A most pleasant and serendipitous discovery has provided the topic for this week’s article. While perusing the stacks at the library seeking a book for research on an upcoming article, I happened upon this book, mis-shelved so that it was next to the book I actually wanted. While browsing through it, I realized that not only is it lovely, it is a treasure trove of information for Regency authors. I knew I must share this charming find so that authors with an interest in herbal remedies will be aware of this useful reference.
And so, some of the delights of a colorful Culpeper …
Most people with any interest in plants with medicinal properties are aware of The Complete Herbal, a comprehensive book on medicinal herbs and other plants first published by Nicholas Culpeper, in 1649. The book has seldom been out of print in the more than 360 years since the first copies came off the press. There were several editions of The Complete Herbal published during the Regency. It was still considered an important reference by both professional apothecaries and those who made their own home remedies.
Nicholas Culpeper was a remarkable man. He was born into the Culpeper family of Surrey in 1616. One of his collateral ancestors was the Thomas Culpeper who was accused of adultery, and thus treason, with Catherine Howard, the last wife of Henry VIII. Despite this, the Culpeper family of the early seventeenth century enjoyed comfortable circumstances. Nicholas Culpeper’s father was a clergyman who sent his son to study medicine at Cambridge. Nicholas was an excellent student, until struck by a terrible tragedy. His fiancee was killed during a thunderstorm and he was so devastated by her loss that he was unable to continue his studies. He eventually moved to London, where he served an apprenticeship with an apothecary. When he set up his own London apothecary shop, Culpeper was appalled at the poverty endured by many among the working classes. He was even more appalled by the other apothecaries whom he considered charlatans because they routinely gouged these poor people by charging them very high prices when they were in need of medicines. Culpeper roundly condemned these dishonest practitioners and made his herbal remedies available to everyone at reasonable prices. For those who could not afford even his low prices, he would provide instructions on how to find the plant(s) needed for a specific cure, how to prepare the medicine, and the frequency of the dosage. Needless to say, he was widely hated by most of the London apothecaries. Eventually, he decided to write a comprehensive herbal in which he recorded all his knowledge for the benefit of everyone. In seventeenth-century terms, it was a runaway best-seller.
As books became less expensive to publish, The Complete Herbal went through many editions during the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. By the Regency, most homes would have had a copy of The Complete Herbal in their library or on the still-room bookshelf. Therefore, Culpeper’s Herbal is an ideal reference for Regency authors in need of illnesses, injuries and the medicines to cure them. The language of the majority of the Regency editions of The Complete Herbal was somewhat modernized from the seventeenth century original, but quite a number of the medical terms from that original edition were retained. Some even had additional information added to bring them up to date. These editions ran to over 400 pages, and though the listings were in alphabetical order, and they included an index, it would still take a great deal of searching to determine which plants could be used to treat which illnesses and injuries.
Culpeper’s Color Herbal, edited by David Potterton, a certified herbalist, is a valuable resource for a Regency author for a number of reasons. This edition includes a Glossary which provides modern definitions of many of those early medical terms. If you would like to know the meaning of terms like the "King’s-evil" or a "bloody flux," just consult the Glossary of Culpeper’s Color Herbal. But even more valuable for Regency authors is the section "Illnesses and Their Herbal Treatments According to Culpeper." Within these pages, in alphabetical order, are to be found a wide selection of injuries and illnesses with the names which Culpeper, and even those living in the Regency, would have known. Each of these entries is followed by a list of the plants which can be used to treat each, and the page number on which that specific plant’s details can be found. Whether an author wishes to have a character suffer an impostume, an ague, a quinsey or a toothache, they can locate the plants needed to cure the condition or ease the pain it causes. Following that section is a listing of "Illnesses and Their Modern Herbal Treatments." This section lists injuries and illnesses by their modern names, which will enable an author to find an illness by a name more familiar to them. As with the previous section, each illness or injury is followed by a list of the plants which can be used to treat the condition and the page number in the book where the details for that plant can be found.
Culpeper’s Color Herbal is an abridged version of Culpeper’s original herbal. However, David Potterton, the editor and a certified herbalist, has simplified and standardized the entry for each plant, so that each is clear and easy to understand. Similar to Culpeper’s work, each entry in this book includes both the Latin and the common name for each plant, Nicholas Culpeper’s original remarks about each plant, and the plant’s physical description. Following this are the details about where each plant can be found, when it flowers or releases its seed or any other important features of the plant required to gather and prepare a medicinal preparation from it. The "Astrology" entry provides the name of the planet which governs each plant and any other pertinent information. Culpeper, like most apothecaries of his age, believed strongly in astrology and was convinced illness and its treatment were closely bound up with astrology. This information may be very useful to authors who write Regencies with paranormal or magical overtones. Next is the "Medicinal Virtues" section, which is Culpeper’s instructions on how the plant should be used. The last section in each plant entry is "Modern uses," which is an explanation of how each plant would be used today. In many cases, these plants are used to treat the same conditions as they were in the Regency and before. But some are now known to be poisonous or have other detrimental effects. Having the modern information about these plants could be quite helpful to a Regency author, especially since this modern knowledge enables an author to develop a character with healing skills who can be very forward thinking in their medical practices, even though they are using only natural materials.
Without doubt, my favorite part of this book are the wonderfully detailed and carefully colored images of each plant which are included with that plant’s entry. These images are all the work of illustrator Michael Stringer and each one is a delicate delight. Most editions of Culpeper included drawings, some even hand-colored, of the various plants mentioned in the text. But none of those images was ever integrated with the text in those early editions so that the details of each plant was juxtaposed with a realistic and accurately colored drawing. The lovely images in Culpeper’s Color Herbal will enable a Regency author to provide a very clear and realistic description of a medicinal plant which a character may be seeking in the kitchen garden or a nearby meadow or woodland.
Though Culpeper’s Color Herbal is an abridgement of the original herbal, it is still filled with a plethora of plants which can be used by Regency authors when they find themselves in need of an ailment for one of their characters and a natural remedy for that ailment. With the "Illness" lists at the back of the book, an author can easily find a period-accurate name for an ailment and the plant(s) which would have been used to treat it. Next to each entry can be found a fetching and faithful depiction of each plant, in color. Culpeper’s Color Herbal should serve the needs of most Regency authors.
Culpeper’s Color Herbal is not available online, but it has been reprinted several times. An inexpensive copy can be acquired from a local used bookstore or from one of the online bookseller aggregators, of which Biblio is my favorite. For those who simply must have a copy of the the full length original herbal for reference, Google Books has a full copy of the 1816 edition, which includes charming hand-colored drawings of most of the plants mentioned in the text. It, too, is quite lovely, though lacking the valuable Glossary and Illness lists of the Color Herbal. I certainly intend to add a copy of Culpeper’s Color Herbal to my reference library very soon.