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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 20th March 2013

I wrote last month about an email from Dr Henry Oakeley explaining how Eranthis hyemalis came by its common name of winter aconite. The email exchange continued and moved onto the general topic of plant signatures.

I’ve always read that the term ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ was coined by William Coles in his 1655 book ‘The Art of Simpling’ though I knew that Pliny wrote about the concept when saying that the seeds of Lithospermum officinale, gromwell, show it should be used to treat stones.

Lithospermum officinale, gromwell

Lithospermum officinale, gromwell

Dr. Oakeley pointed out that ‘signatures’ are referred to by a number of writers from ancient Greece and later so I assumed that meant Coles had simply added the ‘Doctrine of’ to the process.

The way to resolve the matter was, of course, to get a copy of the book and see for myself. Thanks to one of those facsimile print services it was easy enough to do though it meant waiting a while for delivery.

It’s an interesting book for a number of reasons unconnected with the signatures issue so I’ll dispense with that first. The book has 33 chapters in 113 pages so each is very brief. The chapter on signatures covers only three pages and the phrase ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ does not appear. So, if Coles did not coin it, who did? That’s a mystery for another day.

Before leaving signatures, I was interested to see that Coles has a chapter ‘Of plants, that have no signatures’. In this he points out that just because a plant does not have a signature does not mean it has no medicinal use though he says it requires ‘great Courage and Industry’ to find out these uses in the absence of God given help from the appearance of the plant.

That may mean I have to revise my talks when dealing with the work of Dr. William Withering in the 18th century on the use of the Digitalis genus, foxglove, to treat the dropsy. I’ve been saying that a key part of his work was the realisation that the absence of any signature on the foxglove did not mean it had no uses and that this opened people’s eyes to the notion that plants could be used medicinally without this visual help. It seems this was known before but, perhaps, it is one of those things that people didn’t really appreciate.

Having dealt with Coles’ writing on the matter of signatures, and raised as many questions as I answered, I want to turn to the rest of the book.

In the preface, Coles laments that the art of simpling has become contemptible and anyone practising it is considered ‘a simple fellow’ and his intention is to bring people back to the notion of trusting God to have provided all that is required for the treatment of a particular condition in a single plant rather than needing the complex potions that were in favour in Coles’ time. There’s a contemporary resonance to that argument given that some advocates of Cannabis sativa, marijuana, legalisation argue that the pharmaceutical companies are partly to blame for the current situation because they don’t want their complex and profitable medications supplanted by the simple cannabis plant.

I mentioned that it is quite a short book and that, to me, seems to undo its main purpose. If Coles is seeking to educate people so they can identify which plants to use to treat what conditions then, I would expect, he needs to provide a lot of detail. In fact, many of the chapters end with phrases like ‘enough is as good as a feast’ or reference to cutting short his discourse so as not to try the patience of the reader. It is a little as though the Encyclopaedia Britannica ended at the letter ‘E’ on the basis that to continue would be too boring.

Obviously, the work has a good measure of superstition in it. When talking about the gathering of plants for medicinal uses, Coles says that the full moon is a good time to do this for plants where the juice is to be extracted though he claims this is because the plants have most juice at this time in the lunar cycle.

That is the only part of any astronomical connection to the efficacy of plants that Coles acknowledges. The much more complex interactions between plants and planets that are a particular feature of Culpeper’s ‘The Complete Herbal and English Physician Enlarged’, the edition of his work published in 1653, are very sternly derided by Coles. In the same chapter he says;

‘If Mr. Culpeper had but in a moderate measure understood this doctrine, or known but the tithe of what he has pretended unto, the world had not been abused with such lame and imperfect directions, as he (in his English Physician enlarged) has left upon it.’

He continues in this vein saying ‘he was a man very ignorant’ and complaining of ‘the scurrility wherewith he cloaked his ignorance’ and suggesting his books could only be of interest to those ‘willing to be cheated with words’.

And these comments are milder than those Coles gives in the dedication at the front of the book to Elias Ashmole. Here he talks of Culpeper’s ‘nonsensical stories’ and ‘fallacious assertions’ and says that country people may have ‘swallowed his bait’ and been ‘too too much deceived’ as a result.

Culpeper had died in 1854 and you can’t libel the dead so it seems that Cole, writing in 1855, took full advantage of the opportunity to release what sounds like a long-standing frustration that people paid attention to Culpeper’s mumbo-jumbo.

Though I have a copy of Culpeper’s herbal, I rarely refer to it because I entirely share Coles’ views and I was very pleased to discover that, even when those ‘nonsensical stories’ were contemporary, not everyone was taken in by them.

It is proving very difficult to find any biographical information for William Coles. I did find someone who says that Coles first reference to the Doctrine of Signatures comes in his 1857 book ‘Adam in Eden: or, Natures Paradise, The History of Plants, Fruits, Herbs and Flowers’. Though that is incorrect, given that the later work runs to 638 pages, it may be that he deals with the subject in more detail.

I may have some more reading to do.

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