Medical Knowledge and Medicinal Herbs in the 17th Century

The Newcastle’s Blog Fairy decided it was about time that some of our wonderful members were able to share their knowledge of the period with our delightful blog readers.

Last month we introduced you to one of our members, Anne who has spent her time in the society either being a medic or sharing her medical knowledge of the period on the Living History camps. Anne kindly agreed to be the first to share her knowledge so in our first piece of a more historical nature, as opposed to what we get up to, here is an insight into Medicine and Medical knowledge of the period.

Herbal medicine has been known for thousands of years, sometimes with great skill, sometimes just little bits of information gleaned from verbal teachings from mother, grandmother or other “wise woman”.  There is evidence that the Druids practised herbal medicines, and it is known that the Romans had similar knowledge and must, logically, have left some of that knowledge with our local population. It must be remembered that medical knowledge at the time of the English Civil Wars was far different to the knowledge we now have – so some of the things done then may seem rather weird to us. Equally, quite a lot of the things did work – probably because they used a system of “such and such” made so-and-so feel better, but make sure the dose is small, because another person’s health deteriorated or maybe they even died whilst being given the same treatment but a stronger dose.

For instance, the Romans used to put plantain inside their sandals to prevent blisters – and one you may well wish to try (though I have no idea of its efficacy) – garlands of parsley at feasts because they believed  it stopped them from getting drunk.

By the early to mid-1600s witchcraft was less prolific, but did sometimes happen.  What often happened would go something like this:

A woman in village A and another woman in village B would both prescribe one specific herb for their patients – however, the patient in village B would die, whereas the patient in village A would survive… then someone would accuse the woman in village A of being a witch because the patient had survived (on the grounds that both had been treated with the same herb, and therefore the only way that patient could have survived was witchcraft).  The fact that the Village B patient had taken a much larger (more dangerous) dose was ignored or not known.  Survival was solely due to witchcraft.

Nicholas Culpeper – born 1615 – was the son of a vicar from Ockley (on the border between Surrey and Sussex), but because his father died just before he was born, his mother took him back to her father’s vicarage in nearby Isfield where they lived throughout his childhood.  His grandfather was very strict, and Nicholas was taught at home, followed by time at Cambridge from the age of 16 so that his knowledge of  Latin, astronomy, music and maths was way beyond his years.  This meant however, that by the time he left home to seek employment in London (having rejected his grandfather’s wish for him to go into the Church) he was very well qualified to be taken on as an apprentice herbalist by Simon White in Temple Bar.

Nicholas Culpeper

It is reasonably certain that he had learnt quite a bit about herbs from his mother and the female servants – whenever he could, he would escape to the kitchens as a respite from his grandfather’s strictures.  As Culpeper’s knowledge increased he became more certain that herbal medicine should be available to almost everyone – rather than the then current system of only a few people having sufficient capital to pay “Doctors” for treatment. In 1652, therefore, he published his complete herbal “The English Physitian”. He listed all the known herbal remedies, with dosages and advice on how the remedy should be applied.  As you can imagine, this didn’t go down too well with the local doctors, because their income would naturally suffer.  At approximately the same time the Society of Apothecaries opened The Chelsea Physic Garden, which soon became quite famous.

Incidentally, when the English Civil Wars started he joined up, on the side of the Parliamentarians and was eventually wounded in the chest, although he did recover.

During the English Civil Wars much of the nursing care for the common soldier was given by the female camp followers – quite often treating the sort of wounds they had never seen before.  On the other hand, the care of the officers was mainly carried out by Barber-Surgeons who had honed their skills abroad during the Thirty Years War which had only just finished.  (Back in 1525 the Company of Barbers and the Guild of Surgeons had amalgamated.  Surgery (or more properly, chirurgery as it was then known) was classed as a manual occupation and learned via apprenticeship.  Theoretically, this amalgamation was to ensure that each group stuck to its own job, so to speak…and yet by 1543 they had already agreed that “every person being the King’s subject, having knowledge and experience, should be allowed to practise”.

The worst of the wounded (officer or soldier) were left on the battlefield to breathe their last.  Lots of the wounds were beyond the skill of anyone at that time – but equally it is amazing how many wounded men actually survived.  Any soldier who was considered to be saveable, was helped back to camp (either on foot or loaded into a wagon) and off-loaded into the care of the women.  Amputations by the Barber-Surgeons were fairly common and surprisingly many actually recovered and ended up wearing a wooden leg, or maybe helping future fighting – even though they had only got one arm, a soldier could be used to prime a cannon with gunpowder for instance, or help unload supplies from a wagon – or drive that wagon when the army marched onward.

Wherever it was possible, the men were treated sufficiently well that they could continue – it was important that they always had sufficient soldiers to make an attack or help with a siege.   Brutally, if they were considered to be unable to continue marching and fighting – they were abandoned to a life of begging, as neither army could afford to keep hangers on….and there was no means of providing them with pensions.

Often this sort of rough treatment meant that some soldiers ended up with horrific scars.  A sword cut will eventually heal, but because of a lack of proper suturing, the edges of the wound would be raised and nasty looking.  Again, remember that the Barber-Surgeons could do decent suturing – but often the ordinary men had to somehow manage without his help most of the time.  Obviously quite a few wounds were on the face, maybe the loss of an eye, but so long as they could stand up they continued to fight.  Apart from the odd officer, no-one was able to beg a lift on one of the supply wagons. They got up and carried on, or collapsed on the field or camp-site and when the time came to march, they were just left behind.

Some of the skills known to the Barber-Surgeons were actually known as far back as Roman times.  It is certainly known that the Roman soldier-surgeon knew about infection causes (e.g. a wound where cloth from the outside was driven into a wound and left there – the wound wouldn’t heal, so they knew to prise the cloth out).  Whether this was just handed down knowledge (word of mouth) or whether each generation of soldier or surgeon managed to have someone in the loop who could teach and pass on the necessary skills, I don’t know, but almost certainly this is what happened.

Most of the women would have some knowledge of herbs – they were never just for cooking!  Often very simple, they were used daily (for headache, burns, “female” problems), or more occasionally if someone was very ill.  They also used herbs for dyeing, and thus would be very familiar with recognition of each herb and how it was to be used.  Although it was possible to spin then weave sheep’s wool in its original state and colour, if wool was soaked in warm water containing the stalks and leaves of plants the colour could be changed – lavender dyes different shades of yellow, dependent upon how much plant is used, and how long it is soaked for.

Medicinal use of plants called for different parts of the plant to be used, some used the flower head, some the stalk or the roots.  Some were used fresh, and some had to be dried.  Just as important was to know which ones were dangerous – obviously, it didn’t do your reputation any good if your patient died.

Sometimes the claims for any particular plant were rather broad sweeping – one that sticks in my mind is Culpepper claiming that rose petals could cure everything from acne to leprosy.


The herbs that you and I see growing on roadside verges, or on country lanes, are the same ones the women would have used. Cowslip, heartsease, Herb Robert, white deadnettle, or ones they  maybe grew in the same patch of ground as they kept a pig or hens – sage, thyme, rosemary, lavender. This meant that, wherever they may have made camp, or as they walked along behind the army – they could still collect and save for whenever they might be needed.


Thank you so much to Anne for writing this piece, it was really interesting and we look forward to bringing you more pieces like this from other members over the coming months!

Images provided by Anne.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.