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Christian Herbal Medicine: Herbal Medicine in Protestant England
Throughout most of Europe, the rise of Protestant churches had little effect on the teaching or practice of Herbal Medicine. However, the change in England was dramatic and extremely bloody. England had been a Catholic nation, with a great history under such men as King Richard Lionheart and King Edward the Confessor (who is also a saint). Several of these men are my ancestors and I am very proud of their heroic and noble actions. King Henry VIII was not such a man. He was a violent, gluttonous, alcoholic, adulterer and murderer who became a genocidal tyrant. He took issue with the Catholic Church because in following the words of our Lord, the Catholic Church does not allow divorce. We read in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus' very clear teaching:
It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce. But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
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In the gospel of Mark:
Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” “What did Moses command you?” he replied. They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. ’So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
And, in the Gospel of Luke:
Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
The teachings of Christ are perfectly clear that divorce is not permitted. The Catholic Church is clear and unwavering on this point and would not grant the king divorce, nor annul his multiple marriages based on no legitimate grounds. So, he began having his wives beheaded, thus adding the mortal sin of murder to adultery. This incredibly evil man then declared himself the sole authority on all matters of religion and the head of the church in England. Thus began his reign of terror in which Catholic church buildings, including monasteries, abbeys and schools were taken by the government of England, and thousands of priests, monks and nuns beheaded, or tortured to death. Untold numbers of Catholic faithful were similarly executed. The noble families of England were stripped of their property and titles if they refused to accept the authority of the king to rule with the authority of God. The Catholic hospitals were taken. An entire class of men who had been of lower status now took prominence in the government and the church, taking with rapacious violence the positions that had been held by the educated and noble English Catholics who proceeded them. False charges were leveled by scoundrels to obtain property and position. This legacy continued for centuries, even into early America, when ministers such as Cotton Mather could accuse Catholic women seen praying for the dead and accuse them of witchcraft, having them burned at the stake. Unfortunately, this story is rarely taught in American history classes as it does not support the progressive view of history.
All of that is not to say that Herbal Medicine either ceased or lost its Christian nature in Anglican England. The practice of Herbal Medicine, during the 1500s and 1600s in fact, flourished as plant collecting became very popular. England was becoming a major force in world trade and a naval power. This brought new plants in from everywhere their ships could sail. No longer under the teaching traditions of the Benedictines, new books began to be written with a decidedly English nationalist view. The medical guilds, associations and schools now entirely independent of Catholic tradition, encouraged new books and research that would create a decidedly British medical tradition.
Three great English herbalists stand out from this era as their works remain classics. They are, John Gerard, John Parkinson and Nicholas Culpepper.
John Gerard was one of these new men of Anglican England and the developing empire. His book, Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes was published in 1597. It is a beautifully written book, yet the more educated of his day were quick to point out that Gerard's Latin was flawed and some of his identifications inaccurate. Later, it was found that much of the book was plagiarized, having been copied from a book by Dutch herbalist, Rembert Dodoens published in 1554. Gerard was a man who knew plants and the use of herbs, not an academic. In his teens, Gerard became an apprentice to a "barber-surgeon". This was a medical guild of the time. He learned quickly and was admitted to the Barber-Surgeon's Company in London. Gardening and plant collecting though, were his true passions. Quoting from Wikipedia:
While studying he developed the tenement garden in the suburb of Holborn, London, which he refers to frequently in his work, and later published a catalogue of the flowers there. This became popular and he received gifts of seeds and plants from around the world. He also received offers to supervise the gardens of noblemen. In 1577, he began work as superintendent at the gardens of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (Lord Burghley, the Queen's Lord High Treasurer) at the Strand and Theobalds, Hertfordshire, a position he continued in for more than 20 years. In 1586, the College of Physicians established a physic garden with Gerard as curator, a position he held till 1604. In 1588, Burghley was Chancellor of the University of Cambridge and Gerard wrote to him commending himself as a suitable superintendent of the university botanic garden, writing "to signe for ye University of Cambridge for planting of gardens". Amongst his qualifications he wrote "by reason of his travaile into farre countries his great practise and long experience". There is no evidence for the travel claim and nothing seems to have come of his application. By 1595, when he was appointed to the Court of Assistants, he had built up a reputation as a skilled herbalist and spent much time commuting from the Court to the garden he founded close to his cottage in Holborn, and also attending to his duties for Burghley. In 1596 he requested that the Barber–Surgeons' Company establish a physic garden ("Mr. Gerrard's garden") in East Smithfield, but this was not done. It was reported that Queen Elizabeth held his achievements in high regard. In 1604 he was granted a lease on a garden adjoining Somerset House, by Anne, the Queen Consort to King James I, but the following year relinquished it to Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, second son of Lord Burghley, in which he was described as "herbarist" to James I.
According to Anna Pavord, Gerard was a doer and not a scholar. Deborah Harkness notes that Gerard was not part of the community of Lime Street naturalists in London at the time. His flawed (from the perspective of some of his contemporaries) Herball is dedicated to Burghley. He surrounded himself with influential friends and contacts, including Lancelot Browne, George Baker, and the apothecaries James Garrett, Hugh Morgan and Richard Garth. Garret was a Huguenot living and working in London, and a neighbour of L'Obel. Many of these had fine gardens and would exchange plants. Garth, who described Gerard as "a worshipful gentleman and one that greatly delighteth in strange plants" had South American contacts from where he would import rarities. He also exchanged plants with Clusius and cultivated a certain "Captain Nicholas Cleet of the Turky Company" from whom he obtained specimens from the Middle East. He would also visit other collectors and nurserymen such as Richard Pointer of Twickenham, Master Fowle, keeper of the Queen's house at St. James and Master Huggens, keeper of the garden at Hampton Court. His servant, William Marshall travelled to the Mediterranean on his behalf and Jean Robin, the French king's gardener sent him seeds. After his death in February 1612 he was buried at the parish church of St Andrews, Holborn.
John Parkinson was much more the professional herbalist although, he was also an avid gardener, and is considered one of England's first great botanists. Parkinson though was a devout Roman Catholic, and far better educated than Gerard. Quoting, again, from Wikipedia:
Parkinson, born in 1567, spent his early life in Yorkshire. He moved to London at the age of 14 years to become an apprentice apothecary. Rising through the ranks, he eventually achieved the position of apothecary to James I, and a founding member of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in December 1617; until 1622 he also served on the Court of Assistants, the Society's governing body. In addition, he assisted the Society in obtaining a grant of arms and in preparing a list of all medicines that should be stocked by an apothecary. He was on the committee that published their Pharmacopœia Londinensis (London Pharmacopœia) in 1618.
Then, on the cusp of a new science, he became botanist to Charles I. Anna Parkinson, a "distant descendant" of Parkinson and the author of a new popular biography of him, asserts that in 1625 when Charles I's bride, Henrietta Maria of France, came at the age of 15 years to live at St. James's Palace, "he took on the role of introducing the young queen to horticulturally sophisticated circles." When he summed up his experience in writing Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (Park-in-Sun's Terrestrial Paradise, 1629 – "Park-in-Sun" is a pun on "Parkinson"), with the explanatory subtitle A Garden of all sorts of pleasant flowers which our English ayre will permit to be noursed up, it was natural that he dedicated this work, which he called his "Speaking Garden", to the queen. Blanche Henrey called the work the "earliest important treatise on horticulture published in England", while the Hunt catalogue described it as "a very complete picture of the English garden at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and in such delightful, homely, literary style that gardeners cherish it even to the present day."
Parkinson actively sought new varieties of plants through his contacts abroad and by financing William Boel's plant-hunting expedition to Iberia and North Africa in 1607–1608. He introduced seven new plants into England and was the first gardener in England to grow the great double yellow Spanish daffodil (Pseudonarcissus aureus Hispanicus flore pleno or Parkinson's Daffodil, see illustration). ("I thinke none ever had this kind before myselfe nor did I myself ever see it before the year 1618 for it is of mine own raising and flowering first in my own garden".)
His piety as a Roman Catholic is evident from Paradisi in Sole. In his introduction, Parkinson saw the botanical world as an expression of divine creation, and believed that through gardens man could recapture something of Eden. Nonetheless, a short French poem at the foot of the title page warned the gardener against hubris and in having excessive regard for his efforts, for whoever tries to compare Art with Nature and gardens with Eden "measures the stride of the elephant by the stride of the mite and the flight of the eagle by that of the gnat". However, struggles between Protestants and Catholics compelled Parkinson to keep a low profile. He did not attend any parish church. At the height of his success, the English Civil War (1642–1651) tore his family apart.
Parkinson's London house was in Ludgate Hill, but his botanical garden was in suburban Long Acre in Covent Garden, a district of market-gardens, today close to Trafalgar Square. Not much is known about the garden, but based on a study of the writings of Parkinson and others, John Riddell has suggested that it was at least 2 acres (0.81 ha) in size and probably surrounded by a wall. Four hundred and eighty-four types of plant are recorded as having been grown in the garden. Thomas Johnson and the Hampshire botanist, John Goodyer, both gathered seeds there.
Parkinson has been called one of the most eminent gardeners of his day. He maintained close relations with other important English and Continental botanists, herbalists and plantsmen such as William Coys, John Gerard, John Tradescant the elder (who was a close friend), Vespasian Robin, and the Frenchman Matthias de Lobel (also known as Matthias de L'Obel or Matthaeus Lobelius). Together, they belonged to the generation that began to see extraordinary new plants coming from the Levant and from Virginia, broadly speaking. In his writings, de Lobel frequently mentioned the Long Acre garden and praised Parkinson's abilities. Parkinson, on his part, edited and presented in Theatrum Botanicum the papers of de Lobel, who had spent the final years of his life in Highgate supervising the gardens of Edward la Zouche, the 11th Baron Zouche.
Parkinson died in the summer of 1650, and was buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on 6 August.] He is commemorated in the Central American genus of leguminous trees Parkinsonia. Paradisi in Sole also inspired the children's writer Juliana Horatia Ewing (1841–1885) to write the story Mary's Meadow, which was first published from November 1883 to March 1884 in Aunt Judy's Magazine (1866–1885), produced by her mother Margaret Gatty. In the story, some children read Paradisi in Sole and are inspired to create their own garden. The magazine received much favourable correspondence about the story, and in July 1884 it was suggested that a Parkinson Society should be formed. The objects of the society were to "search out and cultivate old garden flowers which have become scarce; to exchange seeds and plants; to plant waste places with hardy flowers; to circulate books on gardening amongst the Members... [and] to try to prevent the extermination of rare wild flowers, as well as of garden treasures."
Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris describes the proper cultivation of plants in general, and is in three sections: the flower garden, the kitchen garden, and the orchard garden. It does not include specific growing instructions for each type of plant, but at the start of each main section Parkinson provides instructions on "ordering" each type of garden, advising on situating and laying out a garden, tools, soil improvement, grafting, planting and sowing and the types of plants that should be included in each type of garden. It contains illustrations of almost 800 plants in 108 full-page plates. Most of these were original woodcuts made by the Swiss artist Christopher Switzer, but others appear to have been copied from the works of Matthias de Lobel, Charles de l'Écluse and the Hortus Floridus of Crispijn van de Passe the Elder.
In Paradisi in Sole Parkinson hinted that he hoped to add a fourth section, a garden of simples (medicinal herbs). He delivered the promise in his other great book, the monumental Theatrum Botanicum (The Botanical Theatre or Theatre of Plants) which he published in 1640 at the age of 73 years. The release of this work was delayed due to the popularity of Thomas Johnson's edition of John Gerard's book The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597). Theatrum Botanicum, with 1,688 pages of text, describes over 3,800 plants and was the most complete and beautifully presented English treatise on plants of its day. It was the first work to describe 33 native plants, 13 of which grew near Parkinson's Middlesex home. Some of these plants, such as the Welsh poppy, the Strawberry Tree and the Lady's Slipper, were very common but had gone unnoticed or at least unrecorded. He intended the book to be a reliable guide for apothecaries, and it remained so for more than a hundred years after his death. Parkinson presented the work to Charles I, who conferred on him the title "Botanicus Regis Primarius" ("Royal Botanist of the First Rank") though this came without a salary.
The books written by Gerard and Parkinson are true classics, written in beautiful Elizabethan English. For reasons unknown to this author, Gerard's book seems to have always been the more popular of the two. It is still fairly easy to find an inexpensive, paperback copy of Gerard's Herball. Parkinson's works are extremely hard to find in their original form. Several modern works have been written about Parkinson's works, including excerpts from his original books, but I have found no complete modern versions in print. For all of Gerard's flaws and Parkinson's scholarly achievements, both works are valuable to the modern herbalist and similar in nature. What Gerard and Parkinson were doing was a new thing. No longer were the British herbalists content with the pharmacopoeia of Europe and the formulas of ancient European herbalists. The British herbalist valued the herbs native to his nation and all that could be utilized found anywhere shadowed by a British flag. These men were herb growers in that "little Eden" and their works were as much about cultivation of the plants as their use. Both men praised God mightily in their works and felt deep awe in regard to the natural world.
Nicolas Culpepper was though, as comedian and radio host Dennis Miller might say, "a different sort of cat." Culpepper had much in common with Paracelsus, both in his small, puckish build and his boldly rebellions nature. Culpepper's great scandal was due to translating the professional manuals of the medical guilds (written in Latin) into the English language of the common man. He also accused the doctors and apothecaries of greed. He even participated in the English Civil War against the establishment. Culpepper, like Paracelsus, was a strong believer in the Doctrine of Signatures - the belief that the appearance of an herb was a sign by God as to its medicinal use. Culpepper studied the occult and introduced astrology into British herbalism. Where Culpepper and Paracelsus would have disagreed mightily though was over religion. Although such statements have been largely removed from modern versions of his work, in the original, Culpepper strongly denounced "papists" and their "superstitions"... which was quite ironic given his beliefs. He was often accused of witchcraft by the professional medical men of his day. Here is his biography from Wikipedia:
Culpeper was the son of Nicholas Culpeper (senior), a cleric. Shortly after his birth his father died and he was taken to Isfield, the home of his maternal grandfather, the Reverend William Attersoll, where he was brought up by his mother. Attersoll was an influence on the young boy's political and religious beliefs and taught him both Latin and Greek. As a boy Culpeper became interested in astronomy, astrology, time, his grandfather's collection of clocks, and medical texts in Attersoll's library. Meanwhile his grandmother introduced him to the world of medicinal plants and herbs. He would go on, throughout his life, spending time in the countryside cataloguing plants.
From the age of 16 he studied at Cambridge, but it is not known at which college, although his father studied at Queens', and his grandfather was a member of Jesus College. He was then apprenticed to an apothecary. After seven years his master absconded with the money paid for the indenture, and soon after, Culpeper's mother died of breast cancer.
In 1640, Culpeper married Alice Field, the 15-year-old heiress of a wealthy grain merchant, which allowed him to set up a pharmacy at the halfway house in Spitalfields, London, outside the authority of the City of London, at a time when medical facilities in London were at breaking point. Arguing that "no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician" and obtaining his herbal supplies from the nearby countryside, Culpeper could provide his services free of charge. This and a willingness to examine patients in person rather than simply examining their urine (in his view, "as much piss as the Thames might hold" did not help in diagnosis), Culpeper was extremely active, sometimes seeing as many as 40 patients in a morning. Using a combination of experience and astrology, he devoted himself to using herbs to treat his patients.
During the early months of the English Civil War, Culpeper was accused of witchcraft and the Society of Apothecaries tried to rein in his practice. Alienated and radicalised, he joined the London Trained bands in August 1643 under the command of Philip Skippon and fought at the First Battle of Newbury, where he carried out battlefield surgery. He was taken back to London after sustaining a serious chest injury from a bullet, from which he never fully recovered. There he cooperated with the Republican astrologer William Lilly on A Prophesy of the White King, which predicted the King's death. He died of tuberculosis in London on 10 January 1654 at the age of 37 and was buried in New Churchyard, Bethlem. Only one of his seven children, Mary, reached adulthood. He was survived by his wife, Alice, who married the astrologer John Heydon in 1656. The date of her death is uncertain: some sources say 1659, but others that she was licensed as a midwife in 1665.
Influenced during his apprenticeship by the radical preacher John Goodwin, who said no authority was above question, Culpeper became a radical republican and opposed the "closed shop" of medicine enforced by censors of the College of Physicians. In his youth, Culpeper translated medical and herbal texts for his master, such as the London Pharmacopaeia from Latin. During the political turmoil of the English civil war, the College of Physicians was unable to enforce its ban on the publication of medical texts, and Culpeper deliberately chose to publish his translations in vernacular English as self-help medical guides for use by the poor, who could not afford to consult physicians. He followed them up with a manual on childbirth and with his main work, The English Physician, which was deliberately sold cheaply. It became available also in colonial America and has been in print continually since the 17th century.
Culpeper saw medicine as a public asset, not a commercial secret, and the prices physicians charged as too high compared with the cheap, universal availability of nature's medicine. He felt the use of Latin and the high fees charged by doctors, lawyers and priests worked to deprive the public of power and freedom.
"Three kinds of people mainly disease the people – priests, physicians and lawyers – priests disease matters belonging to their souls, physicians disease matters belonging to their bodies, and lawyers disease matters belonging to their estate."
Culpeper was a radical in his time, angering his fellow physicians by condemning their greed, unwillingness to stray from Galen and use of harmful practices such as toxic remedies and bloodletting. The Society of Apothecaries were similarly incensed by the way he suggested cheap herbal remedies, as opposed to their expensive concoctions.
Culpeper attempted to make medical treatments more accessible to lay persons by educating them about maintaining their health. Ultimately his ambition was to reform the system of medicine by questioning traditional methods and knowledge and exploring new solutions for ill health. The systematization of the use of herbals by Culpeper was a key development in the evolution of modern pharmaceuticals, most of which originally had herbal origins.
Culpeper's emphasis on reason rather than tradition is reflected in the introduction to his Complete Herbal. He was one of the best-known astrological botanists of his day, pairing the plants and diseases with planetary influences, countering illnesses with nostrums that were paired with an opposing planetary influence. Combining remedial care with Galenic humoral philosophy and questionable astrology, he forged a strangely workable system of medicine; combined with his "Singles" forceful commentaries, Culpeper was a widely read source for medical treatment in his time.
Culpeper's translations and approach to using herbals have had an extensive impact on medicine in early North American colonies, and even modern medications. Culpeper was one of the first to translate from Latin documents discussing medicinal plants found in the Americas. His Herbal was held in such esteem that species he described were introduced into the New World from England. Culpeper described the medical use of the foxglove, the botanical precursor to digitalis, used to treat heart conditions. His influence is demonstrated by the existence of a chain of "Culpeper" herb and spice shops in Canada, North America and beyond, and by the continued popularity of his remedies among New Age and alternative holistic medicine practitioners.
It must be acknowledged that the legacies of these three great herbalists may well have been forgotten had it not been for the work of Maude Grieve. Mrs. Grieve saw a need for the home practice of Herbal Medicine in England during the World Wars. Her research of traditional Herbal Medicine and her promotion of it through the 1931 publication of her classic work, A Modern Herbal is one of the greatest contributions to herbalism in modern times.
This article is an excerpt from Christian Medicine, History and Practice by Judson Carroll. To learn more about this book, please visit: Southern Appalachian Herbs: Christian Herbal Medicine, History and Practice - a new book by Judson Carroll
Christian Medicine, History and Practice is available for purchase on Amazon: Christian Herbal Medicine, the History and Practice: Carroll, Judson: 9798791509611: Amazon.com: Books
Judson is a Certified Master Herbalist from the blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, who began his herbal apprenticeship at age 15. He is the author of 7 books on Herbal Medicine and Gardening and he hosts the Southern Appalachian Herbs Podcast. His weekly articles on herbal medicine are available through his Substack at judsoncarroll.com
Judson is a convert to Catholicism, who is orthodox in doctrine and very traditional… but still struggling to learn Latin, and the only guy in his parish with a southern accent! He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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