An herbal is a book containing the names and descriptions of various plants, and usually contains the effects that were associated with each one. Effects could range from a plant’s toxicity to its magical power. In the 15th century, it was common practice to publish medical journals in Latin, which was only accessible to those with wealth or nobility. In 1652, Nicholas Culpeper published one of his most notable works, The English Physician, in English, allowing those who did not read Latin to be able to practice medicine.
Culpeper’s herbal was groundbreaking for its combination of the “doctrine of signatures” with astrology. The doctrine of signatures was the idea that plants and herbs that looked like human body parts would help heal ailments that stemmed from that part. Combining this practice with astrology formed what is known as astrological herbalism. Astrological herbalists connected herbs to different signs of the zodiac. They treated specific ailments by determining what sign and planet ruled over the part of the body that needed care, and then prescribing an herb of the same astrological sign.
Culpeper’s earlier works mainly relied on written descriptions of the plants to be able to identify them. As he progressed, his herbals included more images and color, illustrating them with etchings that are then colored in with watercolors, such as the 1802 edition of his British Herbal.
The heart and blood, for example, are ruled by Leo, which is ruled by the sun, so for ailments such as anemia, the patient would be prescribed “centaury,” or centaurium erythraea. Issues like anxiety are ruled by Mercury, and depending upon your astrological sign you might be prescribed lavender as a treatment. The process goes more in depth depending on your sign and other planetary factors.
While we cannot recommend depending upon Culpeper’s prescribed treatments — medicine has come a long way in 400 years — it is fun to see what herbal applications he found for a variety of ailments. FSU Libraries Special Collections and Archives possesses seven editions of The English Physician, from the 1652 first edition up to one from 1932. Fortunately, three editions have been digitized and are available for your perusal from home!