Lavender in Culpepers Herbal (1653)
During the reign of James I (1603-1625) any scientific knowledge of medicine was only just coming out of the dark ages. For example, William Harvey made his discovery of the circulation of blood only in the 1620s. The actual practice of medicine relied heavily on a knowledge of the properties of herbs and other plants.
So ‘field guides’ were devoted to herbs’ medicinal properties; and the popularity of such guides
reached its height with the publication of Culpeper’s Herbal in 1653.
Lavender had largely been cultivated by monks until the dissolution or closing of the monasteries. Culpeper was living and writing in Spitalfields: even the place name reminds us: hospital fields where healing plants were grown. By now, he was able to say that lavender was an inhabitant almost in every garden … so well known, that it needs no description. It flowers about the end of June, and beginning of July.
Lavender is of a special good use for all the griefs and pains of the head and brain that proceed of a cold cause, as the apoplexy, falling-sickness, the dropsy, or sluggish malady, cramps, convulsions, palsies, and often faintings. Culpeper is writing about every form of Lavender here: potpourri, sprigs, flowers hung in rooms or scattered among floor coverings of rushes,
A decoction made with the culinary lavender, Hore-hound, Fennel and Asparagus root, and a little Cinnamon, is very profitably used to help the falling-sickness, and the giddiness or turning of the brain: to gargle the mouth with the decoction thereof is good against the tooth-ache. In herbalism, a decoction is usually made to extract fluids from hard plant materials such as roots and bark. To
achieve this, the plant material is usually boiled for 8–10 minutes in water and then strained. Culpeper seems to be referring less to the lavender (whose flowers would be added) than to the other, tougher plants. The drink is not as simple as Queen Elizabeth’s Lavender tea, but would seem a stronger remedy to his readers.
Two spoonfuls of the distilled water of the lavender flowers taken, helps them that have lost their voice, as also the tremblings and passions of the heart, and faintings and swooning, not only being drank, but applied to the temples, or nostrils to be smelled unto; but it is not safe to use it where the body is replete with blood and humours, because of the hot and subtile spirits wherewith it is possessed. The distilled lavender is the evaporated water (steam) that has passed through lavender in a still being used to release the lavender essential oil. Indeed, we might almost think it a by-product if Culpeper had not told us it is so efficacious. What we have is pure distilled water fragranced with the Lavender.
The chymical oil drawn from lavender, usually called Oil of Spike, is of so fierce and piercing a quality, that it is cautiously to be used, some few drops being sufficient, to be given with other things, either for inward or outward griefs. Culpeper and his readers will have been fully aware of the Biblical properties of this spikenard oil, making its healing properties the strongest of all.