#114, 11 February 2008

A Princely Sum

Part II: Golden Fragments,
or, Dialogue with an Old Herbal

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"Well, Booknoodle, old fellow, that was a very nice repast." We had left the restaurant and were happily wheeling down the country road, heading home. Deckle was in an expansive mood, especially since I had capitulated and warmly congratulated him on his find. The copy of Libellus de dentibus, for which he had just paid such a handsome sum, brought his collection of pre-twentieth century books on dentistry to a grand total of 259. This not counting numerous pamphlets, letters and off-prints from journals. His find was securely situated in a box on the back seat specifically constructed to hold and protect books on just such a trip.

I held the Culpeper in my lap.

He flashed one of his toothsome smiles. "See here, Professor, you must admit that that book you pulled out of the junk shop is in simply execrable condition. I also remember that you threatened to share with me the secrets of your infatuation with that old clinker."

I looked out at the passing countryside - barns, small houses, cows in their fields, apple orchards, folks sitting in rocking chairs on porches, barking dogs ... Willie's Rambler, with its ability to maintain over long distances average speeds of 30 - 35 mph, imparted an exhilaration to the driving experience. Willie handled the big wheel with assurance. It was all a pleasant postlude to our booking adventure.

"Harrumph. Clinker indeed. While your volume on dentistry may have a track record in the auction rooms, my little Culpeper has made no less an impact on the world. Probably more."

"Do say? Professor Booknoodle I am your captive audience! Pray, enlighten me." Of course Deckle was no ignorant puppy. He knew full well who Culpeper was and how important the man had been to the field of herbal medicine.

"Well then keep your eye on the road and your ear on what I shall recount," said I.

"In the short space of time between his birth in 1616 to his death in 1654, just 38 all too brief years - but what he packed into those 38 years was quite amazing! Nicholas Culpeper did more, possibly for the arts of herbal medicine than any other single individual. He openly attacked and sneered at the general practices of the physicians of his day, criticizing their methods and, as he saw it, their greed. Of course all the good doctors attacked him right back, calling him a quack, a scoundrel, and worse. He was certainly eccentric, and, by modern minds, some of his ideas may seem quaint, if not outright ridiculous. But he was a man, by jingo, a man full of creative energy, and he went out in to the English countryside where he collected and studiously catalogued hundreds of English herbs. Just think, if this herbal, which first saw the light of day in 1635, has hardly ever been out of print since that time - or at least it has remained a presence in current book lists in one form or another, then it may be considered the most influential herbal ever published. Far more influential than your book of dental wisdom."

Deckle interrupted, "That - right there - staying in print for so many centuries! That's certainly enough to make one take notice."

"Yes! The man had genius, no matter that some of his ideas do not hold up! How many poems do you think have been written about dentists?" I posited.

"Well, let's see ...."

"That's not the point. I'm sure in your collection you could find some. But at the start of this book is a biography of Culpeper and included with it are a poetic epitaph and several other poems written in honour of the man. Just listen to this epitaph - I think it fitting and fine to boot:


Here lies the Doctors great envy and wonder,
To th' Empericks and awful clap of Thunder.
Whom he stript and whipt, for wise Men hereafter,
To make them the scorn and scene of their laughter.
To their joy sleeps here our three Kingdoms sorrow,
Till the Resurrection bids him, Good morrow.

"Come, Professor, that's all very pretty and nice, But I don't see anything in that to wax sentimental over."

"Confound it, can't you see? The man was admired and revered, despite the anger and enmity of the members of the medical profession that he showed up as charlatans. The people could see they had lost something good when Culpeper passed on. Just listen:

To Mr. Nicholas Culpeper on His Cheap and Charitable Cures.

Amongst some Charity is slander, sure
They're neither cheap nor speedy in their Cure.
Health is the gift of Heaven, and so to us,
They will have God alone propitious.
Thus some Physicians the Ague turn
Into a Fever, as they please we burn;
Then sneeze by fits, alas we cannot tell
Without the Doctors Gold how to be well:
They turn Disease into Disease, till we
Worship the Urinals, visit for the Fee.
Whereas throughout the danger of thy Skill
Thou didst retain God and Religion still.
Our Healths are owed unto thy Charity:
Thou spend'st thy self for to do good; and we
Have so our humane Frailties now forsook.
To live to Honour thee, and praise this BOOK. - F. B.

"Oh really, Booknoodle, that is too much. The things that ... that ... doggerelist conjoins in one poor verse. Too much!"

"Oh really? Prissy niceties from a collector of gum and tooth books? That was a very sincere tribute to a man who spent his life attempting easement of the human condition. There are more ..."

"Stop, Professor! Have pity, no more! No more nephrological nuances! I fear I cannot stomach such renal verse. It is all just so much poetic gravel."

I groaned, as I knew he wanted me to. Such low word play, I fear, takes up much of our energy and interaction. Humph. I would give him some poetic gravel, indeed.

"Ahh, but Deckle, don't you see? The felicities of Culpeper's cures were so beguiling and beautiful of form that men could only find in poetry the phrases apt enough and beautiful enough to match Culpeper. He went far beyond your garden variety of yarrow and mugwort or vervaine and boneset and foxglove, far beyond. Nicholas Culpeper opened vistas into treatments for the human body and its cares that conjure a deputation from Bosch. By the way, how's your stomach?"

"My stomach? Why, my stomach is fine."

"Oh? Well I thought I saw you finish off a few extra cookies and you did drink quite a bit of that coffee. It certainly was strong."

"My stomach is as the rock of Gibraltar," boasted Willie.

"Have it as you will. Just listen to this," I said, opening my old copy of Culpeper: " 'A Hedge-sparrow is of a notable Vertue for the Guts detracted, and the feathers taken off, and so either kept in Salt, or converted into Mummy and eaten, (the birds I mean, not the Guts nor Feathers) and it will break the Stone, either in the Reins or Bladder, and bring it forth.'"

"I say look there, in that tree, isn't that a scurry of sparrows?" I chuckled.

"Mummy! One can only imagine what is done to make a poor sparrow into Mummy!"

"Yes. Well, how's your stomach? It says right here that 'A green Jasper hung about the Neck of one that hath a weak stomach, so that it touch the Skin near the region of the mouth of the Stomach, doth wonderfully strengthen it.' Oh look, he cites Galen."

"Ha! That is no rotten herb, it is a rock. I see what you're up to, Booknoodle! "

"You do? Say, do you remember that waitress girl in Hudson?"

"What waitress girl?"

"As I thought! Failing memory. I worry about you, Deckle. Well, no fear, for potion No. 57 in Culpeper's Fragmenta Aurea, The First Golden Century of Chymical and Physical Judicial Aphorisms and Admirable Secrets ..."

"Wait, wait! I thought this was Culpeper's Herbal," interrupted Deckle.

"Don't interrupt. It is, of course - but, you see, it is made up of several excellent smaller books, or parts, not quite a sammellband, since they are all by Culpeper, and all to a single point - but still ... each has its own title page ... any hoooo ... you don't remember that waitress girl? Sad. Look right here - just the thing for you! 'If you anoint your Temples where the Arteries pass, once a Month with the Gall of a Partridge, it mightily strengthens the Memory.' Shall we try it?"

"What gall! Lucky for me there are no partridges about and we have no gun to shoot them."

"Ha! We are passing through the landscape so quickly we might well be passing partridges. There! Wasn't that one? You didn't see it? Did you know, 'Eyebright is an Herb of the Sun, and is a wonderful strengthener of the Eyes?'"

"Oh Really, Booknoodle, you saw no partridge. There were no pear trees and there was no partridge."

"Tut. Tut. Culpeper states that many men are troubled with watery Stomachs..."

"The deuce! There you are on about stomachs again. There is nothing wrong with my stomach. It is not watery."

"This sad plight ('which molesteth thy body') can be admirably remedied. 'Take a little stick and tie some Oaken leaves about the end of it, and cut them pretty round, then put them into your Mouth as far as you can well suffer them and hold the stick fast between your Teeth ...."

"I'd like to take an oaken stick to you!" cried Deckle, "if you were ever to try something like that. That man should have been called Culprit, not Culpeper!"


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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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