One of my favourite resources is the Complete Herbal and English Physician by Nicholas Culpeper which was published in 1653. The Complete Herbal can boast the rare distinction of being in print for over 350 years.Culpeper was a botanist and a physician who spent years cataloguing the virtues of herbs, the preparation of simple syrups and physic. His volume was intended for a household audience instead of the professional practitioner, which is not entirely surprising if you consider that for years housewives kept a ‘receipt’ book with their home remedies which served to treat the various ills of the household. But it went further than that. Culpeper was a dedicated practitioner who believed that medicine should be available to everyone, not just those who could afford it. His sentiments did not stand him well in the professional community, but he was able to literally practice what he preached thanks to the comfortable living courtesy of his wife, who came to their marriage with a small fortune.
The first time I saw Culpeper’s Complete Herbal was in the Toronto Reference Library in the Baldwin Room for rare books. Their copy dates back to the 19th century. The Reference Library’s copy is gorgeous! Beautiful painted plates of flowers and herbs are just as bright today as they were in the mid-1800’s. The volume I have on my desk is more prosaic—a fairly inexpensive black and white copy of the original.
Culpeper classifies herbals by their temperature, moisture content, and temperament.
Temperature and moisture content
For temperature and moisture content, Culpeper describes herbals as hot/cold and dry/wet. Culpeper considered these attributes as a means to balance out the ‘humours’ in the patient’s body. The idea would be if someone had an excess of phlegm, for example, you might want to counteract the condition with a cold and dry herbal. At first it sounds odd, but if you consider it a little more, there is perhaps some basis in science. The human body is finely balanced piece of machinery, and I’m sure you could attribute many of our worst ailments to being out of balance.
This is the part where people have their doubts about Culpeper, because in addition to the above properties, he categorized herbals by their planetary influences. A bit of astrological botany. Yes, herbs had a horoscope. Can’t you just hear the conversation at the salad bar? A herb could be ruled by Venus (eg. strawberries), Mars (eg. garlic), Jupiter (eg. sage), Mercury (eg. savory), Saturn (eg. quince), or the Moon (eg. saxifrage).
Traipsing through the fields
I did want to give you a bit of flavour for Culpeper’s write up by looking at two herbs, one the Lily of the Valley (because it happens to be my birth flower), and Moonwort because you’ll have to wait and see.
Lily of the Valley: Culpeper always starts by describing the plant in question, where it grows, and in some cases, where specifically in England to find it. I have used Culpeper as a historical fiction resource to make sure that certain plants were actually there, and bonus, in the time that my story takes place. You never know what could have been cultivated elsewhere. But back to herbals for medicinal uses. Culpeper describes their “Government and virtues”. This is what he has to say about our garden variety Lily of the Valley:
“It is under the dominion of Mercury, and therefore it strengthens the brain, recruits a weak memory, and makes it strong again: The distilled water dropped into the eyes, helps inflammations there; as also that infirmity which they call a pin and web. The spirit of the flowers distilled in wine, restores lost speech, helps the palsy, and is excellently good in the apoplexy, comfort the heart and vital spirits.”
Of course Mercury, the god of communication, having dominion over a dainty herb would work in ways that affect speech and memory. I do find this very interesting.
Moonwort: These are a genus of ferns that send out a shoot-like flower. Moonwort is owned by the Moon and is described as both cold and drying, which makes it ideal to treat wounds, both inward and outward. It stays bleeding, vomiting and other fluxes. But what caught my attention was it’s unique non-medicinal properties. In Culpeper’s own words:
“Moonwort is an herb which (they say) will open locks, and unshod such horses that tread upon it: This some laugh to scorn and those no small fools neither; but country people that I know, call it Unshoe the Horse. Besides I have heard commanders say, that on White Down in Devonshire, near Tiverton, there were found thirty horse shoes, pulled off from the feet of the Earl of Essex’s horses, being there drawn up in a body, many of them being but newly shod, and no reason known, which caused much admiration, and the herb described usually grows upon heaths.”
Perhaps we should also consider the Moonwort a Royalist herb if it foiled the Earl of Essex’s advance.
And on a final note, I thought I’d share with you an outtake from Traitor’s Knot that was inspired by moonwort. It is a truth universally acknowledged that only a fraction of research makes it into the final narrative. I hope you enjoy it.
The mare lost her shoe halfway to Ellendale. Elizabeth was forced to dismount at the side of the road.
“Bad timing, this,” she scolded the horse. The scudding clouds threatened a rainstorm, but she’d risk ruining the mare if she tried to ride her further. Elizabeth searched the ground and spotted the shoe on the road ten feet back. “No moonwort on the road to account for it,” she told the mare with a small laugh, but the horse didn’t see the humour in their situation. Truth be told neither did she.
Gripping the bridle, she led the horse slowly down the rough road. After a quarter hour, she reached the edge of the lands the Ledbrooks leased from her aunt.
“Samuel will help replace the shoe,” she said aloud. The Ledbrook cottage lay just on the other side of the copse. Clicking her tongue, Elizabeth led the horse off the road. They crossed spongy meadowland and entered the woods.
The wind whipped the treetops, and the temperature began to drop. Elizabeth tightened her shawl and led the mare along the narrow track. The horse plodded along, going slower by the moment until finally the animal refused to continue.
Elizabeth kicked the dirt. “Faith, just a little further,” she pleaded, but the mare ignored her and decided to graze. The first splatter of raindrops landed on the tip of Elizabeth’s nose. “Not now,” she groaned and tried once more to get the mare walking. Nothing. “You mayn’t mind the rain, but I refuse to stand here and get drenched.” She tied the mare’s lead to a sturdy branch and covering her head with her shawl, continued as quickly as she could through the woods.
The path narrowed, and the dark clouds swallowed up all light. The wind snatched the shawl from Elizabeth’s hands and carried it high into the tree branches.
Damn. She grit her teeth and hurried forward. She snagged her boot in a tree root and stumbled.