Nicholas Culpeper ~ A Poem



Nicholas Culpeper was a herbalist and physician. Not only did he write the widely owned and treasured compendium of  domestic wisdom on the preparation of healing herbs known as his Completer Herbal, he and his wife, Alice also ran the first free medical clinic which administered treatment to people regardless of their ability to pay for it. Despite the shortness of his life and its rather tragic nature he managed to find time to strike a major blow for the democratisation of medicine as well, translating  from Latin into English the medical instructions of the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, the handbook of the elite circle of courtesan doctors of the College of Physicians.

The great man was born exactly 400 years ago today and The Gull would like to pay tribute. In a time of perilous danger for the N.H.S. it is worthwhile pausing for a few moments to regard the great depths of his several monumental ideological and practical achievements. One The Gull’s writers, Christopher Cornwell, has written a poem to these ends which The Gull presents here with some pride. Christopher’s debut collection Ergasy will be published by The Lonely Press in spring 2017.

Nicholas Culpeper, Herboil of London, Freeheal.  

The Romans built a wall in London, not far from Spitalfieds,

That runs, on its east side, between two doors,

One where Leadenhall meets Aldgate and one

the Bishopsgate, just south of Liverpool street.

Inside the wall, you find the city, or at least its heart

which is underneath the parapets of Threadneedle Street,

tight and tender loins of it, nestled in Bank’s vaults,

its open mouth muzzled by ventricles of import docks,

the financial district shored up by groynes.

Its gates note, kept at one arm’s length, are named not Latin but old English from demotic Anglo- Saxon or Germanic:

There’s an exit for the beer drinkers northerners, itinerant hop-hawkers,

So they need not disturb supplies of wine to the Minories from southbound vinery street

A valve to stave off Cripples,

Another, Pagan Idols, one for moors – meaning swamp deadland here allegedly, but I would make the case that you still don’t find many black faces moored the city centre

and finally the Newgate, out of which the peasantry goose-drovers tar their tired feet & leave from for home.

Armoured thresholds wherein the prospectors trade and orators speak from cathedral plinths or palatial seats in courts, the beaurocrats martial law whils their plutorental paramours service aristocrats, personal doctors,

judiciary and surgeons – all who speak in Latin.

Prescribe botanic tax, and tax by preparation within the four walls of a  language.

            Equity is simply not the means of prosperity after all

            but an open  window gives the veneer of access to the internal


            Remedium est borage et Labitae

Is all they say after examining your water the Thames is a bank of poxy piss and as much as it may hold from it you will never diagnose a sickness.

These anaesthetist names Humulus Lupulus, Laevigata; layers of words on herb,

Herb doused and flossed by feather; by curates,

Whose gardens grow them

But they don’t know it’s in fact the paddocks, not enclosure

That’ll grow the tender stuff

But anyhow their trefoil – should read clover – feeds the cattle, [1]

drugs the milk which remains ungiven to the painful peasant

slumped and snagged like sheep-wool

on the barbed scratch iron fence, evicted by the wall

enclosing the extorting court; pumped and bled and leeched;

the citizens content to let the croppers farm outside the ward

fertilise the fields so those inside the keep are kept with meals.

Before we could afford the science: the combustion,

the propinquity, entropy, telemetry;

before we afforded the ars poetica scientia,

there was craft and cunning,

before the inkhorns of the south brought their diluvian nostalgia,

– reprises of Greeks and Romans

names before weren’t distanced or called “strange”

– that extended arm of litigation, the prosecuting finger

we were freely queer

to rummage for the borage and the campion grass, clot bur,

unimpinged and unarraigned

bar only to frith a holt for hens away from teeth,

so we were fed instead, in time, on eggs.

Pharmacy here, outside the wall, can be foraged and plucked liked a leaf from Culpeper’s herbal tree,

he rewrote the encrypted recipe, ingredients in our own allotments, taught us how to decoct the unlevied remedy

So now we collect, with our hand sickles, health for

Free at the point of delivery;

This is Culpeper’s glebe, this low Spitalfield, a dent in tall terrain.

[1] Cattle came to mean livestock through its Middle English usage which narrowed the definition of chattel or properties to cattle meaning specifically movable properties and most commonly livestock but before this it had come from the same Latin root as capital; meaning personal wealth measured by caps, or how many heads of animals you own.


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