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Culpeper: an Introduction

This is the Introduction to the Polish translation of Nicholas Culpeper’s Astrological Judgment of Diseases from the Decumbiture of the Sick, to be published by Polskie Towarzystwo Astrologicznie in November 2013.


Astrologers are an odd lot. And our illustrious predecessors are no less strange than the astrologers we see around us now. I would be in no hurry to meet most of those who wrote the ancient texts that are handed down to us as authorities. Such as, for instance, the Scottish astrologer – a contemporary of Nicholas Culpeper, who wrote this book - who changed the spelling of his surname to reflect his certain belief that he was directly descended from the pharaoh Rameses.


But while I would be in no hurry to meet most of them, and would cross the street to avoid meeting several of them, whenever Nicky Culpeper comes to visit I am delighted to drop all I am doing to greet him with tea and a piece of cake. I insist that my students read the book you are now holding in your hands, not even for whatever astrological knowledge they might glean from it, but because I want them to share my pleasure in meeting a quite remarkable man.


Born in 1616, Culpeper entered Cambridge university, where he excelled. He was set for the glittering career, but his heart got in the way. He arranged to elope, planning a secret wedding followed by a period in hiding until the families had recovered from their shock. But on her way to the appointed meeting-place, his beloved was struck by lightning and killed. A Hollywood scriptwriter would reject such an unlikely circumstance as impossible for an audience to accept; but happen it did. Culpeper was devastated. He returned home, never completing his studies. He seems never to have fully recovered from this, but eventually pulled himself together sufficiently to take work as an apothecary – very much at the lower end of the medical profession.


In a long-running struggle, the Royal College of Physicians had sought to maintain a monopoly over paid medical treatment. The apothecaries were allowed to mix and dispense medicines according to the physicians’ prescriptions, but strictly forbidden to diagnose or prescribe according to their own knowledge. Culpeper, an idealistic man of the people, despised the physicians’ attitude, seeing them as interested only in their exorbitant fees – which excluded most of the population from treatment – and determined to keep their patients in ignorance of their own condition by conducting practice in Latin and Greek. He ignored the regulations against diagnosing and prescribing, and was even imprisoned and tried for witchcraft for doing so. He was acquitted.


But what really brought the wrath of the establishment onto his head was using his Cambridge learning to translate the standard medical recipe-book into – oh horror! – English. He was vigorously attacked, the public being warned that every one of his prescriptions was mixed with ‘rebellion or atheism’ and the whole work undertaken only to feed his ‘drunkenness and lechery’. It can seem a little strange that an establishment that had so recently wholeheartedly espoused the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, and now regarded the Latin Bible as a work of heathen superstition, could turn so violently against the translation of a medical text into the same.


Culpeper married in 1640. His wife had money, but his concern with material things was minimal, so it quickly slipped through his fingers as whatever he earned from wealthy patients went to subsidise his treatment of the poor. The tangled mix of religion and politics in the Britain of that age was not dissimilar to what our televisions show us in the Middle East today. Culpeper was a millenarian, eagerly awaiting the certain coming of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth. He wrote astrological almanacs in which he found God’s plan for this blazoned forth in whatever astrological alignment was on its way – just as today we are regularly informed of the imminent end of the world or dawning of a new age of enlightenment. But his reputation rests on this medical works, most notably his Herbal, in which he laboured earnestly to give the common man the knowledge to treat himself by using the plants growing freely all around him.


It is easy to romanticise the past, dreaming that every village had its Babka who by the application of a few herbs could cure all ills. This was not so! Culpeper himself urges modesty and restraint in treatment: ‘let me advise the ignorant not to be too busy with what they have no skill in’. The claims made for herbal medicine are often quite as unrealistic as the commercials produced by the pharmaceutical industry, in which you take one tablet and are not only cured but instantly surrounded by a laughing and loving family. Nonetheless, much of value has been forgotten, and Culpeper can help us recover this lost knowledge.


In 1643 he was wounded in the chest fighting for Parliament against the King in the civil war. A complete recovery proved impossible, the consequences of this wound seemingly plaguing him until his death in 1654, a death from tuberculosis, aided by a little too much wine and a lot too much tobacco.


This book deals with the judgement of illness from decumbiture. Literally a ‘lying down’, a decumbiture is an astrological chart cast for the moment at which the patient decides he can’t stand it any longer and takes to his bed, or at which a sample of the patient’s urine is delivered to the physician. This first chart gives the diagnosis and overall prognosis for the illness. From this chart a series of subsidiary charts is created. These must be read within the parameters established by the first chart, and show how the illness develops. This allows the physician to adjust the treatment to fit the various stages of the illness.


Judgement is made by assessing the balance of the four fundamental qualities of hot, cold, moist and dry within this patient at this time. If we accept that there is meaning in astrology – and, as Culpeper tells us, ‘a physician without astrology is like a pudding without fat’ - this method has the virtue of treating the patient rather than the illness. You are this individual organism with a certain imbalance, not one of a race of identical machines that has developed a standard fault.


The use of an astrological chart also gives an objectivity that removes two of the problems otherwise inherent in humoral medicine. If diagnosis depends upon the physical examination of the patient’s balance of hot, cold, moist and dry, this will inevitably be influenced by the physician’s own balance of hot, cold, moist and dry. If, for instance, you are the physician and your own nature is very hot, you will inevitably see other people as being relatively cold, so your diagnosis may have more to do with your own nature than with the patient’s nature.


Also, if the patient is ill the usual balance of hot, cold, moist and dry will be disrupted. By definition, because this is what illness is: a disruption of our usual balance. The physician making a physical examination of a patient who is ill now cannot see what that patient’s usual balance is. The best the physician can do is make an informed guess, based on the patient’s body type and on anecdotal evidence about the patient’s usual behaviour, neither of which is a reliable guide. Without knowing the balance when the patient is not ill – the humoral ground zero – it is that much more difficult to see how the illness has affected this. The use of the astrological chart solves both these problems.


But beyond the astrological method that Culpeper gives, the greatest joy that this reader, at least, finds here is what we see of the man shining through his writing. We meet someone of intelligence, passionately committed, striving for truth, unafraid to speak his mind and to subject all authority to the scrutiny of his close friends, Dr Reason and Dr Experience, and lacing all with a robust and sturdy humour that finds delight in the human condition, with all its woes, even while longing for that better place upstairs. In his urgent advice that we keep our brains in our heads not in our books, we have one of the most important statements that any astrologer has ever written. If you don’t enjoy the sensation of one brain-cell rubbing against another, astrology is really not for you! And if, as Nicky tells us, a certain astrological testimony shows that the illness will last ‘as long as a cat tied to a pudding’, the reader may pass many a happy hour pondering exactly how long that might be.


I am so pleased to find this book being translated into Polish. Here is Nicky Culpeper: I commend him to you.

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