Benjamin Woolley

Writer, Broadcaster and Academic

The Herbalist

In the mid-seventeenth century, England was visited by the four horsemen of the apocalypse: a civil war which saw levels of slaughter not matched until the Somme; famine in a succession of failed harvests that reduced peasants to ‘anatomies’; epidemics to rival the Black Death; and infant mortality rates that left the mothers of eight or nine children childless. In the midst of these terrible times came Nicholas Culpeper’s Herbal - one of the most popular and enduring books ever published.

Culpeper was a virtual outcast from birth. Rebelling against a tyrannical grandfather and the prospect of a life in the church, he abandoned his university education after a doomed attempt at elopement. Disinherited, he went to London, Milton’s ‘city of refuge, the mansion-house of liberty’. There he was to find his vocation as a herbalist - and a revolutionary.

London’s medical regime was then in the grip of the College of Physicians, a powerful body personified in the ‘immortal’ William Harvey, anatomist, royal physician and discoverer of the circulation of the blood. Working in the underground world of religious sects, secret printing presses and unlicensed apothecary shops, Culpeper challenged this stronghold at the time it was reaching the very pinnacle of its power — and in the process became part of the revolution that toppled a monarchy.

In a spellbinding narrative of impulse, romance and heroism, Benjamin Woolley vividly recreates these momentous struggles and the roots of today’s hopes I and fears about the power of medical science, professional institutions and government. The Herbalist tells the story of a medical rebel who took on the authorities and paid the price.

'This is a wonderful book - a delight to read, fast-moving, informed and passionate in its advocacy.' Roy Strong, Sunday Times

'A passionate debate about patient power and medical theory.' Times Literary Supplement

'Woolley's The Herbalist is riveting.' New Scientist