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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 28th February 2015

I’m rather proud on my library of books about poisonous plants, psychoactive substances and murder and murderers. That’s a bit vain but it is not just a matter of having them in the bookcase at one end of my study so I can look at them and think ‘Owning all those clever books must mean that I’m clever’. I do refer to them quite a lot, especially when someone asks a question and I want to be sure I’m not giving an off the cuff answer. The vanity part is when I have particular editions rather than just a modern reprint just for the access to the text.

When someone emails to ask about a particular plant, I’ll usually turn to about half a dozen books before replying. Three of these will be relatively recent publications to get the facts as we understand them today and the rest will be ‘herbals’ written hundreds and even thousands of years ago.

Part of my bookcase showing the herbals

A selection of the 'herbals' in my bookcase

I have facsimile editions of the herbals written by John Gerard and William Turner as well as a rare facsimile of Bald’s Leechbook, though I have to refer to the modern English translation of this last since I’ve never mastered the Anglo-Saxon English of the original. And I have a number of other works up to Victorian times and back to Dioscorides and Pliny.

A lot of what these ancient works say is, of course, out-dated and modern science has shown it to be simply wrong but they are useful as a means of tracing the development of the folklore of plants and finding examples of things like the Doctrine of Signatures.

There is one herbal, though, that I only have in a modern translation and I never refer to. This is Nicholas Culpeper’s ‘The Complete Herbal and English Physician Enlarged’ published in 1653. And the reason for my never resorting to this text is quite simple – Culpeper bases all his remedies on astrology.

Culpeper introduces his work with an ‘Epistle to the Reader’. This concludes with a section titled ‘Instructions for the right use of the book’ giving five steps to finding the proper remedy beginning;

‘First, Consider what planet causeth the disease’.

The reader is then instructed to identify the part of the body afflicted and what planet governs the performance of that organ before determining the opposite planet to that causing the disease and choosing a herb that is governed by this opposing planet.

In the fifth step, however, Culpeper gives himself the get out of the crank by saying that sometimes herbs of the same planet as that governing the illness are effective.

I try not to mock ancient beliefs. It is a fundamental part of being human that we try and understand how the universe around us works and that understanding changes with time so it is important to judge what people believed against what was known at the time.

Culpeper wrote about the astrological basis of medicine about 130 years after Copernicus first theorised that the Earth was a planet orbiting the sun and 100 years after that theory was published. He was also writing some decades after Galileo saw the moons of Jupiter and Kepler produced his laws of planetary motion.

In other words, the central premise of astrology, that someone born in, say, March shares characteristics with everyone else born in March regardless of the year of birth because the objects in the sky are in the same position had been disproved before Culpeper published. Whether he was unaware of this or chose to ignore it I don’t know.

But the point is that, on many grounds, it can be shown that astrology is complete nonsense and that’s why I don’t refer to Culpeper when trying to provide sensible information to an enquirer.

But it is a funny old world we live in and there are still people who believe in astrology. That’s fine if they are just reading their newspaper’s predictions for the day or taking money from the gullible by writing books or giving one to one ‘readings’ of star charts.

When they want to use my money, however, it is a different matter.

It may be that with the furore surrounding the sting operation against two MPs revealed in last Sunday’s papers you missed that another MP did something that I have no hesitation in saying is worse than the very worst of the things that Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw didn’t do even though many people will think they did because of the way the story was reported.

David Tredinnick MP believes in astrology and homeopathy. He’s made attempts, before, to get homeopathy moved to the centre of NHS practice but his latest pronouncements concerned astrology. They appeared in an astrology magazine so he was preaching to the choir but they were picked up by more objective parts of the media and he repeated many of the things he said when interviewed by the BBC.

Astrological Journal is not open access but this Guardian piece quotes from it. Tredinnick, it appears, accused opponents of astrology of being ‘racially prejudice[d]’.

I know the House of Commons is representative of the country as a whole and, therefore, it will contain its share of philanderers, thieves and cranks of all sorts but Tredinnick’s views are so oddball that I find it astonishing that he has been an MP since 1987.

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