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Nicolas Culpepper and his influence on modern herbal medicine

MAny books have shaped the understanding of herbal medicine through the years
MAny books have shaped the understanding of herbal medicine through the years

Many of the popular over the counter herbal supplements now available come from herbs that were used in Europe as medicine. Often the reason some of these herbs are used is because they were referenced in the writings of Nicolas Culpepper. Culpepper was trained as a physician at Cambridge University, England, in the early 17th century. His books on herbal medicine caused controversy and are still regarded as seminal works in Western herbal medicine.

Culpepper is remembered not because his herbal texts were anything novel. Instead the important issue was that Culpepper wrote his books in English rather than Latin. At this time, herbal medicine was very much a part of standard medical treatment, and taught in the medical schools. Publishing medical knowledge in English made that information available to the common man and helped break the monopoly on medical knowledge held by the academics.

This was an important time in medicine. Physicians were starting to look to more chemical and mineral based medicines over natural herbs. Popular new medicines of the time such as bloodletting and calomel (which is a form of mercury) were being used in harmful ways. Many believe that Culpepper’s act of publishing herbal medical knowledge in english, hastened the split that was already starting. Medicine was pulling away from herbs and natural products, and was moving to a more mechanical understanding of the body and how to fix it.

The other controversy was that while medicine was at the time moving to experimental based science, Culpepper referenced astrological aspects of herbs. While astrology was historically used as a way to determine functions and uses of herbs, those ideas were now out of favor in the medical community. Herbs were commonly being used without the astrological information. Culpepper who was writing for the public was aware of a rise in popularity of astrology at that time and essentially gave the public what it wanted.

Many medical historians see Culpepper as the pivotal character in the removal of herbal medicine out of the main line academic medical circles and relegating herbs to folk treatments of the common man. This idea that herbs are not a proper part of medicine continues to this day. It has resulted in misuse and marketing of herbs in ways that do not follow old herbal medical traditions. It also resulted in a stagnation of European herbal medical innovation. For those who want to find a good Western style herbalist, there are people who are trained in the use of western style herbal medicine. Often these practitioners are natropaths or have certification under the American Herbalist Guild.