Writing for posterity: Nicholas Culpeper

Nicholas Culpeper is well known, even though he died young, at age 37. His book, The English Physician, published in 1652, has never been out of print. He would have been astonished no doubt, but as a man of Melancholic humour it is no surprise that longevity is part of his story.

Remember, that the Melancholic humour is ruled by both Saturn (the Lord of time) and Mercury. Saturn is a hard taskmaster, but those natives who survive their difficult childhood and youth, live successful lives. Mercury is of course the planet of the mind, writing, and in Culpeper’s case, caustic sarcasm and devilish wit.

When I first encountered Culpeper’s book, there were references to astrology which made no sense to me. I was lucky enough to be able to read all his published books in the British Library in the original. And there I found his whole schema for treating sickness with herbs, using astrology as a diagnostic tool. As the man said himself,

‘A physician without astrology is like a lamp without oil.’

So what of Culpeper’s own astrology?

Not shown Chiron 11’Aquarius 48, Fortune 20 Leo 41.

The first thing to note is that he is Capricorn rising and he was born in the autumn. Both placements suggest he had a Melancholic temperament[1] and Culpeper himself says,

‘I am exceedingly melancholy of complexion, subject to consumptions and chilliness of my vital spirits, a slavish and sickly life being allotted to me in this city.’

Culpeper was born the son of a well-educated parson in Ockley a country parish on the borders of Surrey and Sussex. His father died before he was born (5th of October) and his mother returned to live with her father. Culpeper’s childhood then, was a solitary one, he was given free reign of his grandfather’s library and there studied the natural sciences, astrology and medicine and learned Latin and Greek. His mother taught him the herbal medicine used for the household and to recognise and pick and preserve the remedies which grew in the surrounding countryside.

At 16, Culpeper went up to Cambridge to study the seven Liberal Arts. His mother gave him £400 to live on, which was a large sum of money at that time. He spent freely, especially on tobacco which the English were cultivating in the new colony of Virginia. Tobacco was the magic mushroom of its day. Those who lit the pipe were often intellectuals and rebels against authority, like the Cambridge students Culpeper mixed with. Culpeper gives tobacco to Mars which of course, rules his Sun, Midheaven, Venus and Mercury conjunction in Scorpio and might explain his love for the plant. One friend described him,

‘He was an excellent companion, and for the most part of a merry temper.’

Sometime in late 1633 or early 1634 Culpeper eloped with his secret lover (Venus in Scorpio), she was an heiress (Scorpio), her father was reported to be one of the noblest and wealthiest in Sussex. She had an estate worth £2000 (around £300k) and a yearly income of £500. Knowing that her family would stop the match, they arranged to elope and marry in a church in Lewes, Sussex. Nicholas travelled by coach, his lady and her maid, weighed down with all the jewels they could carry, by foot. Suddenly a thunderstorm broke and,

‘…fearful claps of thunder surrounded with flames of fire and flashes of lightning, with some of which Mr Culpeper’s fair mistress was so stricken, that she immediately fell down dead.’

This extraordinary event was to blight his short life. We do not have the exact date but looking at the astrology we can guess. On 27th April 1634, the New Moon fell at 7’ Taurus on his Saturn Pluto conjunction at the IC. Because of this failed elopement, Culpeper’s mother fell ill from shock from which she never recovered (4th house). Culpeper’s grandfather disowned him and threw him out of the house (Saturn, Pluto 4th house). This sounds like a New Moon on Saturn/Pluto. New Moon are judged as baleful influences in horary and electional astrology. Saturn, the ruler of his Ascendant and already oppressed by Pluto at the 4th house cusp which represents home, a parent and where the native belongs, their tribe. Culpeper was made homeless and cast out from his family, (4th) and forever changed (Ascendant).

In March of that year, Saturn was a 21’ Sagittarius, opposing his Moon, Jupiter was conjunct his Moon on the 27th of February. His progressed Saturn was also opposite his Moon which may have been why Culpeper chose this time to elope, as Saturn rules binding legal agreements (Marriage) and the Moon represents his spouse as ruler of the 7th. Whether he made an election for the day is unknown, but in any event it was a personal tragedy for him.

In a state ‘of deep melancholy’ Culpeper pitched up in London where he used his remaining money to pay to be apprenticed to an Apothecary. As Saturn was his chart ruler, we can see the positive expression of this tragedy bringing him to his life’s work, which he might not have undertaken if he married a wealthy woman, and the source of his enduring fame, Herbalism.

Apothecaries prepared the medicines which physicians prescribed, at least that was the theory. In practice, there was a great deal of competition between the two. Doctors were university educated and could read and write Latin, while apothecaries were skilled craftsmen and occasionally women. Apothecaries sold medicines in their shops and collected and prepared the herbal remedies from the surrounding countryside. As a university educated man, Culpeper straddled both worlds and managed to alienate both the College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries.

Where can we see his constant battles with authority? His glorious if demanding Mars in Leo is square a combative, power hungry and sarcastic Mercury in Scorpio and toxic, vengeful Venus in Scorpio, making two arms of a T square which also picks up the oppressed and oppressive Saturn, Pluto in Taurus. All in fixed signs, this is a man who does not give up but hounds and snaps and derides his opponents in cutting language (Mercury in Scorpio) and resists any attempts to curtail his freedom (Mars in Leo). His Jupiter in Sagittarius gives him a sure sense that he is right and brings him into legal battles (Jupiter/ Sagittarius) against the Church (Saturn) which he brought on himself (12th house of self-undoing). Culpeper’s language is excoriating,

‘Men are led by the noses (worse than beasts, as though oppression had already made them mad) by a company of proud, insulting, domineering doctors’

On December 17th, 1642, Culpeper was taken to court accused of witchcraft. This was a terrifying charge as the punishment was being slowly burned alive, an agonising death. The Sun on that day was conjunct Culpeper’s lucky Jupiter (25’Sagittarius) and the Moon had just entered Scorpio so would have passed over his Sun during the trial. Uranus was exactly conjunct his Venus at (14’Scorpio 52). The complainant was a woman, Sarah Lynge, who claimed Culpeper gave her a medicine had caused her ‘to waste away’ and said it was due to witchcraft. Interestingly Venus was conjunct Culpeper’s Chiron at 11’Aquarius 48, a woman (Venus) attacking his craft and his reputation (Chiron in the 1st house). Uranus proved to be stronger than Venus and Culpeper was acquitted.

But his troubles were not over. In January 1643 the Society of Apothecaries demanded that Culpeper be sacked, he was working as an unqualified assistant to an Apothecary, Leadbetter. The reasons are not clear, but Culpeper’s radical politics may have been a factor. London was in turmoil as it prepared for a battle against the King, Charles, I. Ordinary men and women joined the rebellion against the unpopular Monarch.

Again, this proved to be a positive. Exiled, Culpeper moved to Spitalfields, outside of the City of London and was therefore no longer subject to the City’s laws or restrictions.Culpeper established a medical practice, incorporating his radical politics. He charged little or nothing to his patients, and was inundated with work, sometimes seeing 40 patients in a day.  

The political situation continued to deteriorate. In 1643 a Republican army was raised to fight the King who had fled the City. At the battle of Naseby, on the 21st of September, the King and his army were routed. The Republicans returned triumphant to London. Unfortunately, Culpeper, who had been treating wounded soldiers, was seriously wounded in the chest. Saturn was transiting by opposition to his 8th house Neptune at (4’Aries) and Mars was conjunct Neptune at (6’Libra). In other words, both the malefics (Saturn and Mars) were transiting a planet in his 8th house of death. Uranus, the planet of violence, was conjunct his Venus at 14’07 Scorpio. Venus rules his 4th house of endings and is the almuten of the chart. Although, Culpeper didn’t die on the battlefield, the wound was the cause of his premature death.

From 1643 until his death in 1654, Culpeper dedicated himself to transforming medicine and bringing to the people. In August 1649 Culpeper published his translation of the Pharmacopeia Londonesis (London book of medicines) from Latin to English under the title, The Physical Directory. This was a radical act, for as long as it was in a language the majority could not understand, the trade secrets of the Physicians and Apothecaries were safe. Once in English, the literate could see all the recipes and make them for themselves. The book was an instant success. In his note to the reader, Culpeper said,

‘Three kinds of people mainly disease the people – priests, physicians and lawyers – the one deceives men in matters belonging to their souls, the other in matters belonging to their bodies, the third in matters belonging to their estate.’

This was the beginning of his successful publishing career. Saturn was at 26’ Gemini opposing his natal Jupiter (publishing) and Jupiter was conjunct his natal Neptune at (5’ Libra). His progressions for that year included, progressed Jupiter conjunct his Ascendant (beneficial change to his public persona, publishing and the law), progressed Venus was at 25’ Sagittarius conjunct his natal Jupiter (Venus is money and we can supposed he was made wealthy by his success). Progressed Mercury was opposite his 6th house Moon at 21’ Sagittarius, Culpeper complained the translation was very hard work, as much of the Latin had been corrupted and the meanings were nonsensical, (6th house).

Culpeper, and his publisher Peter Cole were both hauled up by the new Parliamentary authorities to explain themselves. Undeterred, next year they released a second edition with a more incendiary introduction,

‘Books [are] published in French and Latin so that the ‘Commonality’ could be kept in ignorance so they might be better made slaves of.’

In the third edition, in 1651, Culpeper wrote,

‘College [of Physicians], thou art diseased, the cause is Mammon (greed)… cheat the rich and neglect the poor.’

It could be argued that not much has changed since then.

Culpeper and Cole went on to publish A Directory for Midwives, and An Astrological Judgement of Diseases both in 1651. The Directory for Midwives was written to support female midwives whose profession was under attack by male doctors (it was a lucrative business). Culpeper advised women not to,

‘…call for the help of man-midwife, which is a disparagement not only to yourselves, but also to your profession.’

In comparison to the manuals for midwives written by doctors, few if any had attended a birth, Manual for Midwives contained a hands-on, practical guide for pregnancy and childbirth that ordinary midwives could follow.

On 6th November 1652, Culpeper finished The English Physician, which was later called Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. It was priced at a very affordable 3 pence so ordinary folk could afford it. On that day, the Sun was conjunct his Venus at 14’ Scorpio, Uranus was conjunct his Jupiter at 24’20 Sagittarius, Neptune was opposite his Moon at 19’56 Sagittarius and Saturn was applying to a conjunction of his Mars at 16’ Leo. Again, highlighting his almuten Venus, his Jupiter for publishing and Uranus the radical and iconoclast.

Exhausted by his efforts, Culpeper succumbed to tuberculosis on 10th January 1654, aged thirty-seven. His progressed Jupiter was applying to conjunct his Ascendant at 3’51 Capricorn, showing publishing and good fortune, and perhaps release from his body (Ascendant), while progressed Saturn was applying to conjunct his natal Saturn at 4’15 Taurus, suggesting enduring fame and authority.

The English Physician is the one of the most popular and enduring, non-religious books in English publishing and the longest to remain in continual print.

‘This not being pleasing, and less profitable to me, I consulted with my two brothers, Dr. Reason and Dr. Experience, and took a voyage to visit my mother Nature, by whose advice, together with the help of Dr. Diligence, I at last obtained my desire; and, being warned by Mr. Honesty, a stranger in our days, to publish it to the world, I have done it.’

[1] For more details on how to calculate the Temperament see my Traditional Western Herbal Medicine (2019) Aeon Books, London.

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