Culpeper’s herbs and advice for pregnant and nursing mothers.

Another find at the Friends of the Library bookstore– Culpeper’s Book of Birth: A 17th Century Guide to Having Lusty Children edited and with an introduction by Ian Thomas. The excerpts in this delicately-illustrated book were taken from Nicholas Culpeper’s A Directory for Midwives published over 300 years ago. Culpeper was a famous English herbalist who helped bring herbal remedies to the masses by publishing books and guides on herbs that could be grown and used in a backyard. Only one of his own children survived infancy, which led him “to fix” his “thoughts intently” on the business of childbirth and infancy. His advice and suggestions were authoritative to many English men and women during his time, so I thought it might be interesting to share. Personally, he seems to be quite mistaken about a number of topics.

Appetite many times preceeds from the apprehension of the fancy; fancy conceives meats to be delightful and pleasant, and appetite follows that, when reason itself testifies it to be hurtful.

That poor people such as work hard, and fare hard, and are seldom idle, have more children, and those stronger and lustier of body, and usually longer lived than those that fare idly and live deliciously.

One of my personal favorites:

The reason why a male is conceived, sometimes a female, is the strength of the ssed. If the man’s seed be the strongest, a male is conceived; if the woman’s, a female. The greater light obscures the lesser, by the same rule and that’s the reason why weakly men get most girls, if they get any children at all. There shews a manifest difference between nature and appetite: nature strives to beget its like. Men to beget men, women to beget women: but the men desire girls, and women boys, is an appetite not nature.

And then there is this lovely observation:

Use not the act of copulation too often…. Satiety gluts the womb, and makes it unfit to do its offices and that’s the reason whores have so seldome children, and also the reason why women after long absence of their husbands, when they come again, usually soon conceive.

Advice for laboring includes:

Let her not lie on her back flat but with her back up that she may breathe more freely.

After birth:

So soon as she is laid in her bed, let her drink a draught of burnt white wine, in which you have melted a dram of spermaceti. Let her stir as little as possible maybe till after the fifth, sixth, and seventh daies after delivery, if she be weak. Let her talk as little as may be, for it weakens her. Gossips tales do women little good in such a case. If she goes not well to stool, give her a clyster, made only with the decoction of mallows, and a little red sugar.

On nursing, his logic takes a twist for the fuzzy:

Oh! what a raket do authors make about this, what thwarting and contradicting, not of others only, but of themselves. What reasons do they bring why a woman needs nurse her own child? Some extorted from divinity. Sarah nursed Isaac, thereof every woman must nurse her own child. Why is it not as good an argument, that because David was a king and a prophet, therefore everyman must be king, and every king a prophet.

If you must choose a wet nurse:

What manner of creature a nurse ought to be. If her complexion be fitting to make a nurse, must not her milk be good: did you every see a cherry tree bear crabs. I advise every good woman to choose a nurse that is a sanguine woman, and my reason is because all children in their minority have that complexion predominant.

She is of middle stature, fleshly, but not fat; of a merry pleasant cheerful countenance, a ruddy color, very clear skin that you may see her veins through it. She loves company, cannot endure to be alone; not given to anger, but infinitely to playing and singing; she delights much in children, and therefore is the fittest nurse for one. Let her not be too poor, for if she wants, so must the child.

When Culpeper gets into herbalism, which he knows something about, he is quite informative. For example, his recipes for increasing milk production in a nursing mother or wet nurse:

To breed milk, give things that breed much and good blood, of easie concoction. Medicines to breed milk are all fennel roots and all greens… They increase milk, roots of smallage, seeds of parsley, dill, basil, anise, rocket.

Compounds are: take green fennel, parsley, each a handful; barley two pugils, red prease half an ounce: boil them and with sugar sweeten them or in chicken broth. Or, take green fennel six drams, barley two pugils, boil them in broth and strain them. Or, take fennel seed six drams, anise a dram and a half, rocket seed half a dram: give a dram or two in broth.

Herbs that do correct milk are these, if it be too hot, endive, and succory, lettuce, sorrel, pulsane, and plantain. If too cold, borage, bugloss, vervain, mother of time, cinnamon, and to be brief, whatever strengthens the child in the womb, amends the milk after the woman is delivered. (Note that he sees the woman as a passive force in labor– she “is delivered” as opposed to “she delivers”.) That thistle which is commonly called Our Ladies Thistle, because the papists thought good to dedicate it to the Blessed Virgin, whether out of a fond conceit that she amended her milk by it, I know not, yet this I know, few things growing, breed more and better milk in nurses, than that doth, and that is.

Culpeper then delves into how the newborn infant must be treated to grow “lusty”:

Keep it from cold air and not too hot…. Let it not be frighted, not left alone sleeping or waking lest it receive hurt. Let is sleep long, carried in the arms often and give it the dug, but fill not his stomach too much with milk… A little crying empties the brain and enlargeth the lungs.

The breathing in of ill air, and the eating of ill diet is the cause of most infirmities.

And he just can’t help himself:

Divide all the women in London into twenty parts, and you shall not find one of the twenty fit to be a nurse to her own child, and that for these reasons.

1. Because they give them suck too long.

2. Because they cocker them in their youth.

And that’s the reason why in time, some mothers are forced to curse their children for stubbornness and ill conditions.

If the child be strong and healthy, a year is enough in all conscience for it to suck. Suck being ordained no longer, than until they can digest other food. The fondness of mothers to children doth them more mischief than the devil… in letting them suck too long. Unnatural food in their infancy, and cockering in their youth, will make a devil of a saint.

Alas, my poor children, what will become of them with so much cockering?