Breaking Barriers: The Medical Texts of Nicholas Culpeper

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654)

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) made use of relaxed copyright enforcement and medical regulation during the English Civil War to popularize medical knowledge and facilitate better healthcare for the poor.

Nicholas Culpeper’s Anatomy of the Body of Man, published in 1653, not only contributed to a great leap forward in medical knowledge but was also positioned at the nexus of religious, political, and scientific upheaval in England. Both Culpeper and his publisher Peter Cole were political and religious activists who were influenced by their radical beliefs to create medical texts in the vernacular. They opposed institutions that restricted access to affordable healthcare by closing the gap between highly- and inadequately-trained surgeons, physicians, and apothecaries. Thus Culpeper’s Anatomy of the Body of Man was revolutionary and innovative for its sociopolitical goals and intended audience more so than its actual content.

Born in 1616 to an established family of gentry, Nicholas Culpeper parted from his father and grandfather’s footsteps when he turned to studying astrology and astrological medicine. Both Culpeper’s father and grandfather had been men of the cloth—a minister and a Puritan rector, respectively. Accordingly, Culpeper was educated in the classics and attended Cambridge University to prepare for a career as a clergyman in the Church of England. Before completing his studies, however, he dropped out and began training as an apothecary.

Title page to Nicholas Culpeper's translation of  Johann Vesling’s Anatomy of the Body of Man.

Title page to Nicholas Culpeper’s translation of Johann Vesling’s Anatomy of the Body of Man, QM21 .V4713 1653 General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College. At the top of the page, a previous owner inscribed “James Woods owns me.”

Culpeper was apprenticed three separate times, but failed to complete each apprenticeship, perhaps because he was stigmatized by his Puritan affiliations. Nevertheless, he entered the employment of Samuel Ledbetter, with whom he had formerly been apprenticed, and then he began publishing the texts that made him infamous. Beginning in 1649, Culpeper began compiling his own astrological and medical works, as well as translating Latin texts to English, such as The Anatomy of the Body of Man published by Johann Vesling in Latin in 1641.

When Culpeper began practicing with Ledbetter, medical publishing was controlled by two groups: the College of Physicians, which had authority over the practice of medicine, and the Stationers’ Company, which controlled the copy and printing rights of texts. However, when increasing tension between the king and parliament festered into Civil War in 1642, every apothecary, army surgeon, and amateur physician needed to have access to basic medical and pharmaceutical knowledge, and there was a breakdown in both hierarchies. The Stationer’s Company lost their ability to enforce copyrights, and the new government opposed the rigid control of the College. Publisher Peter Cole took advantage of this opportunity to collaborate with Culpeper, a like-minded Independent and a Puritan with similar political and religious aims.

Diagram accompanying the first chapter of Culpeper's text.

Diagram showing “the Effigies of a living Man” and “the common coverings of the Body of Man,” accompanying the first chapter of Culpeper’s text. The heavy wear on the diagram inserts suggests that these figures were referenced more often than the text..

Culpeper’s Anatomy of the Body of Man is a twenty-chapter text, printed in folio, detailing the components of the human body, complete with labeled diagrams. The chapters are organized according to a combination of system-based physiology and the physical locations of organs. Each chapter describes the workings of its given topic and is followed by a “Table,” or a copper-plate diagram of that system or organ. The inclusion of twenty-four separate diagram inserts and the fact that the book was printed in folio rather than the cheaper quarto size confirms that this book was not made for the poorest to buy but rather as a reference work for an established, if not necessarily elite, medical practice.

Although Culpeper presented himself as a man of the people, he did not intend for the masses to treat themselves. Instead, he aimed to improve their access to quality healthcare. He believed that his texts would help inadequately trained army surgeons, rural physicians, and apothecaries better treat underserved populations. Other texts provided household cures for home treatment, but Culpeper’s works—including The Anatomy of the Body of Man—were meant to break the elite monopoly on quality healthcare and enable physicians and surgeons of more modest means with the knowledge necessary to serve the masses.

Diagram of the Brain and Skull, from Nicholas Culpeper's translation of Johann Vesling’s Anatomy of the Body of Man.

“This Table shews, the Brain laid bare from the Skull, with the Dura and Pia Mater ; also its Cavities and Processes.” Culpeper was dedicated to making advanced medical knowledge available to surgeons, physicians, and apothecaries of even modest means.

The Burns Library copy of The Anatomy of the Body of Man contains handwritten notes dating from its early use. One, on the final endleaf of the book, reads: “For the Rumaticks, Take Essence of Sasprila, 1 ounce and half Iodine of Potash, one Dram and 8 ounce of water. 2 table spoonefull to be taken 3 times a day.” This note suggests that the book belonged to an apothecary or physician who did not know but needed to remember this general prescription for rheumatic fever, supporting the idea that Culpeper’s intended audience included lesser-trained healthcare providers.

Endleaf to Johann Vesling's Anatomy of the Body of Man, bearing the inscription “For the Rumaticks, Take Essence of Sasprila, 1 ounce and half Iodine of Potash, one Dram and 8 ounce of water. 2 table spoonefull to be taken 3 times a day.”

Endleaf to the Burns Library copy of The Anatomy of the Body of Man. The inscription—a treatment for rheumatic fever—suggests that this copy did belong to a practicing physician, albeit one who had trouble recalling prescriptions for common ailments.

Ultimately, Culpeper’s legacy was not the science he printed in his works, but his synthesis of the social, political and religious movements that framed his publishing career. As the English Civil War disrupted the authority of royally sponsored institutions like the College of Physicians and the Stationers’ Company, religious and political radicals such as Peter Cole and Nicholas Culpeper took advantage of weakened restrictions to publish popular and controversial works for the benefit of the people. To the detriment of elite physicians and apothecaries, Culpeper published vernacular and accessible medical and herbal works that allowed poorer, less-educated medical professionals to provide the masses with accurate and affordable treatments. Thus works such as The Anatomy of the Body of Man broadened basic medical knowledge and revolutionized the practice of western medicine.

If you would like to peruse this volume, visit the John J. Burns Library Reading Room. For more information, contact the Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  • Aashana Dhruva, BC ’15 & Student in Professor Virginia Reinburg’s Fall 2014 Early Printed Books: History and Craft.

This blog post comes from the Early Printed Books: History and Craft class, which was taught by BC History Professor Virginia Reinburg in Fall 2014.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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