By Emma Laws, Cathedral Librarian
Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), an English botanist and astrologer, published The English Physitian in 1652. A pharmacist by trade, he offered people advice and medicine free of charge and hoped that “by the help of my book they may cure themselves”.
Culpeper was an advocate of astrological botany. It may seem curious to us today, but he believed that plants and diseases are governed by the planets and he categorised them accordingly. He offers the reader instructions on how to use his book: first, we must consider what planet is causing our disease; each part of the body is governed by a planet, for example, the brain by Mercury, the breast and liver by Jupiter, the heart by the Sun, and so on. According to Culpeper, we can treat diseases with herbs of the planet that is directly opposite to the planet that is causing the diseases; so, for example, since Mars and Venus are opposite planets, we can treat the diseases of Mars with the herbs of Venus, and vice versa. Furthermore, since each planet can cure its own diseases, we can use the herbs of Saturn, for example, to cure diseases of the spleen (which is governed by Saturn); likewise, the herbs of Jupiter can cure diseases of the liver and the herbs of Mars can cure diseases of the gall bladder. Culpeper concludes that “hereby you see what Reason may be given for Medicines, and what necessity there is for every Physitian to be an Astrologer”.
Culpeper categorises about forty herbs under the planet Mars. For example, Hedge-Hyssop, which Culpeper found growing in the bogs on Hampstead Heath, is a herb of Mars and a useful and ‘violent’ purger of ‘Flegm’. Horseradish, another herb of Mars, is useful against scurvy while, unsurprisingly, rocket leaves with their hot, peppery taste are ruled by ‘angry Mars’. Conversely, the Peach Tree is dominated by Venus and since it “opposeth the ill-effect of Mars”, “nothing is better to purge choler, and the jaundice” – diseases associated with Mars.
Culpeper assigned wormwood to the planet Mars due to its fiery properties but also because it typically grows in ‘Martial places’ such as forges and iron works. He records its many uses, in particular curing the injuries of ‘martial insects’, such as hornets, wasps and scorpions, and the bites of rats and mice. Culpeper also suggests that lining your shoes with green wormwood can help against cold distempers of the stomach.
Despite its bad name among astrologers, Mars can heat us when we are cold, cleanse us of ill humours and fortify us. So believed Culpeper – and many others in his day.