Monday, April 27, 2015

Culpeper’s Profession

Like a timeless dream, walking in to see an apothecary, where a collection of healing herbs are kept, is sacred and safe, or it ought to be.

In history, a person called an apothecary was health expert, medicine maker, midwife, pharmacist, and sometimes surgeon. Their work happened in a place, also called an apothecary, stocked with dried herbs, honeys, oils, tinctures and vinegars. These botanical extracts and preparations were made and kept fresh, clean, dry and uncontaminated. The apothecary would consult, then both prescribe and sell these as medical treatments. Their education and apprenticeship taught them how to do this, and also how to grow, identify, harvest, make and use the extracts and preparations.

In the early 1990’s, following years of struggle, debate and a massive public write-in campaign in America to keep herbs legal and accessible, a congressional ruling determined our herbs were now to be considered ‘dietary supplements’ and to be legally regulated by the government. Having started a mail-order apothecary, and then a brick-and-mortar storefront just like one of these ancient sacred places of healing, I was feeling quite threatened.  With attempts to convince us to be grateful that our right to use herbs was not entirely taken away, we were no longer legally allowed to say exactly what herbs are capable of doing. Any books or brochures we might use to help us communicate what herbs do had to be physically separated from the herbs as well. The sacredness had just been breached and apothecaries made mute.

The DSHEA or Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which is still in effect, claims to establish standards and protect consumers from false claims by herbalists and other ‘dietary supplement’ manufacturers and to ensure the quality of our extracts and preparations.  We are now seen as suspicious and in need of regulation, rather than regarded as health experts and trusted professionals performing a sacred task.

In these decades of operating an herbal apothecary under these rules of law, my ability to comfortably and cleverly comply with the law has grown, as well as my knowledge of herbal history.  I now see that I had truly gone into Nicholas Culpeper’s profession.

Lessons from Culpeper’s Life
Nicholas Culpeper

Having been born in Britain in 1616 to a family of ministers, future Herbalist, Botanist and Apothecary Nicholas Culpeper was expected to enter the clergy too. Taught to read and write in Greek and Latin at a young age, he also had access to books on astrology and to a copy of William Turner’s New Herball from 1568. It was very rare for any children at the time to have this sort of training and literary access. His maternal grandmother added to this by teaching him about medicinal plants, Nicholas learning all the local species by his early teen years. Entering Cambridge University at 16 and expected to study theology, he supplemented his studies with lectures on astrology and medicine, and reading Galen and Hippocrates. It would seem that his path was being set for something wonderful, but not what others had planned.

Leaving Cambridge without graduation, a disappointment to his family, he was sent to apprentice with an apothecary. His apprenticeship education included identifying, collecting and cataloguing medicinal plants, applying them as remedies, and also learning what a restrictive environment the Royal College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries had created for his trade. Culpeper completed about five years of the seven years of required training to qualify as an apothecary; however he had to forfeit his indenture as an apprentice in order to marry. He was 24 years old at the time. 

The Royal College of Physicians had been granted the right to dictate who met the qualifications to be a physician or an apothecary, and the right to punish those who practiced without license from them to do so. Despite his extensive education and apprenticeship, Culpeper met neither requirements to practice as a physician or apothecary, and so he cleverly opened an apothecary just beyond their jurisdiction, outside of London in Spitalfields, now considered the East End.

"No man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician"
Botanist and Apothecary Nicholas Culpepper 1616 to 1654CE

In Culpeper’s time, few could afford medical help as seeing a physician was expensive. If they knew how to care for themselves they might use remedies from their own garden. If they had such a person available, a village herbalist may care for them. When there was a little money to spend an apothecary would be who they went to for help. If they needed the care of a doctor they might need to go without food to afford it, or go without care, a tough reality that would echo into the American future.

With his new wife’s inheritance, Culpeper was able to afford to care for these poor with little to no compensation. Another part of how he was able to afford to go without pay is that his remedies were largely from plants wild harvested locally. “English herbs for English bodies”, as he put it. This angered the Society of Apothecaries, a trade organization who insisted on the use of certain expensive, imported, exotic plants for making remedies. That penchant for the exotic imports over local, native, or common plants still persists in some herbal circles to this day. The Royal College of Physicians had the power to be more than angry; they had the right to inspect apothecaries’ products within London, and to destroy any non-approved stock.

The first book of approved products and how they were required to be prepared was called the Pharmacopoeia Londonesis or London Pharmacopoeia, published in 1618. This book, required to be used by all apothecaries, contained recipes to be made for specific health concerns. Culpeper, safely doing business just outside of London’s boundaries, would escape this right to inspect and destroy and so had the freedom to use the herbs he saw fit to use, in the proportions he found would be right for each person. It wasn’t until 1864, long after Culpeper’s death, that the first edition of the comprehensive British Pharmacopoeia was published, which finally had country-wide jurisdiction.
Culpeper got a first book of his own published too, a bold move, because his first book was the same Pharmacopoeia Londonesis. At the time, it was only authorised to be published in Latin, however Culpeper had been translating it for reading by the Apothecary under which he apprenticed for years. Publishing an English translation would be considered a banned book, and could mean conviction and punishment by the wrathful and ruinous ‘Star Chamber’ court of law. But in 1641 an act of the British Parliament abolished the Star Chamber and Culpeper challenged the Royal College of Physicians censorship laws by completing and submitting for publishing in 1649 an English translation of the Pharmacopoeia Londonesis, titled asA Physical Directory or a Translation of the London Dispensary, Being that book by which all Apothecaries are strictly commanded to make all their Physick’. Doing this also during the political turmoil of the British civil war made it less likely that the Royal College of Physicians would try to enforce their ban. There was an opening, and an opportunity and he was ready to take it when it came. Culpeper explained why he was translating this text:

“I am writing for the press a translation of the Physicians’ medicine book from Latin into English so that all my fellow countrymen and apothecaries can understand what the Doctors write on their bills.  Hitherto they made medicine a secret conspiracy, writing prescriptions in mysterious Latin to hide ignorance and to impress upon the patient.  They wanted to keep their book a secret, not for everybody to know.  Not long ago parsons, like the predecessors of my grand-father William Attersole, used to preach and pray in Latin, whether his parishioners understood anything of this language or not.  This practice, though sacred in the eyes of our ancestors, appears ridiculous to us.  Now everyone enjoys the gospel in plain English.  I am convinced the same must happen with medicine and prescriptions”.

Critics harshly judged and mocked the translation. However it was discovered to be a very exact translation of the Pharmacopoeia. The only changes Culpeper did, was to add to the publication, his own commentary about the uses and virtues of each herb or recipe.
Culpeper also wrote: Directory for Midwives and Semeiotics Uranica, or An Astrological Judgment of Diseases, both published in 1651, Catastrophe Magnatum or The Fall of Monarchy and The English Physitian both published in 1652. The last book of his work that was published in his lifetime was The Complete Herbal published in 1653.  In it he wrote an ‘Epistle to the Reader’ which prefaces the earlier editions:
A customer's family heirloom brought in for me to hold:
British Herbal & Family Physian by Nick Culpepper 1860
 “ All other Authors that have written of the nature of Herbs, give not a bit of reason why such an Herb was appropriated to such a part of the body, nor why it cured such a disease. Truly my own body being sickly, brought me easily into a capacity, to know that health was the greatest of all earthly blessings, and truly he was never sick that doth not believe it. I considered that all medicines were compounded of Herbs, Roots, Flowers, Seeds, &c., and this first set me to work in studying the nature of simples, most of which I knew by sight before; and indeed all the Authors I could read gave me but little satisfaction in this particular, or none at all. 

I cannot build my faith upon Authors' words, nor believe a thing because they say it, and could wish every body were of my mind in this,-- to labour to be able to give a reason for every thing they say or do.  They say Reason makes a man differ from a Beast; if that be true, pray what are they that, instead of reason for their judgment, quote old Authors?  Perhaps their authors knew a reason for what they wrote, perhaps they did not; what is that to us?  Do we know it? Truly in writing this work first, to satisfy myself, I drew out all the virtues of the vulgar or common Herbs, Plants, and Trees, &c., out of the best or most approved authors I had, or could get; and having done so, I set myself to study the reason of them.... I consulted with my two brothers, DR. REASON and DR. EXPERIENCE, and took a voyage to visit my mother NATURE, by whose advice, together with the help of DR. DILIGENCE, I at last obtained my desire; and, being warned by MR. HONESTY, a stranger in our days, to publish it to the world, I have done it.... “
The British Herbal and Family Physician For The Use Of
Private Families
Nick (does not say Nicholas) Culpepper
Student in Physic & Astrology
 Two other books he authored were published after his death: Astrological Judgment of Diseases from the Decumbiture of the Sick in1655 and Treatise of Aurum Potabile published in 1656.

The Modern Apothecary
In America, where Culpeper’s books were popular, by the year 1900 every state in the union had passed strict medical licensure laws. This meant that apothecaries were restricted from acting as medical professionals, unless they had also attended an approved medical school.  Newly defined roles for physicians and surgeons were made, and these medical professionals were solely allowed to perform medicine. Since then, licensure for naturopaths as medical professionals has been added in seventeen states in America and six Canadian provinces. Although it was well into the middle of the 20th century that people still relied on the apothecary for treatment of most health concerns, these legal changes caused the role of the apothecary to devolve into the specialized profession of pharmacist or dispensing chemist. American pharmacists no longer learn the use of botanicals. However, in Britain and European countries today, walking into thechemistsnot only finds pharmaceutical medications, but also variations from just a few simple herb-based remedies to a full apothecary.

My apothecary today serves much like a triage center, where people with troubles come in and are given options for quick, and yes sometimes short-term solutions. For some that’s all that’s needed or can be managed. The atmosphere of approachable knowledge and primal safety is my goal as I kindly and confidentially dispense care. This is done, to the best of my ability, without judgement or advice, offering observations and education, and leaving the healing life choices to them. It takes allot of nurturing and detachment to problem solve, educate and guide in 5 to 15 minute intervals all day long. Other visitors to the apothecary may want more guidance and that’s when a clinical consultation can be arranged to uncover complicated mysteries. 

“Many a times I find my patients disturbed by trouble of Conscience or Sorrow, and I have to act the Divine before I can be the Physician. In fact our greatest skill lies in the infusion of Hopes, to induce confidence and peace of mind.”  ~Nicholas Culpepper

Having no legal role for a modern apothecary provides a strange freedom, in being outside the jurisdiction of medical licensure, just as Culpeper was. This however means that I don’t try to compete with or act like a doctor either, and luckily I don’t have to. There is an unbroken chain of methods used by herbalists throughout time that has guided me on how to successfully practise as an herbalist. More than just knowing what herbs do what, there is the ‘reasoning’ for which herbs to use that Culpeper speaks of in his ‘Epistle to the Reader’. I educate customers about the body works and observe the person needing help; this is universal herbal practice, timeless and extremely valuable. There are no mentions of assessments or examinations that appear in review of historic herbalist’s work. Culpeper ridiculed his fellow apothecaries and doctors for their over dependence on this. To this day, in my practice both as a clinical herbalist and as an apothecary, no assessments or examinations are needed as I can observe entirely with the use of my senses and clever questioning. Herbalism has traditions of its own, which are falling by the wayside to make room for newer medical practices. This is such a rich tradition and it would be so unfortunate to just let it disappear from neglect.

Also, I don’t need to become the authority in my interactions with visitors to the apothecary, declaring what is wrong with the person needing help. I don’t advise, suggest or recommend to them what to do or a course of action. We may be experts in our field, but the person needing help is an expert in being themselves. Any attempt to direct and control the healing process of another person can steal their very personal healing lesson. It can disempower them, cause them to be dependent, or begin to blame if things don’t work out. Instead, like my ancient predecessors, I can provide health education and guidance, give herbal, dietary and life way options, make myself available and truly express care for others. Strangely, the DSHEA in America does allow for herbalists and apothecaries to legally do all these things and I don’t really need to claim what the herbs will do. I think it’s wise for all licensed professionals wishing to incorporate herbs into their practice to learn the very same methods as herbalists who are not licensed. That way they can have a full set of herbalist’s tools and will naturally avoid the practice of medicine without a Medical Doctor’s license.
Chelsea Physic Garden shown in Cary’s
New and Accurate Plan of London
and Westminster, 1795

Apothecary Gardens & Specialized Gardeners

Culpeper and his fellow apprentices learned within a ‘Physic’ garden. I too enjoyed learning from my teachers physic garden and now teach students of herbalism from my own. The old term ‘physic’ refers to the use of garden harvests for physical healing. Physic gardens historically were kept by apothecaries and their apprentices and established to assist in the ability to botanically identify each herb and for growing herbs in the production of medicines. Apothecaries, as they were, and still are, traders and dispensers of medicinal herbs,  have always been trained in plant identification and purchasing of quality herbs to avoid adulteration, poisoning and ineffective treatment. Training has always eliminated the need for regulation.
The trade of the apothecary and their gardens became even more established and visible after Culpeper’s time. In the1670’s Andrew Balfour and Robert Sibbald studied and grew many of the healing plants indigenous to Scotland. They established a physic garden in Scotland that started with 800 to 900 plants and at one time increased to 2000 plants. These gardens eventually evolved into the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh, which has been used by generations of students, and still is, to learn botany and herbalism.

Royal Botanic Gardens
20a Inverleith Row
Edinburgh EH3 5LR

0131 552 7171

The Apothecaries Garden was established in London in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries for its apprentices to study medicinal plants and make plant medicines. At one time it was the most important collection of botanical species and a plant exchange for the world. It’s now called the Chelsea Physic Garden.

Chelsea Physic Garden
66 Royal Hospital Road
Chelsea, London

Apothecary Physic Garden Herbs & Their Uses

British apothecaries did use some native plants during Culpeper’s time. Here are some brief monographs of mine for a few of these herbs.

Gillyflower or Pinc
Gillyflower (Dianthus caryophyllus and Dianthus deltoides) also known in Gaelic as: Pinc, which is where the color name ‘pink’ is derived.  Native to the British Isles, Northern and Southern Europe, it prefers lime- rich and sandy soil in grassy banks and sands dunes, at higher altitudes and on rocky mountainous slopes. With the introduction of sheep, over the centuries this little herb is becoming endangered in the wild for the nibbling that is constant to its flowering tops. A perennial with narrow blue-green lance shaped leaves growing opposite up its strong jointed stem, the flowers are pink in color usually with a pale centre surrounded by a darker pink band. The petals being frayed at edges emerge from great tubular bracts that stand on thin short stems. The flower petals with the broad green bract removed are the part used. As a Cephalic it’s a specific for fainting, sea sickness and headaches. During the Renaissance period, a syrup or cordial of gillyflower was commonly found at every Apothecary. Culpepper states that it “Quenches a raging thirst” and is used to “Expel poison”. As an Alexiteric it acts as an antidote against the effects of venom or poison, and as protection and remedy against infectious disease. Most probably it was pretty handy during plagues.  As a Sudorific it promotes sweat production and is utilized in resolving hot, infectious, aggressive, potentially damaging or fatal fevers. It certainly is an Anti-bacterial too, that has been found in studies to have profound actions against both Gram positive or Gram negative pathogens. Having a delicate clove-like scent and flavor the flower petals steeped in Scotch or brandy makes delicious liquor

Rose  (Rosa arvensis, Rosa canina, Rosa centifolia, Rosa gallica (known as the Apothecaries Rose), Rosa rubiginosa, Rosa villosa) also known in Gaelic as An Fheir Dhris or the fragrant flower. Native to Europe, Britain and temperate regions of the world, it prefers rich soil in the woods, thicket and hedgerows as a trailing or upright deciduous perennial shrub. The fruit forms after the fully open petals drop. These ‘hips’ are oval and begin green, ripening to a rich red to be harvested after the first frost. The flower petals are Anti-depressant and filled with aromatic compounds, volatile oils and Vitamin E. The alcohol or vinegar extract of these petals is effective for most kinds of headaches, restlessness, insomnia and depression. As an Immunomodulator and Nutritive the ripe hips are loaded with flavonoids and minerals such as calcium, chromium, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, selenium, zinc and with Vitamin C. They help to remedy fragile capillaries, which can help to prevent bruising. They can also be used with good results for colds, influenza, other infectious diseases, coughs and sore throat.

Spearmint (Mentha spicata) also known in Gaelic as Meannt Garraidh or garden-spear mint is native to Britain, Europe and Asia. A perennial that is easily identified by its slightly wrinkled bright green lance shaped leaves, it thrives in ditches and meadows, preferring cool, moist, lightly shaded and protected situations. Like peppermint, the herb spreads by way of underground and over ground runners. It is best to plant these two mints away from each other, as the mingling of the two may taste fine, but diminishes the medicinal properties of both. As a Carminative and Cholagogue it’s used to strengthen the appetite and to assist in the digestion of meat and animal fats when used in culinary applications such as in infused vinegar or being made into a jelly.  Culpepper states that it ‘stirs up bodily lust’, but I don’t find it to be as much an aphrodisiac as I notice it raising emotions and desires. As a relaxing Nervine it is uplifting, brings joy, and is restorative and nerve strengthening.

Entering the Trade
Becoming an apothecary or simply having an herb shop where people can pick-up supplies is allot of work. With more people taking-on herbalism as a profession there is a tendency to try to 'stand-out' amongst all others. That kind of attention-seeking leads to the opposite of true healing life ways. It creates an environment of struggle and lack that causes pain all around and certainly promotes the restrictive and competitive environment of Culpeper’s time. Surely there is always plenty of work to go around. Let’s be happy to follow our calling, do our jobs and do them well. While we are immersed in this sort of task we will find that suddenly, all eyes are on us, in recognition of a person pleased with their own performance.

Select bibliography and recommended reading list
The Apothecaries Garden
Sue Minter 1980 Sutton Publishing Ltd 

Culpeper's Medicine: A Practice of Western Holistic Medicine
Graeme Tobyn 1997 Element Books

The Herbalist: Nicholas Culpeper and the Fight for Medical Freedom
 Benjamin Woolley  2004 Harper Collins

Nicholas Culpeper, English Physician and Astrologer
O. Thulesius 1992 Macmillan Press
All contents copyright  Heather Nic an Fhleisdeir.
First published in
Plant Healer: A Journal of Traditional Herbalism 2013

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Forgotten Herbal Healing

This week a woman proclaimed to me that our ancient healing traditions have been lost, and then told me she had heard about a project to test an ancient remedy from a Medieval medicine manuscript.

It isn't just semantics to say that our healing traditions have been 'forgotten' and not lost. 'Forgotten' is a choice, to not pay attention, to not study, to refuse to bring forward and carry-on, to ignore a healing tradition. 'Lost' makes it sound as if a natural disaster or mass extermination of all healers removed access to this knowledge.

Although some of this did happen, collective knowledge of health and healing has been handed down through time by oral tradition and later in written documents, like the one used to conduct these experiments.

Bald's Leechbook, a Leech being a Medieval term for a certain type of physician, is the
Pages from Bald's Leechbook
oldest surviving Anglo-Saxon herbal medicine manuscript from which this recently tested recipe originates. Written between 900-950 CE, with intimate knowledge of every herb and preparation in it, specific processes are required to obtain the desired results with the herbs and ingredients used to make this recipe. If made incorrectly the preparation becomes a stinky, slimy, useless gob of goo. If done to specifications, you get a remedy for a bacterial stye in the eye, and apparently, quite possibly, for the modern MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). This is Medieval herbal science, done well. Hundreds of thousands of years of
herb-based experience predates even this written history, and all of it preceded conventional medicine.
Recently I have read that many herbal scholars only consider there to be very few cultural herbal traditions with distinct systems.  They name Chinese and Ayurvedic herbalism among the top traditions, then ancient Arabic and Egyptian systems, with a new emerging field of Western herbalism. Luckily, this rediscovery of the medicine systems in Bald's Leechbook ought to illuminate the field to reveal other forgotten, abandoned and ignored cultural herbal medicine systems.

There are also evolving unbroken chains of herbal healing knowledge systems that are continuing to be passed down in many cultures to the next generation to this day. We only need to turn our attention to them, to insure that they continue.

More can be read on these topics:

History and Traditions in Herbal Healing