Book Review: Nicholas Culpeper and the Mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone, by Michael Noble • Glam Adelaide

Book Review: Nicholas Culpeper and the Mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone, by Michael Noble

A fictionalised but accurate look into the life of 17th Century alchemist Nicholas Culpeper, famous for his controversial efforts in bringing basic medical knowledge to the poor.

The search for truth in Reformation England. Thoroughly and unreservedly recommended.

Posthumous publication of books is a rare thing. Most books that make it to the shelf after the death of the author are written by published authors but were overlooked or hidden during the author’s lifetime. Rarer still are those books published posthumously by previously unpublished authors. Nicholas Culpeper and the Mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone is such a book.

Although the casual reader may look at the title and think the book concerns young wizards at school, this is not the case. Michael Noble (or to use his uncredited title, Dr Michael Noble) has crafted a tight tale of investigation, discovery and humanity through which light is shed on the rarely seen scientific, medical and literary communities of Reformation England.

The novel is a part of Dr Noble’s PhD and presents a fictionalised account of an investigator, Zachariah Jenkin, who has been hired to investigate accounts of charlatanry and the opportunistic misuse of his friend and fellow apothecary Nicholas Culpeper’s life’s work and legacy.

Though the story itself is fictional, it is an excellent device that allows Dr Noble to introduce the reader to the life and works of Nicholas Culpeper, a 17th century apothecary in London and author/translator of many key works of medical lore, as well as some of an astrological nature.

The story begins with the death of Culpeper and the subsequent hiring of Zachariah by Culpeper’s uncle, who has begun to hear rumours of misuse of Culpeper’s name and legacy. Zachariah travels to London and interviews Culpeper’s maid, his wife and two of his publishers. Readers should not be intimidated if they are unaware of Culpeper or the situations of the book. Dr Noble does an excellent job of bringing the London of the Reformation to life, and paints vivid pictures of not only the physical aspects of the city but also the emerging printing and publishing industry. Zachariah’s interviews tease out the character of Culpeper little by little, as Zachariah learns about Culpeper’s final treatise and the people who wish to misuse it.

Was Culpeper the quack he has been presented as by history, or was he a humanist who sought to demystify medicine and herblore and in so doing, make them available to the common man? As Zarchariah undertakes his interviews, he also learns of the dastardly Mr Heydon who, having married Culpeper’s widow, is now selling a potion or tonic as a physical manifestation of Culpeper’s aurum potabile (drinkable gold).

The conclusion of the book finds Zachariah reaching his own conclusion, and one which seems to be Dr Noble’s own belief and the focal point of his PhD. However, Zarchariah’s arrival at this conclusion seems rushed and almost a deus ex machina, being an interpretation of Culpeper’s works that had not been mentioned previously in the story. This conclusion wants more grounding or at least foreshadowing in order to let the reader be aware of the possibility before it is reached.

While the device of investigation and interview illustrates the subject well, it can be slow going and is more intellectual than enthralling. Zachariah is little more than a mouthpiece for Dr Noble, who needs him to ask the questions in order that the answers can be given. However, that is not to say the novel is not entertaining – indeed, it is quite capable of drawing the reader in as more and more facets of Culpeper’s life are uncovered.

At the end of the book the fictional gives way to the academic. The final twenty-five or so pages are the author’s end-notes, in which Dr Noble speaks to the facts presented within the fiction section in order to give more facts about Culpeper’s life in support of his conclusion. While not an essential addition to the fiction, the decision to include them is a good one as they answer some unexplained facets of the story which may have been neglected due to the requirements of the process of fictionalisation.

Taken as a whole the book is a fascinating, tight, well-written character study of a man whose good works have been subsequently overlooked. In Nicholas Culpeper and the Mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone, Dr Noble has done good work indeed in shining a fresh light on this interesting and obscure philanthropist.

Thoroughly and unreservedly recommended.

Reviewed by D C White

Published by: Buon-Cattivi Press
Released: November 2019
RRP: $29.95

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