CULPEPER’S COMPLETE HERBAL by Nicholas Culpeper is an 1814 copy of the original 1600s manuscript in which the herbalist discourses on the healing factors of various plants, their other properties (basil not only draws poison out of a wound, placed in rotting matter it generates poisonous creatures) plus the differences between medical syrups, electuaries and lohoch (all liquid medicines).
This book (which is available online) fascinates me because Culpeper is applying logic to the illogical. He accepts as a principle that the planets influence everything; to figure what plant will have what effect, you identify which planet governs them. Nettles, for instance, are controlled by Mars, which is hot and dry (in the classic four-humors sense). This explains why nettles are good for clearing up phlegm induced by winter’s chill and dampness.
At the same time, Culpeper’s emphatic that what he’s doing is science. He’s studied the plants, their properties and the stars whereas many doctors simply regurgitate what Galen or Hippocrates said (“They teach them just as a parrot is talk to speak—an author says so, therefore it is true.”). It’s an attitude I find far more intriguing as a mix of science and magic than most explanations that magic is just a kind of science, or based on quantum mechanics or chaos theory or whatever. So sooner or later (probably later), I’ll see what I can do about turning that to a story.
THE UNFINISHED GAME: Pascal, Fermat and the Seventeenth Century Letter That Made the World Modern, by Keith Devlin (cover design Brent Wilcox, rights with current holder), looks at what was once considered a classic logic problem, how to divide up stakes when a “best five out of nine” or the like series ends unfinished. Fermat figured out, in a latter to Pascal, that it would be possible to calculate the probability of each player winning, then divide the spoils based on that (if one player has a 60 percent chance, you split 60/40, say). This was a radical idea in an era when the future was largely seen as unpredictable by mortal man: sure, you knew it would get cold in the winter, and you might know that your chance of rolling two sixes next pass of the dice was slim, but beyond that?
Given how immersed we are in probability and statistics, the idea of a world where that’s all murky again intrigues me, as does the idea of people honestly not seeing that statistical prediction is possible.
THE LORE OF THE LAND: A Guide to England’s Legends from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson is one I have already used, picking up a few folk traditions to incorporate into Southern Discomfort. The book is a geographical tour of England, looking at ghost stories, stone circles, witch tales, black dogs, dragon slayings, bad baronets, buried treasure and stories of the knight who slew the last wolf in England (a whole bunch of different legends have credited a local chap as the guy who pulled it off). A really neat book if you have the taste for this sort of thing.