The Herbalist by Benjamin Woolley

The alternative medicine man
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The Independent Culture

If a woman drinks tansy boiled in beer, her womb will be healed of virtually all malfunctions. If fried with eggs, it cures stomach disorders. Its seeds purge children of worms; when boiled in oil, it becomes an embrocation to rub on aching muscles.

This is the classic sort of information recorded in Culpeper's Herbal, a work apparently as reassuringly and quaintly English as a thatched cottage, and as beloved in the field of natural medicine as Shakespeare is in drama. It is one of very few non-fictional works from early modern literature to have made it to the status of commemoration on tea towels. The irony, as historians have always known, is that in his time the author, Nicholas Culpeper, was anything but a familiar and reassuring figure. He was the wayward child of a family of clergymen and minor gentry, disinherited for trying to make off with an heiress. He dropped out of first university and then an apprenticeship, apparently for lack of money.

Even by the dubious standards of his fellow apothecaries, Culpeper was unusually disreputable, never qualifying properly and always trying to evade the attempts of its legal practitioners to throw him out of London. His response was to revel in notoriety, indulging flamboyantly in booze and the new drug of tobacco, passing through a succession of radical religious sects, and eagerly supporting the revolution that toppled Charles I and destroyed the English monarchy in 1649.

His medical works, including the Herbal, were intended to make life as hard as possible for established physicians by betraying the secrets of prescriptions to the public and encouraging the latter to care for themselves and save on doctors' bills. In case anybody missed the point, Culpeper heaped printed invective on kings, priests, lawyers and licensed medics, identifying all as the enemies of human welfare, but reserving his most ferocious attacks for doctors. His material rewards were few, however, for he died of poverty, exhaustion and wasting illness at 37 in 1654, leaving his books, purged of their political rants, to sell steadily as his memorials.

This is a terrific story, and it is not surprising that Benjamin Woolley should turn it into a book. He has already done his best to rehabilitate the reputation of another colourful and shady early-modern Englishman, the scientist and magician John Dee. Culpeper represents a parallel case of an unexpectedly complex personality lying behind a famous name.

Woolley's problem is that Culpeper's career was much more obscure, and so the result is very much a "life and times" in which the subject vanishes for long intervals. Using his journalist's skill in description, Woolley gets round the problem in two main ways. One is to make Stuart London itself the alternative hero, and especially its intellectual underground, leading the reader on a tour of rickety lodgings crowded with astrologers, potion-mixers, folk magicians and publishers on the run from censorship laws.

The other is to set up a running series of contrasts in which Culpeper, the rogue apothecary, is pitted against the established medical elite, embodied by the College of Physicans and attempting to regulate everybody else involved in the cure of bodily ills.

In particular, Culpeper's alter ego is the conventional hero in medical histories: William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood. Cold, austere, pompous, efficient, politically and religiously conservative, successful and respectable, Harvey is used as an exemplar of everything Culpeper was not. The forensic brilliance of the one, and the generous humanity of the other, is summed up in their writings on procreation. Harvey understood the nature of an embryo, but Culpeper knew what a clitoris is for.

To a great extent, history remains ancestor-worship. In writing vivid studies of Dee and Culpeper, Woolley is providing the general reading public with forbears whom modern alternative spirituality and medicine can claim with pride. It is noble work.

Ronald Hutton is professor of history at Bristol University; his latest book is 'Witches, Druids and King Arthur' (Hambledon & London)