Plato, Bacon and the Puritan Apothecary: The Case of Nicholas Culpeper


During the seventeenth century the London apothecaries, most of them Puritans, sought to destroy the control the London College of Physicians exercised over the practice of medicine in the capital. Cromwell's success in the Civil War gave the apothecaries the advantage in this fight, and the major weapon they used against the College was translation of the Latin professional literature into English and wide dissemination of the translations, which often included some very unbridled footnotes to embarass the College. The most important of these apothecary-translators was Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654). His practice in both medicine and translation is typical of the Puritan tradition in combining four influences: the philosophy of Francis Bacon, medieval interpretations of Ovid's account of Creation (Metamorphoses I.85), the Platonist flavour of medieval alchemy, and the Bible, particularly as translated by the Calvinists (the "Geneva Bible"). Culpeper was writing for a public that saw no distinction between secular and religious knowledge, and which took from Bacon and Seneca the conviction that polished language could not co-exist with truth. Thus his translation style, taken ultimately from the Puritan pulpit and schoolroom, is unadorned, accurate, and literal in that his versions respect the discourse order and content of the original.

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The publication lists of the printers in the East End of London during Cromwell's time would suggest that religion and hypocondria were the ruling passions in Interregnum England. But though the staple of the publishers' lists is religious tracts and medical books, they all have a political tinge to them, be they originals or translations. Many of these writers, particularly the apothecaries among them, were "Levellers", Puritans dedicated to the destruction of social and religious privilege in England, and acute enough to see past the obvious advantages of political power and money to those conferred by knowledge and the closed shop. In separating the Company of Apothecaries from the Grocers' Guild in 1618 King James I had given the College of Physicians control over the practice of medicine in London and its environs, which included the duty of publishing a pharmacopoeia, the right to demand that the apothecaries of the capital followed the College's pharmacopoeia and "did not practice medicine", and the power of policing their demands. So after the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1648 they set about humbling those three great menaces to society: the lawyer, the priest, and the physician.

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