Allyssa Metzger - 'Admirable Harmonie': Utilitarian Curiosity and Astrological Explanation in Seventeenth-Century Popular English Medical Advice Literature


Thursday, November 7, 2013, 6:00pm to 8:00pm


Science Center 469

In his widely disseminated The English Physician (1652), Nicholas Culpeper presented to literate Englishmen and women a collection of medicinal remedies concocted from local herbs.  Easily reconciling Christian cosmology with astrological theory, Culpeper suggests that terrestrial beings—“Herbs and the bodie of man”—are placed in a divinely ordained harmony with the Stars, subject to macrocosmic-microcosmic sympathies.  Although Culpeper differed from many his contemporaries by offering such overt astrological explanations, I argue that his theoretical structure reflected a general acceptance of astrological influence as the hidden cause of maladies.  Through careful examination of Culpeper and his contemporaries, it is possible to reconstruct how the general public of seventeenth-century England approached medical advice literature generally and collections of medicinal herbal recipes specifically.  

I demonstrate the means by which a layperson might have select from among the plethora of advice literature, specifically by using experimentation within a culture of therapeutics.  Astrological-theoretical explanations for hidden causes might then have been used to assemble a cohesive body of useful medical knowledge which explained diseases, their causes, and the reasons for that cause; exploring these processes of selection and assembly necessitates reframing early modern popular curiosity as characterized primarily by an interest in utility.  Stimulated by the desire first to consume medical advice literature and then to experiment with certain recommendations, laypersons negotiated a reception of certain strands of formal humoral medicine.  Moreover, within the context of popular utilitarian curiosity, I consider to what extent laypersons may have required astrological-humoral theories to explain hidden processes, with the joint effects of illuminating why astrological theories were acceptable in popular literature but not within the academy, and why astrological explanations were relatively prevalent among the small number of medical advice treatises which proffered some form of causal theory.  In these ways, I find it possible to speak more precisely of a negotiated reception of learned medical knowledge outside the academy, both facilitating and facilitated by astrological explanations of hidden causes.  

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