Culpeper’s Complete Herbal
By Nicholas Culpeper
Annotated by J.J. Pursell
Publisher: Andrews McMeel
Rerelease Date: October 2022
Nicholas Culpeper was an extraordinary figure of the 17th century. Frustrated with the lack of medicine and treatment available to those with no money, Culpeper, a fairly well-to-do gentleman, abandoned his studies at Cambridge University and went to become an apprentice at a London-based apothecary. From there, he set up his own pharmacy and went on to publish “The Complete Herbal” in 1652/53. This was despite twice being accused of witchcraft, tried, and acquitted. Culpeper went against the grain and didn’t let the authorities dissuade him from his path.
The Complete Herbal describes over 300 herbs and plants, their medical uses, and even recipes for helping with particular ailments. It’s always been a popular resource, even though modern science doesn’t always back Mr Culpeper’s assertations. There are, though, plenty of entries where the described use is still relevant today.
This new version of Culpeper is quite unique in that it’s annotated for herbalists, healers, and witches. It’s a lovely addition to include magical practitioners as well as those wanting to explore medical herbalism. It’s also quite a savvy move by the publisher, as they must be aware of the modern resurgence in witchcraft and magical herbalism, and possibly hope to corner that market.
It’s worth noting that the text this version uses is the 1850 edition originally published by Thomas Kelly of London. This is widely available as an e-book, and physical copies often fetch upward of £400 at auction! However, the new edition is far less costly and gives readers the added benefit of Dr Pursell’s annotations. These notes provide a current perspective on each plant, including whether the claimed medical use is correct, and how safe the plant is to handle. Dr Pursell also includes notes on other uses of the plant at the time the book was originally written, for example, Culpeper doesn’t mention the fact that Adder’s Tongue, Ophioglossum vulgatum, was used in the 17th century as an aphrodisiac. Pursell describes a charm for attraction which is very interesting and definitely a notable titbit for witches interested in love magic.
The other important difference with this new edition is that plants include their Latin names as well as their common or folk names. This is a massive change as, when Culpeper first wrote the book, Latin names for organisms weren’t standardised. This only happened in the 1700’s, thanks to naturalist Carl Linnaeus. Having the Latin name means that readers are able to quickly identify and source relevant plants, rather than having to rely on a common name that could be used for several different plants with wildly varying properties.
The publisher’s note is really useful in describing the benefits and limitations of the book; for example, Culpeper was guilty of stating, “This [plant] is so well known that it needs no description”, but of course, readers could really do with that description to ensure they’re looking at the right plant! The publisher is also keen to point out that this book isn’t for medical advice, and that Culpeper’s recommendations for herbs don’t always stack up with modern research. As always, get advice from a medical professional before using any medicine, herbal or otherwise.
Dr Pursell does a great job in the introduction of explaining and elevating the role of herbal medicine, and introducing Mr Culpeper and his history, including the interesting fact of his passion to make medicine available to the general public.
Shut up and take my money! Seriously, I’m a huge Culpeper fan, not just because so much of his herbalism crosses the boundaries of the physical and the metaphysical—every plant has its own astrological virtues, for example—but because he was a true radical of his time, breaking down barriers so that everyone could benefit from freely available medical plants.
This edition of The Complete Herbal is a beautiful re-rendering. The original text is there in its entirety, including Culpeper’s often catty comments about his peers, and his original “epistle” to the readers. The beautiful illustrations are now dispersed throughout the book rather than on separate “plates”, as was the method when the 19th century version was published. That means you can see and read about the plant together, rather than having to constantly flick backward and forward.
Finally, Dr Pursell’s notes help the reader remain grounded in the here and now, appreciating the book as a product of its time while enjoying the richness of information from both the 17th and 21st centuries. This won’t replace my original Culpeper, because that’s a treasured volume that I was lucky enough to source for a very reasonable price! But when I want facts about one of Culpeper’s herbs that stand up to modern science? It’s this New Edition I’ll be reaching for.
About the Author
Nicholas Culpeper lived between 1616 and 1654 and is considered one of the best sources for understanding herbal medicine and lore during this period. He boasted that he only wrote with experience, reason, diligence, and honesty, and got his information by spending time in nature. Culpeper felt that the physicians of the time were only in it for the money, and he would sometimes see 40 patients a day, examining them holistically just as a modern herbalist today would. He purposefully avoided overly formal language in his books so that they were accessible to poorer (which then meant less educated) folks, and recognised that practices such as bloodletting were harmful and outdated. Culpeper massively influenced modern medicine in North America, and many of the plants brought over by colonists were included because of Culpeper’s recommendations.
Dr J.J. Pursell ND, LAc, is a fully licensed naturopathic physician, an acupuncturist, and a trainer in herbal medicine. Her extensive experience shines through the multiple books she’s written including The Herbal apothecary, Medicinal Herbs for Immune Defense, and more. Find out more about Dr J.J. Pursell on her Instagram.
About the Author:
Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist and content creator. She’s a nature-based witch, obsessed with Irish and British Paganism and Folklore, plus she’s a massive plant nerd. She’s also a long-time Hekate devotee and a newbie Lokean. She works extensively with the UK Pagan Federation, including editing their bi-annual children’s magazine. Mabh is a passionate environmentalist and an advocate for inclusiveness and positive social transformation.
Mabh is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors, Pagan Portals – Celtic Witchcraft: Modern Witchcraft Meets Celtic Ways, and most recently, Practically Pagan: An Alternative Guide to Planet Friendly Living. Search “Mabh Savage” on Spotify and @Mabherick on all socials.