Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time

Archive for the category “Health care”

The adventures of that perennial herbalist, Mr Nicholas Culpeper

NC d7107f99f9f5f33b5c78b6be93e2de61Some people are born with a major interest in flowers. Take my eldest son, who at the tender age of fourteen months methodically chomped his way through every single one of my hundred odd tulips, leaving half chewed petals in his wake. Or take Nicholas Culpeper, whose interest in flora was somewhat more scientific. I don’t think he ever ate a tulip – but that may have been more out of parsimony than disinclination, as tulips were rare (and expensive) plants during Nicholas’ lifetime.

My son no longer remembers what tulips tasted like, and seeing as these plants – or at least their bulbs – are mildly poisonous, he was never given an opportunity to repeat his gastronomical excursions. Culpeper tells us nothing of the tulip in his writings. I guess we can conclude that Culpeper wasn’t all that interested in flowers that were “merely” beautiful .

Not many authors can boast at having their book in constant publication for more than 350 years. Obviously, this is to some extent due to the fact that very few authors live long enough to experience such a long print run, but leaving witticisms aside, Nicholas Culpeper is one of the few authors around whose book has been in constant demand since it was first published, back in 1652.

NC English_PhysitianSo what was so great about his book? Did he reveal the secrets of alchemy? Was he perhaps an early George R.R. Martin, riveting people to their seats by a complex and convoluted tale involving dragons, feuding kings and resilient damsels? Nope – although Nicholas’ own life contained enough adventure to fill a book or two, what with the times he lived in. But what Nicholas experienced in life resulted in an entirely different kind of book; Nicholas published a herbal, The English Physitian, a DIY manual to keeping hale and hearty in a time when what medicines were to be found came from plants.

If we start at the beginning  – always a good idea, IMO – Nicholas was born in 1616, the posthumous son of Reverend Nicholas Culpeper, lord of Ockley manor in Surrey. The manor slipped through baby Nicholas’ fingers, and instead he was raised by his maternal grandfather, yet another reverend. By the time he was ten, little Nicholas had a good grounding in Greek and Latin, was familiar with both astrology and medical tracts and was well on his way to becoming a master herbalist. One must assume this passion for plants came from his grandfather, and I have this image of two figures, one stout and leaning on a cane, the other agile and all legs and arms, standing side by side as they inspect a stand of digitalis.

At the age of sixteen, Nicholas was sent to Cambridge to study divinities. He wasn’t all that interested – he wanted to study medicine – and as a consequence he never graduated. Besides, Nicholas had other plans. Since childhood, he had held a special fondness for Judith Rivers, a well-to-do heiress, and the two young lovers were committed to a life together. Judith’s parents disapproved. Nicholas was not a catch, and their precious Judith could do better. I imagine Judith wept. She trailed her mother like a whipped puppy and begged her parents to reconsider – she loved Nicholas, would love no other. Mr and Mrs Rivers remained unmoved. Judith was meant for other, richer, men.

Well, we all know what teenaged fools do for love, right? Faced with her parents’ continued opposition, Judith and Nicholas devised a plan. After all, theirs was not a puppy love, theirs was the real thing, and a life without each other was not to be contemplated. They decided to elope to Holland (Gretna Green had not come into the vogue yet) and stay there until the furore died down. As an aside, parental consent was not required for marriage in the 17th century, but to wed without Mama’s and Papa’s approval was to risk end up being disinherited. I suppose Judith was hoping that old adage “distance makes the heart grow fonder” would apply to her parents as well.

Whatever the case, Judith and Nicholas were not destined for a happily ever after. On her way to her rendezvous with Nicholas, Judith’s carriage was struck by lightning and she died. With one bolt of thunder, Nicholas’ hopes of a rosy future were obliterated – even more so when his grandfather decided to disinherit him, shocked to his core by Nicholas’ duplicitous behaviour. (Obviously, the old reverend had little experience of being young and madly in love…)

Nicholas was now in dire straits. There was no money to pay for his education, there was no bride, no welcoming home. After rousing himself from grief-induced depression, Nicholas apprenticed himself to an apothecary in London. He taught his employer Latin, his employer taught Nicholas everything he knew about plants.

NC downloadIn 1635, Nicholas took over his former master’s apothecary shop on Threadneedle Street. Due to his extensive reading and an inquisitive mind, Culpeper’s education was as extensive as that of a physician – but it was an informal education, and as such of very little value professionally. To his medical interests, Culpeper added astrology, blending these two disciplines into a holistic approach to healing. The Royal College of Physicians were not pleased with this interloper. Nicholas Culpeper retaliated by describing the physicians as “bloodsuckers, true vampires” – not the basis for a long-lasting loving relationship.

In 1640, several years after the sad affair with Judith, Nicholas married Alice Field. His new wife had recently inherited a considerable fortune after her merchant father, and using her money the couple established themselves in Spitalfields, far enough from London proper to allow Nicholas to continue with his healing endeavours despite not being an accredited member of the Royal College of Physicians. In Spitalfields, Nicholas opened the doors of his practise to everyone who needed his help. (How fortunate his wife was rich)

NC Digitalis_purpurea_Koehler_drawingMost of Nicholas cures were based on herbs. Some were true advancements in medical science, as when he documents the use of foxgloves to treat heart conditions (definitely works. The dosage, however, is somewhat tricky, and if too high will kill your patient). Some sound decidedly strange, such as boiling your bedstraw in oil to make an aphrodisiac.

Otherwise, he shares that willow can be used to stem the bleeding of wounds, roses can alleviate the discomfort of menses , raspberries and strawberries are excellent ways of ridding your teeth of “tartarous concretions” (plaque?). The seeds of nettles can be used against the bites of rabid dogs (I think not), meadowsweet is recommended against fevers (works, as meadowsweet contains high doses of salicylic acid)and fleabane helps with bites from venomous beasts. Hmm. My general conclusion after browsing through Nicholas’ suggested cures is to take them with a pinch of salt – and to make sure I have a herbal with me to ensure I’m picking the right plant!

NC zodiac manOur innovative healer did more than just list plants. He combined his herbal lore with his other passion, astrology, and borrowed heavily from Galen’s humoral philosophy, which is why in his herbal the plants are sorted by planets. Some belong to Venus, others to Mars and yet others to Saturn or Jupiter. To all this he added his own personal opinions – like when he dismisses black currants as having a “stinking and somewhat loathing savour”, thereby dismissing a plant we know to contain very high levels of vitamin C as well as a number of anti-inflammatory agents.

After some years of contented calm in Spitalfields, things were to change yet again for our intrepid healer. By now, the ravages of the Civil War were upon the people of England. Culpeper was a radical republican and wanted to do his thing for the cause. Besides, there was the matter of a slanderous accusation for witchcraft, plus an increasingly more infected relationship with both the Royal College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries. These august bodies disliked Culpeper’s translations of medical texts from Latin to English, making hitherto restricted knowledge available to the broader masses. It sort of undermined their business concept…

Nicholas kissed his wife goodbye, may have stooped over a cradle to coo at one of the many children his wife was to give him – puny little things that all but one died young – and rode off to fight for Parliament. The recruiting officer was less than flattering regarding Nicholas’ physique, but more than impressed when he heard Culpeper’s credentials, and instead of fighting, Nicholas was put to work as a field surgeon.

He attended the wounded at the battle of Edgehill, joined in the initial fighting at the battle of Newbury but was quickly called upon to use his medical skills instead. Culpeper was operating on an injured soldier when a stray musket ball wounded him severely in the chest, effectively ending his military ambitions.

Back in London, Nicholas returned to treating the poor. His own health was deteriorating rapidly, through a combination of too much work, his unhealed injury and tuberculosis. It didn’t help that his children kept on dying, causing both Nicholas and his wife more than their share of grief. On top of this, Nicholas took up a one man crusade against the “closed shop” policies of the Royal College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries. This “closed shop” policy was effectively a monopoly, based on the fact that so many of the guidelines to making medicines and treating diseases were only in Latin and only available to a few.

Nicholas made it his purpose in life to crush this monopoly. He translated one text after the other, he wrote treatises on diseases, on midwifery, on the properties of plants. He translated Galen into English, he devoted time to his destitute patients, and in all this he also managed to produce his masterpiece, The English Physitian – a giant handbook on what herbs to use for what diseases.

NC In_Effigiam_Nicholai_Culpeper_Equitis_by_Richard_GaywoodBy now, Nicholas knew he was dying. He was burning his candle both ends as life gasped and fluttered within him, driven by a need to write down as much as possible to help his fellowman. And he was clearly very productive, because when he finally did die, in January of 1654, his wife wrote that her husband had left her “79 books of his own making or translating in my hands.”

Nicholas Culpeper was an idealist. He was a man who combined compassion and passion into a constant endeavour to help the sick and ailing. He considered it a human right to have access to medical care – a precursor of the future welfare state – and like Don Quijote he was not afraid to take on an army of windmills while fighting for what he thought was right. In difference to Don Quijote, Culpeper fought using pen and ink rather than lance. And the fact that his book is still there, is still being read, is a testament to his success.

NC IMG_1227The English Physitian quickly became very popular. Housewives all over wanted a copy, and when people set off for the wild unknown of the New World, many of them carried with them a precious copy of Culpeper’s book, hoping to find cures for whatever ills might afflict them in their new homeland within the covers. I think Nicholas would have been pleased. I also think he would have liked my tulips – no matter that they have very few medicinal uses.

The fine and ancient art of sticking needles into people

When I was pregnant with one of our children, I had a rather severe case of DSP. Those of you who’ve experienced it, know just how hellish it is to feel how every step you take sort of grinds your pelvic bones together, sending acute waves of pain through your back and your pelvic area. My midwife was the chirpy kind – you know, a healthy, rosy being who would now and then point out pregnancy was NATURAL and that in the olden times women had six, nine, twelve, eighteen children without making too much of a fuss. (A lot of them died, but maybe that doesn’t count as making a fuss). As my pregnancy proceeded and the DSP worsened, even this very cheery midwife became concerned, and so she came to suggest I should go and see an acupuncturist.
“What?” Despite being the size of a bloated walrus, I nearly leapt to my feet. (I hate needles, to the point that my veins contract into invisibility when a nurse approaches with a syringe to take a blood test. Said nurse tends to look very amused when I cringe before going on to tell me not to be such a baby, what with me having given birth to four kids how can I have issues with one teensy, weensy needle. As if that has anything to do with it …)
“It might help,” my midwife said, and when I protested she insisted, acquiring a rather mulish look that finally made me agree to go and try.

So off I went – or waddled, the resemblance to a walrus even more pronounced – to see the acupuncturist. A tall, very slim woman opened the door and waved me inside. Bright, intense eyes burnt into mine as she beckoned for me to precede her into a small room with several open cases of extremely long needles on display. All I wanted was to turn tail and run – except I couldn’t, first of all because running was totally out of the question given my condition, but also because Ms Acupuncturist was blocking the way. She gave me a very wide, very toothy smile and pointed at the berth.
“The Chinese have been doing this for centuries,” she says, placing a pillow under my head. Well, I’m not Chinese, am I?
“Will it hurt?” I ask.
“Who? You or the baby?” At the time in question, I was more concerned about my discomfort than that of baby X. As far as I could make out, the baby was as happy as a calf in clover inside of me, keeping me awake for most of the nights as it did acrobatic maneouvers within the constrained environment of my uterus.
“Umm…” I replied. (It is not the done thing to say you’re more concerend about yourself. Pregnant women – well, all mothers – are always expected to set the well being of the child first. And we do – nearly always)
Ms Acupuncturist patted my hand. “It won’t,” she promised. “It might itch, even burn a bit, but no more than that.”
As she went about preparing her things, she informed me about the ancient science of acupuncturism, saying that in China it was an approved anaesthetic technique while doing ceasarians or other surgery.
“Really?” I gulped, reflecting on how much trial and error must have been involved.

“Any volunteers?” Mr Wu said, shaking back the long, wide sleeves of his crimson robe.
The assembled people remained silent.
“Oh come on!” Mr Wu said. “How about doing your thing for science, hey?”
“I did my bit a month back,” someone mumbled.
“Ah.. yes.” Mr Wu tugged at his goatee. “That didn’t go quite as expected.”
“You can say that again,” the speaker said.
“It was only a small amputation,” Mr Wu said, “and I did treat you for free.”
“Fat lot of good that did me,” the man said and hobbled off.
Mr Wu sighed and shook his head. “Well; we’re not going anywhere until one of you volunteers. I have the Emperor’s mandate to try out my new methods – on you.” He smiled, showing off small, very white teeth.
There was a lot of foot shuffling and sliding glances, but still no one came forward.
“Very well,” Mr Wu said. He beckoned for one of his assitants. “Take her, he said, pointing at a woman with a badly infected hand.
“No!” the woman said, but it was too late, she was dragged towards where Mr Wu was waiting, needles aloft.
“One could think I was about to kill you,” Mr Wu said in a reproving voice. “Instead, all I want to do is help you. The finger must come off, you know it must. Look at how discolured it is.” He licked his lips and asked for his smallest saw.
“I don’t want to!” the woman said. “It will hurt.”
“Now, now, don’t be such a silly little goose, hmm? You must learn to trust your betters. First a needle or two to numb the pain and stem the blood flow, then I’ll slice that itty, bitty finger off.” 
“It will hurt, those needles won’t work, they never do,” the woman said.
“Of course they will; ultimately I’ll get the needles to work. I just need to finetune things a bit.”
“But what if it hurts?” the woman whimpered.
“No pain, no gain,” Mr Wu shrugged and …

I was recalled to the present by a wet cloth on my belly.
“All set,” Mrs Acupuncturist said. She placed her hands on my belly. “Mmhm,” she nodded.
“What?” I said, very distracted by the pulsating heat that seemed to emanate from her hands. How did she do that? Was she using some sort of peppermint rub? A discreet sniff revealed no such scents.
“You’re a very old soul,” she said, looking at me.
“I am?” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or just agree. After all, this woman was about to sink four inch long needles into my body…
“Oh yes; and this one…” She placed her hands at the center of my belly. Heat radiated in lapping circles, the baby stopped turning inside of me. Very eery, let me tell you. ” .. well this one is an ancient soul, a carrier of so much wisdom.”
“Ah,” I said, having no idea what else to say. She picked up the first of her needles. It glinted in the sunlight that filtered through the thin curtains.
“Yes; at least two thousand years old or so,” she said, sinking the first needle into place. I had inhaled in preparation of screaming, but she was right; there was no pain.
“You think?” I said, caressing my bulge. An old soul, hey? Well how about showing some consideration for your poor mum and keeping still during the nights?
She sank six other needles into place before covering my hands with her own. Once again I felt that searing heat, energy radiating from her every pore.
“Originally from the Middle East or somewhere close,” she said. Oh good; my unborn child had lived previous existences in cultured societies rather than the savage backwoods of Stone Age Sweden.
“A boy,” she added. The baby kicked once, whether in agreement or not, I have no idea. (It was a boy. And by now he’s taller, stronger, smarter, wiser and kinder than me. An old soul perhaps?)
“Feel better?” she asked fifteen minutes later or so. I did! I could actually swing my legs off the bed unaided, I could even walk all the way out of her office without looking like a duck. So I came back – several times – and was eternally grateful that Mr Wu and all those other acupuncturists that had preceded mine through the ages had succeeded in finetuning the process before it was tried on me.

“It didn’t hurt,” the woman said, looking a bit dazed.
“I told you,” Mr Wu said, throwing the amputated digit into the brazier. It sizzled and crackled like a piece of tripe. He extracted his three needles from her upper arm and handed them to his assistant to clean. “Right; you there,” he said, pointing at a man with a swollen jaw. “Come here and I’ll get that growth out of you.”
The man approached, one hand held to his swollen face. “Will it hurt?”
“Oh, ye of little faith. Did you not just see? I sawed off her finger and she didn’t feel a thing!”
“I’ve never done a tumor in the mouth,” he muttered to his assistant while using long fingers to locate the possible trigger points in the man’s head. “I’ve never done anything above chest level.”
“Should you…” his assitant whispered.
“Pfff! Of course I must. And what’s this anyway? A lowly peasant no more. If he dies, well then he dies.”
“Die?” the man squeaked, having caught this last word.
“Oh yes, my man, you will most certainly die. Unless I get this abcess cleaned, it’s bye bye for you.” Mr Wu grunted as he sunk the first needle in place. The man moaned. Two more needles and the man was reclining against the wall, mouth wide open. Mr Wu wiped the blade of his knife on his robe and approached him. The man screamed and bucked, screamed some more, gargled and expired.
“Shit!” mr Wu said. “Wrong trigger point.” He clapped his hands for a quill and unrolled a lifesize drawing of the human body, pursing his mouth as he drew an elegant little cross right at the center of the crown. “There! Recorded for future generations.”

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: