Tuesday 2 April 2019

Culpeper and Writing, by Gillian Polack

I often ask people “What would you like me to write about in my articles?” They want me (mostly) to write about people. 

My fiction is about people, but my historian side isn’t that kind of historian. I’m an historiographer and ethnohistorian. I think about cultures and about books and about books in culture and about stories.

Today, when I thought “I want to write about Nicholas Culpeper” because I was thinking of my own past, not because I’m interested in the seventeenth century nor in his life. At high school we were allowed to choose our own books for the end-of-year prizes. My English prize was Culpeper’s herbal. It combined so many of my interests. I chose it because I wanted a copy of my own, so that I could learn to decode the entries and know how Culpeper thought of herbs and used herbs. My kind of history. I had it even when I was seventeen.

I’ve used my volume of Culpeper so often since I was seventeen, but it’s been a while since I sat down and questioned how I use it. These days I use it as a reference for my fiction, but also as an historian. I know a lot more about the historical context of the book, and theoretically whenever I look at a page, that automatically kicks in. This makes my fiction quite different to what I wrote when I was eighteen. Around then my first short story was published and it was a very precise description of working at a rubber glove factory. If I had included Culpeper, it would possibly have been the main character going home and reading the book herself, for my writing was often very literal and everyday back then.

I’m not certain that we talk enough about what fiction writers do when they read a book to use in their fiction. I have a new short story to write soon and Culpeper is a useful source, since the story is set in a strange and wonderful shop. If the shop assistant had an array of herbs for various uses and only a single reference volume to consult, what would she know, and how do I read an entry to interpret it in this environment? Is it as simple as my response would have been when I was a brand-new writer with little life experience and only the beginnings of an understanding of what history is and how to use sources?

I want to begin with the second question. In fact, I have to begin with the second question.

What my character would know depends wholly on how I would read an entry for the place and time that character lives in. There’s a big difference between how I read Culpeper as a seventeen year old to how I read Culpeper forty years later, so let’s start with that.

The entry I’ve chosen to play with is that on the cherry tree, mainly because it’s a short entry. You can find it here: http://www.complete-herbal.com/culpepper/cherrytree.htm

When I was seventeen I read it literally. When I read ‘sour cherries” I thought ‘Morello’ and I looked for where a tree could be grown and how it could be eaten. I tasted uncooked sour cherries and I tried drying them to match what the entry described.

The health side of the entry I noted, but pushed aside, for a couple of my relatives were health professionals (doctors and dentists) and had given me strict warnings on health issues and old herbals. I used more modern herbals to test some medicinal properties, but Culpeper was of a period that, I was told, had dangerous medicine.

Now, in this day and place, I read it for the physical qualities Culpeper describes, for it’s a medical herbal, not a culinary one and I know far too well how few medieval medicines have actually been tested. I would check to see if Morello cherries are the same type of sour cherry as Culpeper describes, and if the change in cherries over time has been documented by specialists. I’d check sites like Brogdale to see what they tell me about fruit in general and about cherries in particular. Then, and only then, I’d play with the fruit itself, knowing more about the relationship between a modern cherry tree and Culpeper’s.

The next thing I do is look for the qualities of a plant in relation to the structure of the universe. 

This sounds big. It isn’t. It’s quite simple. In the case of cherries, they are of Venus. Culpeper tells us so. He always tells us so. This informs me how the cherry might work in relation to other plants if I were a doctor and finding suitable medicine for an ailment. Medicine back then didn’t operate along the same lines as modern medicine (it had to balance the humours, for instance) and knowing a plants qualities meant that the heat, the cold, the wet and the dry could be deduced. That sentence “It is a tree of Venus.” is a coded explanation for the long paragraph that follows and that describes different types of cherries, how they work fresh and how they work dried. 

It’s not a complete list of ways cherries might be used in medicine: it’s a guide to how cherries fit into the world of remedy.

This leads to something important. The shop assistant in my story would not be able to prescribe using Culpeper alone. She would need other references, or medicinal products already packaged, or someone she could ask for help. She could sell the dried fruit as dried fruit and helpfully explain that Culpeper lists it as ‘being cooling in hot diseases, and welcome to the stomach’. She would find it harder to create  prescription for a particular illness: medieval medicine required a lot more training than access to a herbal, no matter how wonderful the herbal is.

My short story, however, is a fantasy short story with historical elements. Can’t I use Culpeper any way I want, then? The answer to that is, sadly, “Only if I want historians to find it comic or sad or simply badly done.” Taking historical sources from a given time and lifting out fun facts and putting them into a context where those fun facts are distorted lead to such reactions. The reason for that is one of the things I’m researching right now, because it’s seriously cool.

Every single novel has certain attributes that readers pick up on. They’re the reason we choose to read this novel over that other one. Historical fiction tends to keep historical material in stronger historical context than historical fantasy does. Within a given novel, a certain level of historical accuracy is more or less appropriate and this fits very closely in with the genre of the novel. (This is my older research – if you want to explore it, History and Fiction is the place to go.)

All novels have an invented world. Some invented worlds look very much like ours (historical fiction) and some go in interestingly wayward directions (historical fantasy) and some borrow from history but deviate in even more ways. Other world fantasy is a good illustration of this description, but it applies to a range of genres. My short story will be part of a series of stories that are ‘portal’ – the shop door can lead from the shopfloor into a range of places. This means that the historical accuracy of the Culpeper really doesn’t matter, in one way. There is nothing medieval about this shop except… 

When we (writers) build a world for a novel, it has to contain a certain level of credibility for the reader. The need for credibility in the story itself applies to almost all novels. It even applies to short stories, but because short stories contain so much less detail, credibility is easier to achieve. A few bits of detail that give the right feel and all is good. When someone writers a linked sequences of short stories (as I am, now) that sequence has about the same credibility requirements as a short novel.

How does Culpeper relate to credibility? I need a reason to have cherries on that medicinal shelf. I need a reason to have Culpeper on the reference shelf (the door leads to our word sometimes, perhaps). I need someone who can read the book (ie speaks English) and knows what cherries are. Then come the questions about how those dried cherries are used, why they are being bought, why the book is picked up at all…

My decisions on all these things might make or break the short story, even if they are merely two paragraphs in twenty pages.

Every single bit of historical information in historical fiction carries such weight. This brings me to my endgame: I am not writing about Culpeper today. I’m using Culpeper as an example to show you the weight of the research behind the work of the History Girls and other writers. Evaluating every single element of history in a novel is part of the novel-writing game. Making sure it fits the kind of novel we’re writing, the place, the time, and even the characters in the novel is not easy. It is, however, what brings history into fiction in a way that more readers can enjoy.


Helen Hollick said...

Interesting and informative as always Gillian - thank you for sharing

Carol McGrath said...

This is abeautifully scribed piece and so interesting. Good luck with that story. I love the notion of a story being a portal to the past. Thank you for sharing this and to Elizabeth Chadwick for flagging it up.

abigail brieson said...

Such helpful insight, thank you.
I will often research hours, days, weeks? for an accurate historical context that will appear in no more than one scene, or a few paragraphs, or two sentences. Sometimes I ask myself if this is a good use of my time. Most readers wouldn't know the difference between accuracy and 'close-enough', anyway. But I continue to research without knowing 'why'. Your post has helped me understand.