Early Modern Medicine

by xl on October 26, 2016 - 5:03pm

The book assigned to me at the Osler library was The English Physician Enlarged with Three Hundred Sixty-Nine Medicines Made of English Herbs, that were not in any Impressions until This by Nicholas Culpeper. It is a small book of around 15 x 10 x 3 cm of dimensions. It weights approximatively 250 grams. The book is published in 1794 and is written in vernacular (English). The pages are threaded together and the cover of the book is a cheap leather binding. It is probably the original cover as it has already begun to fall apart probably due to an abundant manipulation. The book talks about different herbs and how they can be used to cure diseases. The font of the text in the book looks similar to Times New Roman and the size of the words is quite small. The texture of the pages is special because of the horizontal lines caused by the printing technic used. There are also watermarks in the book. There are no pictures, no handwritings and no note in the margins. The book was most likely used by a not very fortunate, yet literate person, for example a local doctor. In general, the book is physically different from the modern medical books.


The book is originally published in 1652 under the name of The English Physician (Asiado). It is republished several times after. The copy that we analyzed is published in 1794. The paradigm had already shifted at that time. The way how knowledge is produced in the book is therefore no longer appropriate according to the new paradigm. Perhaps, this book was not used anymore to treat diseases which explains why there is no note in the margins. However, the fact that the book still gets printed and “Enlarged” shows that the knowledge contained in it is not completely abandoned. The way of producing and justifying knowledge is no longer recognized, but the knowledge may continue to be recognized, under other justifications. Appearing in the middle of the paradigm shift occurred during the scientific revolution (c. 1543-c. 1687), The English Physician Enlarged with Three Hundred Sixty-Nine Medicines Made of English Herbs witnessed the radical change of knowledge production since “by the end of the seventeenth century, however, the science of physic had been fundamentally altered” (Cook 407).


The way of producing medical knowledge back at the time when the book was written is very different from today’s. It can be observed through Culpeper’s book. In the beginning of the book, there is a list of herbs associated with different planets (Culpeper A2). With today’s paradigm, based on empiricism, astrology has no influence at all on medicine.  However, back at the 17th century, astrology was a source of medical knowledge as “the study of natural phenomena” was essential for a good understanding of the human body (Cook 415) and also because of the influence of “philosophical medicine, especially those of Greece” (Cook 411). People believed that “God had created a remedy for each disease, if only humankind had the ingenuity to find it” (Cook 420). This belief makes herbal medicine a legitimate and trusted practice that is well justified as herbs are found in the nature. In addition, they did not really have the technology for other treatment options. Accordingly, people use exclusively nature materials to cure diseases whereas synthetized and artificial medications are largely used nowadays.


Despite the differences, there are some continuities of the earlier medical knowledge in today’s medical field. In Culpeper’s book, he explains each herb’s medical use and properties. Most of the medical properties of the herbs are still recognized by modern medicine. For example, it is said in Culpeper’s book that rosemary “helpeth all cold diseases, both of the head, stomach, liver, and belly” (Culpeper 254). With the scientific method, these medical properties are explained by the antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds found in rosemary which boost the immune system. Herbs are still largely used for their medical properties in modern medicine. Even though the justification of the medical properties of the herbs are different, the knowledge can be valid in both paradigms. Hence, herbal medicine can be seen as the early version of pharmacology.


In sum, when paradigm shifts, the way that knowledge is produced changes but some knowledge remains, with new justifications. The English Physician Enlarged with Three Hundred Sixty-Nine Medicines Made of English Herbs holds a significance to the modern medical knowledge as it demonstrate the change from rationalism to empiricism and the influence of the old paradigm that still has on the present one.


Work cited:

Asiado, Tel . “ Nicholas Culpeper Bio” Edible Wild Food, http://www.ediblewildfood.com/bios/nicholas-culpeper.aspx .

Cook, Harold. “Medicine.” in Katherine Park and Lorraine Daston (eds.) The Cambridge History of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 407-434. 345-101-MQ Early Modern Knowledge, edited by Sarah Waurechen, Eastman Systems, 2016, pp. 47-61.

Culpeper, Nicholas. The English Physician Enlarged with Three Hundred and Sixty-Nine Medicines, Made of English Herbs, that were not in any Impressions until This, 1794.




After reading several other analyzes from my classmates, there is some additional information about this book that is worth mentioning.
-The book shows that the printing press has largely evolved as this book is addressed to the population. It means that the printing technics allow a massive production of books which makes the book accessible to everybody. Therefore, there was a significant change in the way how knowledge was spread.
-Sometimes in Culpeper's book, he says that certain herbs does not need further explanation as it should be already well known by everyone. However, the common scientific knowledge is often misconceptions since it comes from tradition, family and surroundings.

xl has some explicit idea about how paradigm shift effects early modern knowledge of medicine. There are both differences and continuities of medical knowledge between early modern period from today. One general idea for difference is that we don't produced medical knowledge based on astrology any more. One general idea for continuity is that the properties of herbs are still recognized by modern medicine. The author conveys his/her idea well in the writing. After reading this post, I have a sense of how the way early modern people produce medical knowledge different from us today.

Well, we are three in the same group to have analyzed this book, and now, we are all commenting on each other's posts to grab those participation points... Allow me to join in.
After reading it, I find that this your text is in many ways similar to mine (ex.: the sources, the picture, the description, some parts of the analysis, etc.), which makes sense, since we observed the book together. However, it seems that you have pointed out some elements that I have not found. You said that the book had to be used by somebody literate. That is quite relevant, since I completely omitted the fact that quite a few people in the Early Modern Period were illiterate XD. I also like how you added some contemporary medicine in your text, when talking about the rosemary. As you pointed out in your comment on my analysis, maybe that's what was lacking in mine.
There's something else I wanted to make clear. As you said in your "additonal information" comment, I did say that Culpeper often says that certain herbs do not need further explanation as it should be already well known by everyone. However, I did that only to prove that Culpeper intends to make his book more practical rather than make it hold more information, like an encyclopedia would. It has nothing to do with misconceptions among the ordinary people. I think that after eating a few hazelnuts, most people can have a good general idea of what they look like XD.
Overall, though, I really like the work you have done, and if I could've, I would've surely put some of the elements of your text into mine XD.