VII: Humoral Theory in Early Modern Europe

During the Early Modern period, physicians trained in ‘learned medicine’ – often the works attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates. Many used Hippocrates’ (and later, Galen’s) theory of the Humours to explain what was happening to their bodies when they got ill. This post will go through exactly what humoral theory was, and some of the ways in which illnesses were explained and treated. I am fascinated by medical history and if you are too, keep reading!

First, it would be helpful to explain exactly what the humoral theory was. The idea was that in every body, there were 4 ‘humours’ that needed to be balanced in order to stay healthy. If there was a shortage or surplus of one of these humours, it would result in an illness. Vomiting or sweating during an illness was interpreted as the body ‘ejecting’ the excess humour, and the body trying to re-balance itself. This idea of removing the extra fluid from the body is also why bloodletting was such a common practice during this period. These four humours were known as blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. Each humour was also associated with its own temperament.

Pain occurs when one of the substances presents either a deficiency or an excess, or is separated in the body and not mixed with others.

Extract from On the Nature of Man, one of the works attributed to Hippocrates

Blood was known as the hot, wet humour that became most commonly associated with lust and riotous behaviour. Yellow bile was associated with youth and was closely attributed to problems with the liver. Black bile was known as being the cold, dry humour. An excess of black bile would be shown in the patient being sad or despondent. Some of the symptoms such as weight and mood change match the symptoms of what we now know as depression. Lastly, phlegm was associated with apathy. Those with an abundance of this humour were thought to be more relaxed.

Woodcut from Leonhard Thurneysser’s ‘Quinta Essentia,’ Leipzig, 1574. Each quarter represents a dominant humour and temperament.

Now moving on to how people explained illness through humours. Let’s take one of the most widespread illnesses during this period – the plague. While many explained the plague as a retribution from God, others believed the disease was a natural phenomenon carried through a ‘bad air’. Once this air was inhaled it would cause a humoral imbalance. This is often why people would carry perfumed goods with them, or decorate their homes with strongly-smelled flowers – it was an attempt to balance the air around them.

I hope you have enjoyed this post, this is a brief overview into the beliefs of many early modern Europeans and how they explained what was happening to them when they became ill. If you would like any further information on any of these humours, leave a comment and I’d love to help!

Bye for now,

Lucinda

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