbs on Threadneedle Street. At this time medicine was only practiced by elite physicians. They would charge exorbitant prices for their secret remedies and would not even demean themselves to talk to patients; instead requesting a sample of urine to make their diagnosis. Culpeper agreed with them on one thing; they were all taking the piss. He believed medical treatment should be available to all – not just the privileged.
Setting up his own practice in a poorer part of London Culpeper started treating 40 patients a day with herbal cures derived from English plants. Then he dropped his botanical bombshell. Culpeper published an incredible book which instructed people how to pick their own remedies, free of charge, from the hedges and meadows. The book was ‘The English Physitian’ (1652, later enlarged as ‘The Complete Herbal’). His book promoted and preserved folk remedies at a time when physicians and priests were discrediting village healers and preventing them from passing along their traditional knowledge. The medical establishment was enraged and accused Culpeper of practising witchcraft. But his book endured. It’s been in continuous print longer than any other non-religious English language book, running rings ‘round Tolkien and Rowling and their tales of hocus-pocus.
No doubt Culpeper’s herbal remedies could have come in useful for some of you over the festive period; wild privet (for headaches), blackthorn (for indigestion), rosemary (for flatulence) and the juice of ivy berries ‘snuffed up into the nose’ (for hangovers). Culpeper also has cures for those with sore breasts, worms, itches in the ‘privy parts’ and bruises. Hey – I don’t know what you lot have been getting up to over Christmas.
So start 2016 by raising your Nutribullets and ginseng teas to the healing properties of Mother Nature and to four centuries of Nicholas Culpeper.
Words by Michael Blencowe. Illustration by Mark Greco. First published in by Viva Lewes Magazine in January 2016.