Need help ‘opening the bowels’? Just ask Nicholas Culpeper

The physician’s 1649 book, A Physical Directory, explained the properties and effects of natural substances

Nicholas Culpeper

Nicholas Culpeper

 

What do cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, pine nuts, almonds and cloves have in common? You are probably thinking they all belong in cookies. According to Nicholas Culpeper, they all belong in electuaries to combat a cough. Other recipes in A Physical Directory, or a translation of the dispensatory made by the College of Physicians of London, addressed a variety of ills from “opening the bowels” to headache to difficult childbirth.

The work was immediately controversial from its publication in 1649. Culpeper, a physician and a political radical, demystified medicine by translating the recipes of the College of Physicians into English from Latin. More audaciously, he added notes on what the recipes could cure, expanding the text with his own annotations, recipes and detailed instructions. In the preface Culpeper prescribed the following for the angered physicians: “As for compounds, take an ounce of honesty, half an ounce of fair dealing; mix them together with a little oil of public spirit, and lay it to your heart.” The book proved extremely popular, and amended versions of it have been in print ever since. (On Culpeper see Benjamin Woolley, The Herbalist, London, 2004)

Culpeper’s book explained the properties and likely effects of a huge variety of natural substances. He combined the traditional ideas passed down from ancient medicine with newer chemical ideas. So he included “unicorn’s horn” (for provoking urine) alongside the much more modern chemical preparations. The predominant view of the body in health was as a balance of four fluids or humours (blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm). When one of these humours predominated, disease resulted. Cures were usually intended to rebalance these fluids by their properties or by the effects they caused in the body. The more everyday ingredients are now what you and I would consider spices for flavouring food. For example, drinks called “aqua vitae”, “water of life” or “uisce beatha” were made with a combination of alcohol, sugar and spices such as anise, fennel, carraway, cloves, cinnamon and ginger. The drinks could be used to aid digestion or to help rebalance an excess of phlegm (cold and wet) with the hot, dry qualities of the spices.

Part of the reason for the book’s popularity was that up until the late 19th century and even beyond, most medical care was practised in the home by members of the household rather than doctors. Preparations were made from herbs, roots and seeds, from animal products and from compounds purchased from the apothecary. Cures were passed down by word of mouth or collected in manuscript “receipt” books that contained recipes for mince pies alongside alleged cures for cancer and cholera. In one Irish tome I found a cure for breast cancer (rub the breast with figs soaked in milk); in another, proposed cures for cholera (drink a decoction of mint or chamomile).

Our interest in curing ourselves and in the use of food as medicine has persisted despite the growth of access to professional care. The number of items in the grocery store now claiming to be “superfoods” would almost fill the pages of a new Physical Directory. As the power and prestige of medicine has grown throughout the modern age, so has the backlash against it and the urge to turn to ourselves for healing. Medicine, too, has changed and embraced a much wider idea of how to gain and retain health. Things have certainly changed since Culpeper’s time. Raw vegetables and fruit, advocated by all for their health benefits today, were viewed with greater suspicion in past centuries. Culpeper remarked that carrots “breed but little nourishment” and cause wind, while leeks “spoil the eyes, heat the body, cause troublesome sleep, and are noysom to the stomach”.

 

  • If you are interested in the relationship between food and medicine, join me at a conference in Dublin on October 9th and 10th. Food as medicine: Historical Perspectives is free and open to the public. Advance registration and programme at foodasmedicineconference.weebly.com. The keynote address will be given by Prof Steven Shapin of Harvard University on “The medical making of modernity”.

 

Juliana Adelman lectures in history at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra

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