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A Princely Sum, Part II: Golden Fragments, or, Dialogues with an Old Herbal
"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:
THE EPITAPH OF NICHOLAS CULPEPER
Here lies the Doctors great envy and wonder,
"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
"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!"
"Really, Deckle, you are such a prig. That was really very mild. How about this for stomach-turning?" and I proceeded to read from Culpeper.
"'The Gums of young Children being often rubbed with the Brains of Hare or Coney, their teeth will cut easily ....'" I peered over at Deckle, his hands were white upon the steering wheel, his face just a bit blanched. He stared fixedly at the highway before us.
"Anything like that in all your books on dentistry? And as to that memory problem of yours, here's a nifty practice just up your alley: 'If you heat a plate of Gold very thin when Sol is in Leo, Jupiter and Leo in good Aspect and Fortunate, it will do wonders; for being laid upon the seam of the Head, it strengthens the Brain, and helps infirmities thereof ...."
"Say Deckle, do I discern your hairline to be receding a bit faster these days? Here is just the ticket: 'Mice-Dung, with the ashes of burnt Wasps, and burnt Hazel-Nuts, made into an Ointment with Vinegar of Roses, do trimly deck a bald Head with Hairs, being annointed with it.' Haw Haw! I can just see that going over well with your wife. 'William, sweetheart, whatever is that wretched smell!' Haw Haw!"
"I'm quite satisfied with the way my hair grows, thank you very much."
"Look here, Deckle, Culpeper seems to have tried burning just about everything under the sun ... burnt horse bones, burnt ants ... here's one: 'The ashes of burnt snails put into the Eye taketh away the spots thereof.'"
"One's sanity has already been removed, to try stuff like that!" said Willie. "Just thinking about such things gives me a headache!"
"Oh well, for headaches, Culpeper's your man!" replied I feeling full satisfied that Deckle was playing the game so well. "'Beat Bay-salt into powder by it self, and as much Cummin-seed by it self, and as much common Fennel-seed by its self, then mix them together with a little Red-rose Vinegar over a Chafing-dish of Coals, and apply it hot upon a Cloth to the nape of the Neck, near the Head, the next night change it. This is a most precious Secret, for it cures the most inveterate Headache, besides it clears the Eye-sight, and draws away the superfluous Humours of the Head.'"
"Booknoodle, someone should clear the superfluous humors from your head, although I must say that last one didn't seem so bad."
"Willie, I declare the seventeenth century to have been the New Stone-age, the way everyone was always being afflicted with gravel and stones. It seems to Physicians back then every organ could form stones of some sort. Here's a good one for you: 'Bees dried, Stings and all, and beaten into a Powder, and a Dram of the Powder given in White-Wine, is an excellent remedy for to break the Stone.' Or this one: 'Take the green Weed that cometh from the Sea amongst the Oysters, washed clean, then dry it and beat it into a powder; drink two Drams of this with Muskadel in the Morning, fasting an Hour after it, it will break the largest Stone that is.'"
"See, Deckle, there are so many marginal notes in this book written in various hands. I imagine the owners of this book, so long ago sitting in their dark rooms beating bees and rabbit pizzles into powders and concocting these marvelously fantastical combinations."
"Well, Professor, I can see a possibility of great success and popularity for any practitioner who regularly prescribed wines and Muscatels and Ales and Liquors for his patients, no matter the other dubious ingredients. I can just see the missus smelling her husband's breath .... 'Well, you've been to see Doctor Culpeper again! No wonder the work never gets done around here!'"
"See, I've piqued your interest with mention of liquor; but it wasn't all white wine and rose water. Some of those seventeenth century 'cures' were pretty rough. One understands why the old adage 'the cure was worse than the disease' arose."
"Here is a jolly remedy. Old housewives must have muttered under their breath, 'I'll be buried with the cat if I'm keeping that smelly mess in my house!' -'Take a Badger, the fattest you can get, kill him, and scald him like a Pig, then make a hole in one of his sides, take out his Guts, Garbage and all, and put into his Belly Nettles two handfuls, two ounces of Brimstone, four Yolks of Eggs, and four ounces of Turpentine incorporated well together, then sow up the Belly close, and roast him, and save the Dripping for an excellent remedy for the gout.' Blast! Every man alive seems to have had the gout back then. How do your legs feel, Deckle?"
"Just fine, thank you, but no thank you," replied Deckle. I noticed a slight increase in the loudness of the Rambler engine. "My god, and to think that people used to believe that stuff worked."
"They did! They did! Or at least if they didn't believe, it was the next best thing to bad hope. On the title page of this book Culpeper not only styles himself a Gentleman and a Student of Physick, but also a Student of Astrology. The stars were very active in those days. In the biography of Culpeper that precedes the meat of the book is printed Culpeper's astrological chart, by which we see that Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury and Sol were all strong, but Venus and Luna were weak."
"Tell me you don't believe that nonsense, Professor!"
"Me? But you see Culpeper did. It was quite central to medicine then, as all herbs and medicines were under the aegis of particular zodiacal signs, and Culpeper did not repudiate Astrology, but embraced the actions of the stars and planets on human physique and health. Also, as we saw with jasper and gold, and many other stones, there was a great belief in the efficacy of various crystals and earthen compounds for affect. Take, for example, this," and I proceeded once more to read from Fragmenta Aurea:
"'Take Oil of Crystal, drawn by the Art of the Alchymist, let him that is troubled with the Stone take a Dram of it at a time in a good draught, either of White or Rhenish Wine, and it will break the Stone ....' I won't trouble your delicate ears with how he suggested testing the efficacy of that cure."
"Thanks for small favors," said Deckle. "But there you see, again - white wine. It must have made much that was unpalatable go down easier. What do you think was this Oil of Crystal?"
"I don't know," I replied, owning up to a small area of ignorance. "I must research that. But see, Culpeper states this potion to have been made by the Art of the Alchymist. Chemistry, Medicine, Alchymy, Astrology - it was all part of the larger world view of the educated man of the seventeenth century. It really does make one think.
"It surely is different from today's world of medicine."
"Oh, I think it is all really much, much closer than one might wish to today's practices. After all, people go to doctors and accept what is diagnosed and recommended with such blind faith. The common man in the streets, or the rich banker or the college professor all take their medicine with a gulp, a grimace and a little prayer for its efficacy (whether a believer or not)."
"I think there was much more grimacing going on in Culpeper's time," said Deckle.
I laughed. "Oh, for sure. Just listen to these! And I warn, these are not for the easily disgusted! Haw Haw! di gustibus and all that, eh?"
"'For the Sciatica, take a Gallon of Urine, I suppose it were best of the Party that is Deceased [sic], boil it and scum it well till it be clear, then put to it a Quart of black Snails, such as you shall find in the Meadows without shells (he means slugs, haw!) boil them together, till it be thick like a Pultiss, then spread it upon a Cloath, and apply it to the grieved place.'" I peeked over at Deckle. He was firmly concentrating on his motoring.
I continued. "Snake bites! Yes, an excellent remedy for snake bites. 'The best way that I know for the biting of an Adder is this: Catch the same Adder that bit you, as she is easily caught, cut her open, and take out her heart and swallow it down whole.'" Another peek at Willie. He was holding up. I continued.
"Ah, 'tis good we are not plagued so much any more with the plague. Now there was desperation mixed with black hope, indeed: 'Take a Cock-Chicken, pull off the Feathers, till the Rump be bare, then hold the bare Fundament of the Chicken to a Plague Sore, and it will attract the Venom to it from all parts of the Body, and die; when he is dead ... take another and use likewise; you may perceive when all the Venom is drawn out for you shall see the chicken no longer pant nor gape for breath; the sick party will instantly recover.'"
"Oh for heaven's sake, Booknoodle, that is really too much! Such twaddle!"
"Yes, it was ignorant, but it was because Heaven beckoned prematurely that they tried such twaddle as you call it. In their mind it was the grave or sitting there with a featherless chicken on their head; maybe it would work, maybe not. What harm? Have you ever tried it?"
"Tried it? Tried it?! Tying a plucked chicken to my body? Even with plague I would not do such a silly thing!"
"The plague victim, I doubt, was concerned with such trivial matters as his dignity or how buffoonish he looked. It seems that the entire world around man was open to interpretation as a source for cures. Every nook and cranny and every small creature that might hide therein was a possible cure. Earth worms crushed and dried ... sow bugs for a decoction ... spider webs (one sits under a full spider web holding on to a particular thought in one's mind and a particular object in one's mouth) ... dung, snails - the whole biological universe was all one big medicine cabinet. Sure, some of it was confoundedly illogical; but there was logic behind much of it - and observation and experience."
"How much logic or observation could there have been for sitting under a spider's web?"
"A good point, Deckle. That certainly seems to cross the border into sheer quackery. Here's another bit of quaintness - it's one for leg cramps at night: 'If you use (when you go to bed) to rub your Finger between your Toes, and then smell to them, you shall find it an excellent prevention, both of cramps and Palsies.'"
"That's so ridiculous as to beggar belief," sniffed Deckle, indignantly.
"Yes, but it is written right here, see? And I must say, that there are so many marginal notes in the book, it is evident that it was well used - who knows what recipes and cures were suggested by which herbalists. Why, Culpeper even believed in witchcraft, as see this short bit of advice: 'If anyone be bewitched, put some Quicksilver in a Quill, stop it close, and lay it under the threshold of the Door.'"
"You will note the belief in the efficacy of actions that are common in this book. Often the actions were combined with the ingestion of some potion or the application of some salve. But some of the actions recommended are, as you perceive, absurd. Haw! It was almost as if the good doctor was having his little joke on irritable patrons, such as this one: 'The Chin-Cough is easily cured, if the party troubled with it spit three or four times into a Frog's Mouth, but it must be into the Mouth of the same Frog, you may easily keep her alive in a little water'"
Deckle laughed loudly. "What's a little spit lost between man and frog, eh? At least he doesn't say to swallow the frog ... or the Quicksilver. How efficacious might that have been for anything? There seems to be a lot of messing about with things that were truly dangerous."
"Well Deckle, life was more precarious. But was it any more precarious than rushing along the highway at 30 miles and hour sitting atop some rattling contraption that might explode any minute?"
"Oh for heavens sake, this fine machine is not going to explode! And it does not rattle! That rattle's probably gravel in your stomach. Ha, ha."
"Well, I tell you, Willie, this bone-shaker seems to hit every hole in the roadway and I am getting a headache, so I shall stop of reading these most excellent cures after imparting this last suggestive passage from Culpeper on the headache. It is general advice and one should pay heed."
"'Many Sicknesses, and Impediments may be in a Man's Head; wherefore whosoever hath any distemper in the head, must not keep the Head too hot nor too cold, but in an equal temper, to beware of engendering of Rheum, which is the cause of many infirmities. There is nothing that engender Rheum so much as doth the fatness of fish, and the heads of fish, and Surfeits, and taking cold in the Feet, and taking cold in the nape of the neck or Head; also they which have an Infirmity in the head must refrain from immoderate Sleep, especially after Meat; also they must abstain from drinking of Wine, and use not to drink Ale and Beer, the which is over-strong; Vociferation, Hollowing, Crying and high Singing, is not good for the Head: All things the which are Vaporous or do Fume, are not good for the Head: All things which are of evil favour, as Carrion, Sinks, wide Draughts, Piss-Bowls, Snuff of Candles, Dunghills, stinking Channels, and stinking Standing Waters, and stinking marshes, with such contagious Airs, do hurt the Head, the Brain, and Memory; all odiferous Savours are good for the Head, the Brain, and the Memory.'"
"Well Professor, all that was quite amazing. But first, it seems some three fourths of what Culpeper prescribed was delivered in some liquorous form: Ale, Beer, Wine, Cider. Then he says stay away from such. I must agree about avoidance of noisome and stinky places. But which is it to be? Avoid smells or use them? After all, just what constitutes an odiferous savour?"
"Harrumph. I do not know, and I do not care right now, blast, but my confounded head is an awful throb. It is this vehicle ... and road, full of potholes. Or it is the vaporous fumes from the engine. Or both. Look there, ahead is an inn; pull in there and we will be able to avail ourselves of some liquorous potion - and caffeine to boot. Sitting warmly in front of an open hearth with some ale will alleviate this ailment.
And so he did; and so I did. I must admit that the ale, combined with the warmth of a fireplace was most efficacious. There were no powdered worms in the ale nor crushed ant eggs in the coffee.
Aside from the title first delineated at the beginning of this reminiscence, the book under discussion contains the following separate but unified titles, all by Culpeper:
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