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Some notes on Culpeper

I recently had the pleasant task of helping the Polish translator of Nicholas Culpeper’s Decumbiture unravel various obscurities of language and reference in that text. These notes may be of use to other readers – and by no means only those who do not have English as their mother tongue, for the language has changed a good deal since the 17th century. My students bump into these problems while reading Lilly. There are many words that are no longer current; more troublesome, though, are words which are familiar but which mean something quite different today from what they did then. A house of offices, for instance, is not a building full of bureaucrats, but a toilet, and a night farmer is not a ploughman with insomnia. A particularly sneaky one is ‘doubt’, which has pretty much reversed its meaning since Lilly’s day. When I say ‘I doubt he did it’ it means I think he didn’t; when Lilly says ‘I doubt he did it’ it (usually) means he suspects that he did. So if you’re reading Culpeper and are puzzled by something, you might find clarification here.


I haven’t given page references, because these vary from edition to edition.


General note:


Canker: I didn’t notice a mention of this in Culpeper’s Decumbiture, but you will find it in other medical texts of that period. Be careful: it doesn’t necessarily translate as cancer. Canker covers all that we now call cancer, but it can also mean something closer to ‘gone a bit yuk’ in a nonspecific way, much as when we talk about the canker in a dog’s ear or on the leaf of a rose. Had Culpeper used a computer he would have been protecting it against cankers, as we protect ours against viruses. The word cancer was being introduced at this time, in its modern meaning; canker may or may not mean the same: look for clues in the context.




Book I


The Book of the Creatures is no book with pages in it. It is the whole of Creation, given to us by God that we might read and understand it like a book, which will guide us to Him.


Avenezra, is Abraham ibn Ezra – who wasn’t Arabian.


Diseases of fasting or emptiness/diseases of plenitude or fullness: this carries a broader meaning than simply malnutrition/overindulgence. It would have been clearer if he had called them diseases of retention (fullness) and expulsion (emptiness). Retention and expulsion are fundamental principles that need to be kept in balance throughout the body, an excess in either direction being problematic. E.g. haemophilia is a disease of expulsion (or = lack of retention); sclerosis is a disease of retention (or = lack of expulsion).


If Saturn have north latitude be sure the sock is bound much in body: sick, not sock! Curious that in the line above he writes ‘If Saturn be retrograde when he comes to the opposition of the Sun…’ Saturn, as also Mars and Jupiter, is always retrograde when it opposes the Sun.



Book II


Chapter I


whereby the sick is either brought to recovery, or death and a sick man can be brought to nothing else, unless you make him a beast of a man: he’s saying that if you are sick there are only two options: you either get better or, sooner or later, you die. A third option would be that you stop being a human being and turn into an animal, but that isn’t going to happen. It’s like saying ‘pigs will fly’.


Hippocrates speaks in down dunstable language: means that he speaks plainly, like a countryman. There is no particular significance in Dunstable: he could have named any small country town.


and so do the time servers in the State: this is just Culpeper having an irrelevant gripe to establish his radical credentials. He’s saying that the ones who carry the greatest power in the machinery of state are those who are prepared to blow with any wind by, e.g. (as he continues) fighting when the trumpet sounds and dancing when the fiddle plays.


the marrow in the body of man: is not literally the bone marrow, nor the vitality, but the very depths of the person, where the vitality is rooted. As someone might say, ‘That film was so scary it chilled me to the marrow’. Or as Venus, trying to seduce Adonis, says:

My beauty as the spring doth yearly grow,

My flesh is soft and plump, my marrow burning. (Venus and Adonis)


Signs of concoction: that whatever humours are causing the illness are beginning to reach the point at which they can be expelled from the body.


’Tis no great marvel the Egyptians should worship garlic and onions for gods, when we deify Christmas-day, though perhaps it may be cloudy: he goes off on a bit of a rant here – as he says a few lines later, ‘Now, what was I talking about before I got onto that? Oh yes…’ His point is simply that it’s where the planets are in the chart that matters, not what day it is. Christmas was a controversial subject. Celebrating it was illegal at the time (from 1647 to 1660), because fundamentalists, of whom Culpeper was one, regarded such celebration as heathen superstition. But there was much opposition to this ban, hence the need for his rant.


Chapter 5


View first the face of heaven: usually the face of heaven would mean the arrangement of the planets. What he means here, though, is 'First cast the chart in order that you may be able to see the face of heaven’.


Paragraph beginning ‘The history of this observation…’: the modern editions of which I’m aware omit a sentence after ‘a cough and a pleurisy’, presumably because of lack of understanding of the Greek terms. The omission reads: ‘The fever came to a tritaiofysis. I never read of this name in Galen, as I remember; I take it both by Monsieur Durat’s description, and also by his figure of heaven, to be the very same which Galen calls kausos.’ Tritaiofysis is a tertian fever (i.e. a fever which reaches a peak every other day); kausos is a burning feeling.My thanks to Fotini Christodoulou for her help with this.


a preterited trine: a separating trine.


leave every man to his own heuretes: to his own ingenuity.


he was as like Mars in Capricorn as a pomewater is to an apple: a pomewater is a particularly large variety of apple, so he was an exaggerated version of Mars in Capricorn.


her doctor begins to play the antique: antique is a variant spelling of antic. He begins to act like a crazy person. Scammony is a purgative.


she went abroad: she went for a walk, not for a trip to a foreign country.


Chapter 9.4


you may before lift up a living man with one finger, then a dead man with both hands: he’s saying that if you apply treatment at the right time it will work, at the wrong time it won’t. Just as it’s very much easier to lift a living person than a dead one (hence the term ‘dead weight’) or, as he continues, for a bird to fly when it has wings than after its wings have been cut off.


Chapter 11


tympanies: swellings or tumours.


rotten fevers/rotten cough: there usually isn’t an arithmetical connection between ancient and modern names for illnesses, such as x = y. Rotten fevers is a general term, not a particular ailment. Something affecting the inward organs, rather than something superficial that an over-the-counter medication puts right. A rotten cough is any moist cough sitting on the lungs.


iliack passion: sharp and stubborn pain in the intestines.


unless you will do as Scogging did, strike him that stands next you, because another abuses you: Scogging was court jester to King Edward IV. This was long before Culpeper’s time, but the term had become proverbial. As with the example here, much of his humour was in highlighting people’s everyday foolishnesses – as is the staple of cabaret today.


Your meseriacks and omentum join the various bits and pieces of the digestive system together. Prispisnis is a misprint in my edition for priapismus: priapism. Running of the reins is the constant need to pee. Rumours called Schirrus is a misprint in the original: tumours called Schirrus, i.e. a hard tumour.


Chapter 11 - Part 3


About Mars: he rules the apprehension, and that’s the reason that choleric men are so quick-witted. Yea, a man of mean apprehension, when he is angry, will make a quicker apprehension in things satisfying his fury then a man of a quicker apprehension hath when he is pleased: apprehension here means understanding, in the sense of catching on. He’s saying that a choleric person who is not usually quick to understand things will get the point very quickly when he is angry.


Synochus non putrida: in contrast to a rotten fever, as above. A not-rotten fever that will soon pass.


I doubt my author is mistaken: an example of my general point at the beginning. Culpeper thinks the author is mistaken.


Chapter 12


Culpeper grumbles how every aphorism in his source contradicts the aphorism before it. This is ever the way with aphorisms. The texts are full of strings of these things, thrown together without the smallest thought to what sense any of them might make.


Chapter 14 - Part 1


Rule 9: the disease will be increased till it has put life to its trumps: till desperate measures are needed to maintain the life.


Rule 20: If in such a case the malevolent cast ill aspects to her: by ‘her’ he means the Moon. He’s making selective quotes from a list of aphorisms, and either he or the list he’s quoting from has omitted the immediate reference.


Rule 36: vis unita fortiori: united strength is stronger


Chapter 14 - Part 3


Rule 1: the patient is more made to be apud inferos, then death is to have him; the man will die, and his life will be cast away absolutely with evil guidance: there is no implication here of death being self-inflicted. It means simply that the patient is on the road to hell. As a fundamentalist, Culpeper didn’t see God’s mercy as stretching very far. Almost all of us would be on that road, so this means nothing more than that the patient is going to die. Makes me wonder why God bothered creating anything, if He’s such a small-minded so & so.


Rule 5: as moral a sign: misprint in my edition for mortal.


Rule 10: an heuretes: a discovery.


Chapter 15


Moon in Aries afflicted by Mars: membranes or pellices: both words mean the same.


Moon in Taurus afflicted by Saturn: precordiacks: the various bits and pieces around the heart.


Moon in Taurus afflicted by Mars: inordinate watching: sleeplessness.


Moon in Gemini afflicted by Saturn: consumption: this is any wasting disease. The precise equation consumption = tuberculosis came much later than Culpeper.


Moon in Gemini afflicted by Saturn: Increase to the 30: increase to the maximum, of course. My best guess at why 30 carries this meaning is from the number of degrees in a sign, hence the maximum possible. Curiously, though, it occurs in American slang from the end of the 19th century, meaning ‘the end’ or even death.


Moon in Virgo afflicted by Saturn: raw crudities: undigested food.


Moon in Virgo afflicted by Saturn: califie: it means to heat up.


Moon in Virgo afflicted by Saturn: adjuvated: helped.


Moon in Virgo afflicted by Mars: flux of the belly: diarrhoea.


Moon in Virgo afflicted by Mars: eversion of the ventricle: the usual meaning of ventricle then was the stomach. Eversion is literally ‘overthrowing’. Indigestion would come under this, though acid flux or vomiting would be more precise.


Moon in Libra afflicted: the pulses remiss: remiss means ‘not behaving properly’. I.e. irregular pulse.


Moon in Sagittarius afflicted by Saturn: fevers with double access: when Culpeper says ‘fear of a fever’ here, he doesn’t mean, of course, that someone is afraid of a fever, but that there is the suspicion that a fever might come. Access means outburst. The idea was that fevers reach a high-point every 3rd or 4th day, depending upon which kind of fever it is. Double access means that it occurs twice as often as it ought to. This idea that tertian fevers recur every third day, quartan every 4th, as you will find stated in modern books on traditional medicine, is a gross over-simplification, though. It was the quality of the symptoms rather than the frequency of the attack that determined which kind of fever it was. As the medical texts on which the astrological writing leans make clear, either kind of fever could recur pretty much whenever it wanted.


Moon in Aquarius afflicted by Saturn: want of due refreshment of nature; the grief taketh the party unequal with remission and intension: want of due refreshment is lack of leisure – time to sit and watch the world go by. ‘Watching’ here, again, is sleeplessness. The ‘unequal with remission and intension’ means the illness gets better and worse to no particular pattern.


Moon in Pisces afflicted by Mars: gross humours: the way you feel after Christmas dinner.


Chapter 16 - 5th observation:


hypochondriacks are the various bits and pieces just below the diaphragm. As with praecordiaks, above, there is no precise translation into modern English. There is no sense of the imaginary here, as with the modern word hypochondria. By ‘heaviness of the breast and hypochondriacks’ he means that he was feeling depressed: his heart was down (heaviness of the breast) and he was suffering from the hypochondriak melancholy. This would now be called depression. The idea was that the – perfectly natural – melancholy in the hks would rise like a vapour and turn the heart and brain to downward thoughts. At about this time, ‘hk melancholy’ began to be criticised as “the courtiers’ disease” because people who should have been doing something active, but instead spent their time hanging around the royal court doing nothing much, were prone to it. Which did not, of course, make it any the less unpleasant. But that idea took hold, so when in 19th-century novels every fashionable woman is having ‘a touch of the vapours’ whenever anything unexpected happens, this is what is meant. Hence the word gaining its modern meaning of imaginary. The ‘hypos’ that Melville mentions in the first paragraph of Moby-Dick is exactly this. He gives a very good description of it:


Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--

having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to

interest me onshore, I thought I would sail about a little and see

the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the

spleen and regulatingthe circulation. Whenever I find myself growing

grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my

soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin

warehouses, and bringing upthe rear of every funeral I meet;

and especially whenever my hypos getsuch an upper hand of me,

that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from

deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking

people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as

soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.

With aphilosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword;

I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this.

If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time

or other, cherish verynearly the same feelings towards the

ocean with me.


My thanks to Marcos Monteiro for the reference to Moby-Dick. I suspect Axl had this paragraph in mind when writing November Rain.


Writing some 20 years before Culpeper’s birth, the playwright John Lyly catches this idea of rising vapours well, when his Pandora, under the malign sway of Saturn, complains ‘What swelling clouds that overcast my brain?’ She continues:


I burst unless by tears they turn to rain.

I grudge and grieve, but know not well whereat,

And rather choose to weep than speak my mind,

For fretful sorrow captivates my tongue.


and then ‘plays the vixen with everything about her’, i.e. makes a cantankerous nuisance of herself.

Another of Lyly’s characters is told, ‘Thy head is full of hedgehogs’. This, however, was not a recognised medical condition at that time.


tropical signs: are Cancer and Capricorn. It is unlikely that Culpeper would have known of any astrology using a non-tropical zodiac.


Presages of life and death, by the body of the patient being sick:





Two ways did the famous Hippocrates leave posterity for the judging of the life and death of sick people…: he’s saying that we must go through the motions of looking at the urine, even though we can get all we need from the chart. Views on the necessity of judging urine, and what, if anything, might be gained from so doing, differed heatedly.


May pass for starling: an old spelling of sterling.


a more infallible judgement upon a disease then a whole tub full of physicians: a barrel full of physicians.


I would bring the business into one single ingress: means ‘I just want to get to the point’. ‘Let’s cut to the chase.’ (Imagine how incomprehensible that phrase will be in a few centuries from now!)


Chapter VII, Presages by the Breath:


there is no digestion found in the urine, because the disease seizeth not the body, but the spirits: there is no evidence of the illness in the urine, because the urine deals with physical things but these illnesses are not physical.


he ails nothing, but only to be out of the world: tired of life. Weltschmerz.



Presages, Book 2:


Chapter 1


play reakes: to play riotous tricks.


vena lectua: my best understanding is that this is the main artery that runs from the heart through the belly to the legs, the name dating from before the circulation of the blood was known, so the distinction between veins and arteries had not yet been made.


Holland-sheers: misprint in my edition: Holland-sheets, i.e. top-quality sheets.


Chapter 7


Slimy, muddy, black, tawny dirty, filthy, stinking urine is usually mortal. Who’d have thought!


Thick urine signifies but a thin body, for he that made it hath a consumption: as above, a consumption is any wasting disease. The idea here is that the urine is thick because the body is pushing out stuff that it should be holding in for its own nourishment.


Chapter 11


If the matter come upon the first Crisis, it comes to tell you death will come upon the second Crisis, unless the Physician be all the wiser to stave him off: doth there not such a one live in the Amen-Corner?: Amen Corner was (and is) a place just across the road from St Paul’s Cathedral. In and before Culpeper’s day, it was a favourite location for preachers. He’s saying that the only medicine in such a case is prayer. At the end of the next paragraph, by ‘rabbis’ he means any priests, not specifically Jewish ones. He despised priests.


Chapter 12


the forlorn hope: the small troop of picked soldiers who would be the first to join battle.


As by a Citizens spending you may judge how long he will hold: if you see how someone spends money you will know how long they will remain in credit, so if you see how their body behaves…


Sometimes the aposthume breaks, and life is undone by it; sometimes it breaks and death runs away for fear of the noise. ’Twere worth the while to know how this might be known. I’ll tell you how, and never go so far as Amen-corner for it either: sometimes the breaking of the aposthume brings death, and sometimes it brings recovery. It's worth knowing how to tell which it is. I'll tell you how - and you don't need to pray for divine inspiration over this.



Presages, Book 3:


Chapter 3


Uvula, gargarion, columella: all mean the same, which is the thing that looks a bit like a finger hanging down at the back of your mouth.


Physicians love to trouble your pates with hard words, for if they would write plain English they could not make silly people believe wonders, and then their Diana would down: the ‘hard words’ are them speaking in Greek or Latin, not in English, to preserve their air of authority. He means Diana as the Moon-goddess: i.e. their Moon, which is now so full of itself (full of light) would fade away, as the Moon loses its light, if they were to speak plainly.


a man may as well plead Excise, as Custom for it, for ought I know: excise and custom mean the same: a tax, with a pun on excise as cutting out and custom as the thing that is commonly done. What he means is: I can’t see any reason to do this, except that people have always done it.


our Company of Chyrurgeons Flux for the French pox, for want of care or skill, or something else: flux is a verb here: he means that the Company of Surgeons let blood. The French pox is syphilis. His point is that it isn’t necessary to let blood for syphilis: giving purgative medicine will do just as well.


Chapter 4


Dame Nature is like a prince in the body, and holds in tenure by soccage under Almighty God: if you hold a piece of land by soccage you have been granted the use of it, part of the deal being that you must pay homage at the court of the one who granted it to you. So Dame Nature has the use of the body, but under the royal authority of God.


Infallible signs to discern of what Complexion:


fumosities: vapours.


superficies: the bits on the outside. Meaning just that these people don’t have long limbs.


rhumatique matter: rheumatic matter, i.e. phlegm. As you will know from the phlegm you’ve had in your nose at different stages of a cold, this comes in various forms, from very liquid to the thick and revolting.


they have much superfluity in the nose: superfluity is unnecessary stuff. In another context this could mean that they have lots of mucus, but that wouldn't fit here, because he’s talking about people whose nature is very dry. He means that they have a big nose. The implication about the size of something else was so standard at the time that Culpeper doesn't need to mention it.


sanguine phlegmatique men are higher of stature then sanguine, because more superfluities are engendered in their bodies: again, unnecessary stuff'. They are taller because their bodies produce more material than is needed.



It was interesting to read Culpeper’s example decumbitures again. The way he plays fast and loose with the testimonies, he could prove just about anything from any chart.

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