Culpepper: Sound Advice


There is a man in my family, well my mother’s side of the family to be precise, who is most trusted. A man generations have turned to year after year for sound words of advice, for uplifting anecdotes and for insights into the human body and mind. My Grandmother, my aunts, uncles, cousins and now me all rely on this man in our times of need, when we seek natural remedies and shun the NHS, for Culpepper has bestowed wisdom and knowledge of cures, remedies and tinctures for all and sundry since 1575. Culpepper’s Complete Herbal and Family Dispensatory lies solid and sturdy in my dining room, taking up almost half a shelf, looking not dissimilar to Hagrid’s recommended textbook Magical Creatures and Where to Find Them. With a ragged leather cover, and dusty sepia pages, it looks alive, as though while your back was turned reaching for the Dragon’s Blood or ground Sea- Colewort it might scuttle away, or brace itself to bite your finger as you turn the page. It is not just in looks that Culpepper suggests a darker side; suggestions of bleeding, boiling of woodlice and of ‘evacuations’ aren’t synonymous with modern ideas of health improvement, but nonetheless the author intends to ensure every ailment is rectified.

I recently turned to Culpepper for advice around a sore knee. I’ve been troubled by an ache which hasn’t improved in two weeks. Dismissing my GP’s suggestion of rest and ibuprofen as lazy common sense (isn’t that what I’d been self-administering for the past fortnight???)  I turned to Nicholas, and his 400 year old advice. It wasn’t an altogether successful read however. Culpepper is often glib and short with his readers, he assumes his reader is familiar with every plant in England. On that (oh so common) Broom-Rape he wrote “to spend time in writing a description hereof is altogether needless, it being generally used by all the good housewives”. Guess that means I’m not a good housewife. Not that I am a housewife, but even so, if it’s so common EVERYONE knows what it is so well that a description is pointless, well now I feel pretty silly.

The pictures aren’t massively helpful….

It also transpired, after a bit of cross referencing via google that loads of the herbs Culpepper was suggesting were now rare or obsolete. Clearly basing your wellbeing around 16th century wildflowers was risky business, as my fella quite rightly points out, 90% of the land those plants used to grow on has probably been acquired by Bovis and is now the blueprint for the burgeoning middle class. Some of his advice is as relevant and as worthy today as it was hundreds of years ago. My Mum recently rang me up on behalf of my brother who was complaining of a cold. 15 minutes (and a slight re-interpreting of the term gruel) she’d whipped up a tasty soup which had my sibling on the mend in no time.

My favourite advice from Culpepper though I came across this weekend, and paraphrase below for your consideration, it comes under ‘Sedentary life; the ill consequences of” in the index.

Fresh from cultivating the earth.

“That every person who follows a sedentary employment should cultivate a piece of ground with his own hand…after working an hour in a garden, a man will return with more keenness to his employment within doors than if he had been all the while idle. Labouring the ground is in every way conductive to health. It not only gives exercise to every part of the body, but the very smell of the earth and fresh herbs revives and cheers the spirits, whilst the perpetual prospect of something coming to maturity delights and entertains the mind. In a word, exercise without doors, in one shape or another, is absolutely necessary to health. Those who neglect it, though they may drag out life, can hardly be said to enjoy it. Weak and effeminate, they languish for a few years, and soon drop into an untimely grave”.

There you go, by the words of England’s finest physician- fresh air and exercise will see you live a long and healthy life. Now if that isn’t advice worth following I don’t know what is. Now I’m off to the allotment to avoid my untimely death.


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