Thursday, 6 December 2012
Nicholas Culpeper. More than just another quack.
Like many people I have a fairly limited knowledge of the English Civil War. I know of course about the major battles, the Levellers, Diggers, the Putney Debates, but I am frequently surprised by just how little I do know about this time of profound social and political upheaval. Take Nicholas Culpeper for example. The man is remembered as a famous herbalist and that was the limit of my knowledge about him until recently. But Culpeper was much more and was a true radical who devoted his life not only to extending his knowledge of medicine but making this knowledge freely available to the mass of people. It's easy to dismiss Culpeper as a quack and to be sure I would not fancy being treated by his eclectic mix of astrology and herbs but we should be wary of judging historical figures out of the context of their time. From his shop in Spitalfields where he dispensed to the poor, to his publishing herbalist books in English rather than the Latin favoured by the establishment, to his serious wounding at the Battle Of Newbury when fighting with the parliamentarian forces, Culpeper was a man who walked the walk. Even today there is a populist view of the Civil War and the English Revolution as a conflict between grim faced Roundheads who banned sex standing up in case it led to dancing and foppish Cavaliers who may have been toffs but at least knew how to have a good time. To allow such a huge social upheaval to be dismissed in those terms is not just a misunderstanding of history but a disservice to the memory of radicals and iconoclasts like Nicholas Culpeper.