Hello, friends! After going through some difficult personal stuff this winter, I am happy to tell you that I’m busy working on a new book. This book will be different from the others I’ve written. In one way or another, most of the writing I do is some sort of memoir. The subject may be garage sales, linguistics, or cats, but really I’m always writing about my life, about myself in the world. This time around, my friend Nadine and I are working on a book together, something informational—though we promise it will also be entertaining, and pretty!—based on our zine The Kitchen Witche Guide to Natural Living.
The Kytchyn Witche zine is a recipe collection and a sort of introductory guide to what we’re calling natural living; by our definition, this means using the simplest possible ingredients to make safe, healthy versions of the wasteful, pointlessly expensive, and often toxic household and personal care products that are available commercially. I’m a bit of a fanatic about cleaning my house and Nadine is passionate about skin and body care, so to make the zine we divided it into those two categories and worked on them separately, but in tandem. To create a book we’ll do something similar but on a much larger scale.
Nadine and I work well together because we tend to see things the same way while bringing different perspectives to our subjects. She and I are both serious about self-reliance, environmental sustainability, health and wellness, and damning the man. We are very serious about that last one. To this end, most of the ingredients we use are plant-based, and many of those plants are herbs. Though we’re not writing about herbalism in the strictest sense, we will talk about cultivating herb plants for use in the recipes, and we’ll give lots of detail on the benefits of various essential oils (which are oils made by distilling plants down to, well, their essence).
In thinking about what I would like the Kytchyn Witche book to be, I’ve been taking in a lot of information, gathering piles of books about herbal healing and plant magic around me and then more or less rolling around on the floor with glee. The coolest thing that I have learned about so far, amongst very many cool things, is Culpeper’s Herbal. This is a book that was written and published by a botanist, herbalist, and astrologer named Nicolas Culpeper in 1653, under the title The English Physician. I found an edition of the Herbal at the library that was published by Sterling in 2002 and has a short but excellent foreword by EJ Shellard, a professor of pharmacognosy at University of London. That foreword, along with a few other sources that I’ve listed below, is where I learned the following history.
In 17th century England, people treated their illnesses, aches and pains in one of a few different ways. Wealthy people could see a physician—who charged a lot of money and preferred to see upper class patients—while poor and working people would either use plant medicines they made themselves or visit an apothecary or a pharmacy, this latter becoming increasingly more common due to population growth in cities.
Our guy Culpeper was a political radical who believed that the old knowledge belonged to the people and that they should have unrestricted access to it. Though he came from an aristocratic family and studied to become a physician himself, he experienced a personal tragedy—the accidental death of his girlfriend, who he was set to marry—and drifted from this path, ultimately becoming an apprentice to an apothecary in London. There he learned about plant medicine hands-on, by treating the city’s poor. He saw for the first time how different their lives were from his much more comfortable existence, and when he completed his apprenticeship he opened his own dispensary where he treated people at low or no cost. He did this outside of the authority of the City of London and to the extreme irritation of the Royal College of Physicians, who were looking to heavily regulate and, if they could, shut down the practitioners of traditional plant medicine. At one point he was imprisoned and tried for witchcraft.
In his practice Culpeper used plants that grew locally instead of imported ones and called them by their common, English names rather than their Latin ones. Even using the language of the common person was a radical act in this context. Believing that “no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician,” Culpeper published his most important work, the Herbal, in English. (An herbal is a book that contains descriptions of the medical or culinary uses of herbs.) He also took the London Pharmacopoeia, which was a kind of herbal published by the College of Physicians, and translated it from Latin into English, thereby making their ”secret” treatments accessible by many more people. Culpeper died at 38, and after his death his wife Alice edited his unfinished work and continued to publish all of his books. His Herbal has been published in around 100 editions in its long lifetime and has never been out of print.
The Sterling edition of the Herbal that I’ve been reading reproduces Culpeper’s original text alongside the approved-of contemporary uses of the plants. This is interesting for comparison’s sake, since some of the ways people used the plants back then are considered dangerous today, while many other uses remain the same. It happens that Culpeper was an astrological botanist, and as such he understood diseases, parts of the body, and the plants themselves to be governed by different planets—which, though widely accepted during his lifetime, is obviously bizarre and totally discredited today (“irrational” and “useless,” to use Shellard’s words). Still, I really appreciate the generosity Shellard shows on this point when he writes, “And why not! To the agrarian communities there was an obvious relationship between the growth of their crops and the behavior of animals with the changing seasons and the position of the heavenly bodies.”
The best part of the book is that the editors have retained Culpeper’s “caustic comments about the ignorance and deceits of the physicians of his day.” For instance, before his entry on the herb clary (Salvia sclarea), he writes, “I could wish from my soul that blasphemy, ignorance, and tyranny were ceased among physicians, that they might be happy and I joyful.”
Ha! I find everything about Culpeper’s story to be life-affirming, from his choice to live in service to others to his abiding pissiness. It makes me proud to be working on a book like the one that Nadine and I are making—a small offering, but one that we’re giving our all to, and are steeping with our good intentions as we work.
“How Nicholas Culpeper brought Medicine to the People” (Smithsonian Magazine)
“Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54)” (Brought to Life, The Science Museum of London)
“The People’s Herbalist: Nicholas Culpeper” (Mother Earth Living)